HEAD COACH Paul Heckingbottom readily admits Leeds United run the risk of running out of time to save their play-offs bid.
“As games run out, you get farther and farther away. That’s fact,” said Heckingbottom in the aftermath of Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Championship hosts Sheffield United.
Not quite crunch time but the importance of this Sunday’s Elland Road clash with Bristol City is crystal clear with Leeds desperate for a return to the Premier League after a 14-year wait.
With United now eight points off the play-offs, thousands of people connected with Leeds both past and present will be checking phones and other devices for Sunday’s events at Elland Road.
And among them will be one of the brightest stars from United’s Premier League days last decade in French midfielder Olivier Dacourt who still holds strong feelings for a Whites team with “extraordinary public potential” in English football’s second tier.
Fifteen and a half years have now passed since Dacourt made his final appearance for Leeds in a 1-0 victory at home to Hapoel Tel Aviv in a UEFA Cup tie in October 2002.
The midfielder’s differences and spats with then Whites boss Terry Venables were well documented and the Frenchman was then loaned out in January to Roma who Dacourt joined on a permanent deal the following summer.
But Dacourt’s first two seasons at Leeds presented happier times for a midfielder who joined the Whites from Lens for a then club record £7.2m under David O’Leary in the summer of 2000.
The midfielder went on to play 82 games for the Whites – famously helping United to the Champions League semi-final in his first season – and Dacourt’s time at Leeds has left a lasting legacy.
Despite going on to play for Roma and Inter Milan, the Frenchman insists he has never felt a togetherness like the one experienced at O’Leary’s Whites. It means that nearly 18 years after signing for the club, the now 43-year-old football pundit keeps a keen eye out for United’s results and the former French international is longing for his former side to return to the Premier League.
In Dacourt’s view, the club’s huge fan base, passionate support and the ‘12th man’ of an Elland Road crowd are crucial to making that happen.
Asked if he still followed the trials and tribulations and results of his former side, Dacourt said: “Always! I follow the clubs where I have played because they are part of my life.
“There is an extraordinary public potential in Yorkshire. And Leeds should be among the clubs that count in the Premier League. It’s a big club! Elland Road is really the 12th man.”
Dacourt, meanwhile, was one of United’s main men but the circumstances of his departure from the club and fall-out with former boss Venables means the Frenchman would be forgiven for being left with a sour taste nearly two decades on.
Yet on the contrary, the former record Whites signing actually looks back on the episode as a blessing in disguise.
Dacourt angered Venables by branding United’s lowly position a “disgrace” and describing his relationship with the boss as “distant”.
Venables responded by claiming that Dacourt had been engineering a move away from Elland Road, and that if the player secured a move to Italy he would drive him there himself.
“I did not like the joke that Venables said ‘If Dacourt wants to go to Italy I will take him by car’,” said Dacourt at the time of leaving Leeds for Roma.
“I will send him (Venables) my airline ticket so that he can reimburse me.”
But asked about his differences with Venables 15 years on, Dacourt said: “I would thank him.
“After that, I went to Roma, I went to Inter Milan, I was Italian champion three times. Maybe he was a visionary. I can only thank him.
“What to say, after all these years and everything … it’s past.
“If I see him, I’ll greet him. Thanks to him, I’ve played at very big European clubs. It’s a choice, and as I often say, choosing is giving up so maybe he wanted other players. He felt I was not good enough for his team.”
Dacourt, though, played an integral part in O’Leary’s side that competed at the top end of the Premier League table in Dacourt’s two full seasons whilst also famously reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League in his first.
Recalling his overall memories of representing the Whites, Dacourt beamed: “Exceptional.
“I was lucky enough to win things after my spell there, with Inter Milan, but I never found an atmosphere in the team like there was at Leeds.
“An atmosphere between the players, everyone was in unison.
“It was a young team. I was only 24 years old and the kids were 19-20 years old, but they had great promise, they did terrific things.
“At the time, we were unconcerned, we always went out together. This atmosphere in the team, I have never found that back.”