If ever one player’s fall from grace mirrored Leeds United’s dramatic slump on and off the pitch in the noughties, it was that of Olivier Dacourt.
When Whites manager David O’Leary shelved out a then club record fee of £7.2m to sign the Frenchman from Lens in May 2000, 24 hours after Leeds had clinched a Champions League, it had seemed the sky was the limit for the go-ahead Elland Road outfit.
If there was a message, it was an emphatic one. Leeds meant business with the club beating off stiff continental opposition to land Dacourt, whose first foray in England was with Merseyside giants Everton.
Dacourt, a combative presence in the engine room, was a vital cog in the side which stunned Europe and reached the Champions League semi-final in 2000-01.
One performance in Rome’s Olympic Stadium when he outclassed the feted Lazio duo of Pavel Nedved and Juan Sebastien Veron in a marvellous 1-0 win in a second group stage encounter in December 2000 particularly stands out from that golden campaign – proving he was very much the real deal and a player who could grace any side in Europe.
Dacourt’s displays justified the expensive outlay to purchase him, so much so that he signed a new five-year-deal at the end of the memorable 2001-02 campaign, when the only outfield player to start more games than him was Mark Viduka.
But the following season was a difference story, with injuries afflicting the player – and in particular a serious shoulder problem which meant he only featured 25 times in a campaign which saw Leeds fall away in their quest for the top four to finish five points behind Newcastle United, who claimed the final Champions League spot.
Despite a frustrating season, Dacourt’s stock was still high on the continent, with the player reportedly close to joining Lazio for a huge £16m fee that summer, which saw the man who bought him to West Yorkshire in O’Leary sacked and Terry Venables replace him.
Dacourt, who turns 39 next week, soon fell out of favour with the Londoner, who infamously said he would ‘drive Dacourt to Rome’ to quicken his exit, with the midfielder’s limp and passionless displays in the early stages of 2002-03 a far cry from vibrant performances of his first season at Leeds.
The Italian capital did beckon, but it was at Roma, rather than Lazio that Dacourt found a home, initially on loan, before joining the Serie A outfit on a permanent basis for a cut-price £3.75m in July 2003 – roughly half of what Leeds forked out to sign him amid considerable fanfare.
It was a time when the off-the-field tumult was starting to engulf Leeds, amid all manner of money troubles, with Dacourt moving on and joining a significant cast list of high-profile departures who also included the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, all hugely influential players in the side that went desperately close to reaching the final of the Champions League.