It is October 7th 2001 and my 14-year-old self is sat in the pouring rain at St Mary’s Stadium watching Japan draw 2-2 with Nigeria.
Looking back, I have no idea whatsoever why this fixture took place. I haven’t the faintest recollection of who the better side were and God knows why I bothered buying a ticket. There are in fact only two things I can vividly remember about surely one of most obscure international fixtures ever to take place on British soil.
Memory number one; the excitement of seeing Championship Manager legends in the flesh.
Watching Julius Aghahowa celebrating a late equaliser with a flurry or backflips validated my decision to break the bank to sign him for my all-conquering Glasgow Rangers side. (I have just learned while researching that my ultimate virtual hero, Taribo West, was not in the squad for this fixture. This is bitterly disappointing even now).
Memory number two and the inspiration for this article; Augustine Azuka ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha.
During the second half, Okocha, then of French giants PSG, nutmegged a Japanese defender and found himself through on goal. As the sparce crowd rose and the defender bust a gut to recover, Okocha stopped, turned, nutmegged him again and casually passed the ball back to a defender. Even for a kid who was bred on a diet of Le Tissier, it was the laziest, most pointless and ultimately coolest passage of play I had, and still have, ever seen.
I went back to school on the Monday after this strange friendly talking about only one man. I wanted to cornrow my hair, rename myself Dan-Dan and most of all, play football like a Nigerian. I thought I would never see the beautiful game played like this on our shores again. A year later, Jay-Jay Okocha signed for Bolton!
Jay-Jay Okocha and Bolton. There can be very few unlikelier combinations. Sometimes, though, opposites attract.
Okocha arrived at the Reebok stadium at the start of the 2002/03 season and quickly became the crown jewel in one of the most unusual squads in Premier League history. It takes a strange combination of events to find Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo sharing a training pitch with Paul Warhurst, Simon Charlton and a 37-year-old Colin Hendry. Manager Sam Allardyce’s vision was certainly ambitious and unique. This collection of English stalwarts and international stars set the tone for a short and wonderfully surreal period for fans of the Lancashire club.Embed from Getty Images
Statistics have become the defining barometer of success in modern football. Supporters growing up in the Ronaldo and Messi era are force fed goal and assist ratios on a daily basis. But there are some players for whom statistics are irrelevant. Jay Jay Okocha scored a modest 14 Premier League goals across four seasons and lost one more game than he won whilst at Bolton. Until there are recorded numbers for crowd reactions, players like Okocha can never be summed up in a spreadsheet.
Bolton supporters recently voted Okocha the club’s greatest player of the last 20 years but this barely skims the surface of his impact. His popularity spread far beyond the Lancashire town. Suddenly the Trotters were everyone’s second team.
A last day goal from Okocha helped Bolton past Middlesbrough, dragging to safety at the end of the 02/03. Legendary status was cemented. From there the rise was dramatic. In the two subsequent seasons the club rose to the heights of 8th and 6th in the Premier League and Jay-Jay, now captain, had brought European football to a set of fans who a few years earlier were hoping for nothing more than survival. Okocha raised the standards and expectations of the club with both his ability and determination. Perhaps his greatest performance (including two free kick goals) saw Bolton past Aston Villa and in to the League Cup Final, where eventually Middlesbrough reversed the 2-1 score line of the previous final day. Bolton therefore have no silverware to show for the Nigerian’s time at the club, but his legacy will live on for generations.Embed from Getty Images
The Wanderers transformation was by no means a one-man job. As with all flair players there were plenty of games that passed Okocha by. He was heavily outscored by Kevin Nolan in his final three seasons and caused frustration with failed attempts at trickery. There can, though, be no other Premier League Wanderer who has brought smiles to as many faces and made as many supporters rise from their seats.
When you remove all of the madness, football is essentially entertainment. As years pass, the passion remains but wins and losses begin to merge in to insignificance What is left are the moments that stick with you throughout the years. For Bolton supporters and neutrals alike, the Nigerian genius provided more of those than almost anybody.
For some fans, the defining Okocha moment will be his famous outside of the boot free kick in that League Cup semi. Others will look back and laugh at an audacious rainbow flick against Arsenal. In my case it is a double nutmeg in an entirely meaningless friendly against Japan.Embed from Getty Images
I, like every football fan, have sat through countless drab 0-0 draws or demoralising defeats. We have all walked, driven or flown home from a fixture wondering why we bother giving up our time and money just to be disappointed. So much of the time football feels like a painful obsession rather than an enjoyable experience.
Then, like my younger self, you experience an Okocha moment and it all makes sense again.
Here’s to Jay-Jay, the man who made Bolton cool.
Written by Dan Fox.