Jay-Jay Okocha joining Bolton Wanderers is something that should never really have happened – but everyone should be grateful that it did.
The club that famously produced Nat Lofthouse, the perfect embodiment of the powerhouse English centre forward, based in a nondescript town in the rainy North West, shouldn’t have brought the best out of an outrageously talented Nigerian international.
Theoretically, neither should have a manager like Sam Allardyce.
Okocha and Allardyce were seen as virtual polar opposites in terms of their ideologies regarding football, but somehow they worked beautifully in tandem.
A sitcom-worthy odd couple riding glorious roughshod over traditional notions of how to compete in the Premier League, together the pair danced to their own magnificently incongruous tune, establishing Bolton in the top half and taking them into Europe.
It was really quite wonderful.
Always unconventional, Okocha was on holiday when he got his first big break. Visiting a friend in Germany, he went along to one of his training sessions for Borussia Neunkirchen, asked to join in and duly earned a contract with the third division club.
Within eighteen months he had progressed to the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt, where he will forever be remembered for the spectacular goal he scored against Karlsruher SC. Rarely do a few months pass by without it popping up on a social feed somewhere.
And with good reason. Along with a couple of defenders, a young Oliver Kahn was beaten three times by Okocha’s trickery, as he dragged the ball this way and that, eventually deigning to put it in the back of the net. Just watch it.
After relegation with Frankfurt, Okocha had a prolific spell at Fenerbahce, which tempted Paris Saint-Germain to break the transfer record for an African footballer, paying £14million for his services.
Part of a talented but unbalanced team during four years in the French capital, where kindred spirits Ali Benarbia, Laurent Robert and Ronaldinho also pitched up as team-mates, Okocha was out of contract following the 2002 World Cup.
And as one of the club’s highest earners, they were keen for him to leave.
Of all the possible destinations, Bolton seemed incredibly unlikely. Still only 28, Okocha had offers from more high-profile clubs but was desperate to play in the Premier League. After lengthy negotiations he agreed to join the lowly Trotters.
Against pundits’ expectations, Bolton had narrowly survived in their first season back in the Premier League. Match of the Day’s Mark Lawrenson infamously had to have his moustache shaved off after betting the club’s supporters the club would be relegated.
Okocha was part of Allardyce’s attempt to lash greater attacking threat onto his functional team. He scored seven goals and became the fulcrum of a patchwork side melding English grit in the form of Simon Charlton, Anthony Barness, Mike Whitlow and co. with more than a sprinkling of flair.
It must have seemed barely believable to Bolton fans at the time, but Okocha formed a brilliant partnership with French World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff.
Though the Trotters only escaped relegation by one place and two points, it was the beginnings of what would surprisingly become one of the Premier League’s most entertaining teams.
An influential player on the pitch but also a respected voice in the dressing room, Okocha was even made captain when Gudni Bergsson left that summer.
The following season he led Bolton to the League Cup final, scoring twice in a 5-2 victory over Aston Villa in the semi-final first leg.
Both goals came direct from free kicks, the first curled gently over the wall and the second boomeranged around it with the outside of his boot from an absurd angle.
Although Bolton missed out on silverware by losing to Middlesbrough at the Millennium Stadium, the club continued to prosper in the league.
The list of ageing stars parachuted in from the continent grew – Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro and Vincent Candela added to the mix with varying degrees of success – and Allardyce had built his dream team.
By the 2004-05 season, when they finished sixth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, there were 15 different nationalities in the Bolton squad. With Okocha fluent in several languages, he was able to knit together an increasingly cosmopolitan group. He was key in so many ways.
Under Allardyce, he was given the freedom and responsibility that leading clubs were unwilling to afford him. He embraced both, reading the game at a completely different speed, and in far greater depth, than his team-mates.
Neat touches, little dragbacks and purely decorative stepovers were important parts of his repertoire.
Memorably, rather than hold the ball in the corner with brute strength as the clock ticked down on a valuable 2-2 draw with Arsenal towards the end of the 2002-03 season, Okocha set about embarrassing Ray Parlour instead.
For all the outrageous skills, he had bite and tenacity too. A set-piece and long throw specialist, he could certainly turn his hand to a more direct form of football when required.
It was like seeing a priceless artwork unexpectedly repurposed, the football equivalent of the Mona Lisa being used as a functional tea tray.
Okocha was first and foremost an entertainer, which should have placed him at odds with the caricature of Allardyce as the crotchety long-ball merchant. Yet Bolton’s approach, which could be rough at times, and put several managers’ noses out of joint, suited him perfectly.
Allardyce successfully found a home for players as disparate as Okocha and Kevin Davies. A ragtag bunch seemingly thrown together on the hoof, a collection of free transfers and discarded parts set for the scrapheap, they were assembled into a fearsome unit.
Sadly, in the summer of 2006, Okocha turned down a one-year contract extension and left for Qatar.
The beating heart of Bolton under Allardyce, over the coming seasons they went from successive top-half finishes to a prolonged decline, culminating in relegation from the Premier League 11 years after they’d arrived. After all the fun, it ended badly.
Okocha later complained that the foundations laid during his time at the club had not been built on. The man so good they named him twice said that subsequent failings had rendered his spell at Bolton “a waste of time”.
On the contrary, memories of Okocha burned all the brighter for what followed.
By Sean Cole
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