An unfashionable team in an unfashionable part of England suddenly, thanks to their promotion to the top flight in 2001 and their new state-of-the-art Reebok Stadium, took on a new, very Millennial appeal.
The manager, Sam Allardyce, too, was a man of apparently contradicting values: a straight-laced former centre-half and proponent of a long-ball, football-by-numbers approach who had a penchant for flair players from the continent and bemoaned a lack of recognition for his tactical nous.
But there was no identity crisis with Bolton: they knew who and what they were; contrast and contradiction was their calling card. And, in that respect, Jay-Jay Okocha, signed on a free from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2002, was as perfect for the club as the club was for him. A pairing few observers would have thought natural, but one that made perfect sense in its topsy-turvy milieu.
A vastly gifted individual capable of breath-taking pieces of skill most players would strain a ligament just thinking about emulating, Okocha was also incredibly hard working. Misconstrued as a ‘luxury player’ drawn to the Premier League by the gravitational pull of its ever-increasing money pot, the Nigerian star came to contribute, to graft and to win.
For all his immense talent, Okocha was at his best as an underdog, a leader of the unfancied, a beacon of inspiration for the success-starved. Although his CV boasts a four-year stint at PSG, the Parc des Princes was still a decade away from being bestowed with Qatari riches, and thus the Parisians were not the dominant force they are today.
Indeed, in his four seasons with PSG, Okocha’s only taste of success came in the Tropheé des Champions (the French equivalent of the Community Shield) and the Intertoto Cup, a now-defunct continental pre-season sideshow.
Before that, he had made his name in Germany with Eintracht Frankfurt – for whom he famously scored a mesmerising individual goal against Karlsruher, bamboozling goalkeeper Oliver Kahn – but his break in Europe only came by chance, having tagged along to a Borussia Neunkirchen training session with a friend who played for the club. Unsurprisingly, he impressed enough to be signed by the German Third Division side.
Then came Fenerbahçe, a powerhouse of Turkish football. But two years in Istanbul, from 1996 to 1998, yielded no league title for Okocha. His reputation outside of the countries he played in was largely built on eye-catching displays with Nigeria in their 1996 Olympic triumph and participation at the World Cup in France two years later. This made him somewhat of a surprise signing for the a club of the Trotters’ standing, but, perennially a star in modest surroundings, he was bound to thrive.
From the very beginning, Bolton fans were enraptured by the brilliance of their new arrival. The cultural revolution at the Reebok Stadium had begun a year earlier with the signings of Youri Djorkaeff, Bruno N’Gotty and Fredi Bobic, and Iván Campo and Fernando Hierro soon followed from Real Madrid, but it crystallised with Okocha. He married fantasy and endeavour more, perhaps, than any Premier League player before or since.
His skills, the tricks and flicks that got fans off their seats around the country, were honed on the streets of Lagos, but the same streets also instilled a work ethic and humility. Okocha’s initial experiences with the game recall Bill Shankly’s famous maxim of football being much more serious than a matter of life and death.
“It’s a religion in my country,” he told FIFA’s official website in 2015. “It unites the whole country as one. If the football goes well, then everything goes well. It’s more than a game, more than a sport. It’s part of our culture.”
The rabonas and rainbow flicks thrilled his new audience, and even through an injured-plagued debut season, Bolton fans came to adore Okocha, unfurling a banner at the Reebok inscribed: “Jay-Jay – so good they named him twice”. But it was his industry and dedication that set the Nigerian apart in Allardyce’s mind.
“Jay Jay Okocha. On and off the field he was the captain you looked for,” the former Newcastle United and England manager said when discussing his best ever leader last year.
“In a multi-national side from all over the world he could speak four different languages, communicate very well with some of the players who couldn’t speak quite as good English.
“He sorted the odd scuffle out in the dressing room, talked to the players about how we had to go out and win. He’d take the manager’s instructions and apply them in the right way.”
Over the years, the Premier League has seen no shortage of talented tricksters, producing the kind of footwork and technique still drooled over by fans who enjoy bingeing on YouTube highlight compilations. But the very best of the best are defined by how they apply their extraordinary ability to affect games, to be decisive and make the difference when margins are tight and stakes are high. That was Okocha.
The way he flicked the ball over Ray Parlour’s head against Arsenal, or the looping back-heeled volley beyond a frustrated Roy Keane will live long in the memory, yet Bolton fans will cherish dearest his two sublime free-kicks in the 2003/04 League Cup semi-final against Aston Villa, carrying the Trotters to their first cup final in nine years – although they were eventually beaten by Middlesbrough.
The second, in particular, curling the ball around the wall with the outside of his boot from a seemingly impossible angle, was evidence of his propensity to channel his creativity and innovative powers to find new ways to score or assist, or even just make a yard of space for himself.
His skills were not just for the purpose of entertaining; they were, at times, Bolton’s crutch. Okocha’s ability to carry the ball deep into opposition territory, or receive possession in tight spaces, helped alleviate pressure. If Allardyce’s side found themselves under the cosh, Okocha was their get-out.
“I think it’s the team first.” He explained to Soccer Bible last year. “And then of course, when you are gifted with the individual ability to change games, it’s all about trying to learn how to use it for the team. Especially for when the team is struggling.
“That is something I always challenged myself with so I was putting myself under pressure to always go out there and deliver for the team. Luckily for me it worked out and I had a good career. It is a big risk because if you don’t get it right, you’re playing for yourself. But if you work, you will get it right for the team.”
Okocha played more games for Bolton (124) than any other club he represented, helping Alladyce’s side twice finish eighth in the top flight and once sixth – far exceeding expectations.
But his time in Greater Manchester ultimately ended somewhat acrimoniously, stripped of the captaincy in 2006 after being perceived to have had his head turned by lucrative advances from Qatar. He left to join Qatar FC later that year.
He would return to England for the 2007/08 season with Championship side Hull City, but, by then 34, his powers were on the wane and he was not the same force of nature and source of joy fans in England, regardless of club allegiance, had come to love.
Barcelona and Brazil legend Ronaldinho, one of the game’s greatest ever entertainers, regards Okocha as one of two No.10’s he looks up to – Colombia’s wild-haired ’90s icon Carlos Valderrama being the other. Given Okocha’s own style and tendencies on the pitch, praise comes from no higher station.
As injuries became a more regular occurrence, and forced to come to terms with the deterioration of his ability, Okocha retired at the end of his single season with Hull, released by the Tigers despite their promotion to the Premier League.
“Every second I’ve spent on the pitch is a good memory for me,” he told FIFA.com, looking back at his career. “Every moment when I’ve been able to express myself with the ball. I enjoyed every single moment of my footballing career, for every club I played with. I’ve got nothing but good memories.”
Anyone who saw Okocha in his prime would echo that sentiment.
Remembered as one of the most gifted and exciting players to grace the English game in recent years, few have ever been as able to draw a smile, prise months agape and dispense pure, unfiltered footballing joy as Okocha.