There are certain players that every football fans warms to regardless of allegiance. Jay-Jay Okocha certainly falls under this category. ‘‘So good they named him twice’’ was an infamous line that summed up the adoration lavished upon the creative midfielder. Okocha brought African flair to the Reebok Stadium during his four years at Bolton, and was simply a joy to watch.
The Nigerian seemingly played the game purely for fun. His ability on the ball was often mesmerising. Memorably, Okocha produced an outrageous rainbow flick over the head of Arsenal’s Ray Parlour during a 2-2 draw in 2003. The skill made a mockery of a side that was one of the best in Premier League history, going on to their infamous invincible season the following campaign. For Okocha, such tricks were part of his swaggering style. Regardless of the opponent, Okocha could often pull off the unthinkable.
Bolton fans will be forgiven for not knowing how Okocha would adjust to the English game after being signed on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in 2002. Moving from Paris to the North West England was certainly a total transformation of cultural setting for the African. Yet, the fact he had already participated in three world cups with Nigeria, as well receiving an Olympic medal for his national team in 1996, suggested he arrived with plenty of pedigree.
As it was, Okocha would go on to light up the Premier League with his artistry on the pitch, and was an integral part of a Bolton side that was blessed with plenty of talent. The likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, Stelios Giannakopoulos, Henrik Pedersen, Ricardo Gardner and Jussi Jaaskelainen all featured alongside the Nigerian magician.
Bolton fans will find it all too easy to drift into fond remembrance of this side, especially as they now sit near the rear end of the Championship with sparse crowds. Okocha did as much as anyone to make that Bolton side so memorable. He was the showpiece of the team. A trophy eluded them, finishing runners up to Middlesbrough in the 2004 League Cup, yet the affection lives on.
— Bolton Wanderers FC (@OfficialBWFC) September 29, 2017
Many Premier League managers would have been left scratching their heads with regards to how they would stop Okocha. The attacking midfielder was capable of spectacular goals from out of nothing as exemplified by his unstoppable strike in a 1-0 win over West Ham during the 2002-03 season. Such was the ferocity of the strike from distance, it would have been no surprise if the net was ruptured.
During 124 Premier League games in total, Okocha scored 14 goals. This in itself does not sound spectacular, but such statistics do not capture the sense of excitement that he was capable of creating. A player such as Ronaldinho was similar to Okocha in the sense that they really put the ‘beautiful’ in the old adage of ‘the beautiful game’ by playing with a smile on their face that added to the overall exuberant package of their style in the attacking number 10 role.
After Bolton, Okocha made the move to Qatar SC, and almost seemed to slip off the radar, before briefly returning to England with Hull for less than 20 appearances. In truth, his career petered out after The Reebok. Yet, memories of Okocha still hold plenty of resonance for Trotters fans, despite their side’s struggles since relegation from the top flight in 2012. They are not alone in remembering the Nigerian playmaker. He truly was an extraordinary talent in his prime.