Dacourt on his guard in old pals' act

Leeds' new recruit defends his fellow fiery Frenchman
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The Independent Football

They say never go back, but Olivier Dacourt was determined to return. As a child, he always dreamed of playing in the English League. So, as he prepared to leave Everton, Dacourt made his position clear: "I'll be back," he said in June 1999. True to his word, and less than 12 months after signing for Lens, the Frenchman had rejoined the Premiership.

They say never go back, but Olivier Dacourt was determined to return. As a child, he always dreamed of playing in the English League. So, as he prepared to leave Everton, Dacourt made his position clear: "I'll be back," he said in June 1999. True to his word, and less than 12 months after signing for Lens, the Frenchman had rejoined the Premiership.

Leeds United have offered a different setting, different manager, different team-mates and different ambitions. Dacourt, though, is the same player. He is still the tigerish midfielder who so impressed during his brief stay in Liverpool. He also remains the fierce competitor who amassed 13 yellow and three red cards over the course of his first stay. Even before the present Premiership season got under way, Dacourt was back in trouble, dismissed on his official Leeds debut for picking up two cautions in the Champions' League qualifier against 1860 Munich.

"It was silly and it probably confirmed the perception most people had of me," Dacourt said. "When I first came to England, I picked up nine yellow cards in my first nine matches, so from then on it's been difficult. I don't think referees deliberately target me but they look at my tackles more closely. What's odd, though, is that the only booking I've picked up so far this season has been the one in that European match. People tend to concentrate too much on my discipline. There's more to my game than that."

David O'Leary has proved far too shrewd a businessman and far too enterprising a manager to invest £7.2m in a poor footballer. If Dacourt really is, as some have suggested, a poor man's Patrick Vieira, Peter Ridsdale must be the happiest pauper in England. Few would argue the Arsenal man is the best defensive midfielder in the Premiership, but Leeds' signing is not far behind.

In fact, both Dacourt and Vieira are not only close on the pitch, they are also close off it. The two, who have known each other for several years and played in the same team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, operate in the centre of midfield. It is a position which demands pin-point passing and accurate tackling, the latter of which the pair sometimes find difficult. "The tabloids love to make an issue about Olivier Dacourt or Patrick Vieira getting booked, but that's not the real story.

"The truth is that Pat's treatment has been unfair," Dacourt said about his close friend's recent brush with the football law. "He's a great player and he's actually very skilful. Why doesn't he pick up cards in internationals? At least we've both been in the same boat, so we speak a lot on the phone. I think that helps."

Despite the pressures associated with the English game, Dacourt has no intention of walking away. Like Vieira, he believes it is possible to flourish in the Premiership by playing an aggressive game. "I can't change the way I am," he said. "I play hard but fair. It is my instinct to get involved and give it my all. I want to achieve great things here."

Leeds will certainly be hoping the former Strasbourg, Everton and Lens player can help lift the club to the next level. Dacourt is only 25, but his experience could prove invaluable at the heart of O'Leary's burgeoning team. In the two League games played so far - both of which Leeds have won - his influence has been notable. Team-mates listen to his instructions during matches and the managerconfides in his record buy. Itis, says Dacourt, a maturingexperience.

"The team spirit at Leeds is incredible. I'm pleasantly surprised. When you're a foreigner, you can never be sure what's going to happen, but all the other players have been incredibly friendly and welcoming. This is a young club with potential and that excites me."

Dacourt added modestly: "The manager is a great communicator and I enjoy our relationship, but I don't believe my position here is all that different from the one I've had at other clubs. I've always played in that guard-dog role and I've always been a big talker on the pitch. I'm the link between defence and attack so I guess it's only normal that the manager should turn to me a lot."

Following the promise of last season, when Leeds led the Premiership for 13 weeks but finished third, much is expected of O'Leary's men over the coming months. The title remains the priority but the Champions' League provides an added incentive. Having left Everton because he was desperate to play in Europe, Dacourt now has the chance he always craved. "The Champions' League is what it's all about. This is the premier competition and we want to win it."

Drawn alongside Leeds are Barcelona, Milan and Besiktas - hardly the easiest of groups. "The first match will be crucial," Dacourt said. "We need to get some points on the board to settle down. If we can avoid defeat in the Nou Camp, we can qualify for the next stage. We have nothing to lose. Even the mighty Barça and Milan will be anxious about playing us."

It is a pity that the two glamour ties are likely to be overshadowed by the two legs against the Turkish side Besiktas. Dacourt was not a Leeds player when two of the club's supporters were stabbed to death in Istanbul in April, but he read about the incident and was deeply shocked. "Whenever someone dies, it always touches you. As a result, I just feel that our supporters should stay in England and not travel for the away match. It's the only logical decision."

When Dacourt first came to England two years ago, he hoped the change would help him break into the French side. Even an impressive season in a mediocre Everton team did not help his cause, but the feeling is that his latest move may prove the lucky one. Not only has he joined an ambitious club, but Didier Deschamps has also brought an end to his international career. "It's not an obsession for me," Dacourt said. "But perhaps if I do well with Leeds, I'll get a chance. We'll see."

Don't be surprised if Dacourt, who won the Military World Cup under the guidance of the present France manager Roger Lemerre, is playing at the heart of the world and European champions' midfield, alongside his old pal Pat, before long. "Now that is something to aim for, non?" Oui.

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