The signing of Olivier Dacourt 15 years ago marked another sea-change in attitudes at Leeds United. A £7.2m deal broke the club’s transfer record and told the Premiership that big money was waiting to be spent at Elland Road.
Peter Ridsdale, United’s chairman, never tried to disguise his intentions in the transfer market. As Dacourt flew in from Lens to sign a five-year contract, Ridsdale said: “The one prediction I can give before next season starts is that the (transfer record) will probably be broken again.”
He did not deliver on that rather meaningless pledge but by the end of August 2000, Leeds had invested another £10m in Mark Viduka and Dominic Matteo. And before the year was out, the purchase of Rio Ferdinand from West Ham United for £18m set a new mark for transfers which the club have not come close to eclipsing.
Ridsdale and David O’Leary were spurred on by their qualification for the Champions League, a tournament which promised vastly increased income but a much higher standard of opposition than O’Leary’s squad had faced in the UEFA Cup during the 1999-2000 season.
Dacourt was relatively well known in England after a previous spell at Everton. His move to Goodison Park in 1998 cost £4m and Lens paid another £6.5m to take him back to France the following year. The midfielder’s tenacious, ball-winning style appealed to United.
It was needed by O’Leary after the Irishman was warned that an Achilles injury would probably force David Batty to miss the whole of the 2000-01 term.
Reflecting on the loss of Batty, goalkeeper Nigel Martyn said: “It’s a lot easier when you know you’ve got somebody like David sitting in the holding role and who can retain the ball for us.”
Dacourt could see what Leeds were trying to do – albeit with money they could barely afford to spend. “I can’t say Leeds is a beautiful city but the club is good and the football is so exciting,” he told the Guardian in 2001.
“It’s totally different from Everton because while they had some good players, they didn’t have the money. So you have to sell and when you do that it’s very difficult to win things. Three months after I joined they sold Duncan Ferguson – the talisman. Straight away you can see they don’t want to win things. The chairman here has given the manager the key. He buys the players he wants to. When I signed here they said they would buy Rio Ferdinand. And they did. It’s a big statement.”
As the summer of 2000 went on, Leeds made more of them. Viduka proved elusive at first but joined in July after United and Celtic agreed a £6m fee. Matteo’s move was more opportunistic, completed days after he signed a new five-year deal at Liverpool. The arrival of Christian Ziege at Anfield told him that in spite of his own contract, Liverpool did not intend to play him.
It was, in hindsight, the last great summer at Elland Road before the crash which followed. It was also an extension of the close season in 1999 when Ridsdale and his board began actively looking for ways to increase their spending power. At £5m, Michael Bridges became United’s record signing that summer. Ferdinand’s arrival little over a year later shattered that figure.
“There was a belief,” Ridsdale said later, “that with the right acquisitions we stood a genuine chance of challenging towards the top of the Premiership and certainly a chance of getting in the Champions League more often than not.
“What we had to do was to see how we could add to the squad in a way that would take us forward.”