Jay-Jay Okocha: The greatest showman

LAGOS – Ten minutes to three on a Saturday afternoon is a contentious time for football fans in Nigeria.

Pubs – dressed in shirts of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea – become a battleground for control of the television remote as Premier League kick-off approaches.

But during the early noughties, there was another, unlikely team that took precedence, and any attempt to change channel would be met with unanimous outrage.

“Oh my goodness, people nearly tore the place down,” says Colin Udoh, Nigerian football expert.

“No way, Jay-Jay is playing – we’ve got to watch Bolton!”

As Peter Kay depicted life at a Bolton working men’s club on Channel 4’s Phoenix Nights, Sam Allardyce was turning the Lancashire town’s football club into a symbol of cosmopolitanism with global appeal.

Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff, Fernando Hierro… the list of players with genuine international fame goes on, but it was Africa’s most flamboyant star, Jay-Jay Okocha, that most defines one of the Premier League’s iconic teams.

Here, Football’s Cult Heroes tells the story of how the man that mentored Ronaldinho at PSG came to lead Bolton’s ‘galacticos’ to the brink of the Champions League, embarrassing defenders and upsetting the elite.

Team-mates speak of the “humble” captain that led by example whether on the pitch or on nights out in Manchester, journalists reveal the “business-like” character behind the entertainer image, and fans tell of the man that made Bolton cool.

This is the story of Jay-Jay Okocha, the greatest showman.

“If you can make it through in Nigeria, you can make it through anywhere else. It might sound cliche but it’s fact.”
Like most local kids in the sleepy, coal-mining city of Enugu, for Augustine Azuka Muhammad Yavuz Okocha – or just Jay-Jay as he was nicknamed by his older brother – there was only one goal.

“Enugu Rangers was almost the dream of every young player growing up in the Eastern part of Nigeria,” says Udoh.

“They play in all white, Real Madrid colours, very emblematic of the region, the culture, everything else.”

So when a teenage Okocha joined the club in early 1990, in most people’s eyes he had already made it.

“Just thinking about a kid growing up, kicking a ball around and ending up at Enugu Rangers – that was almost the high point of where you wanted to be as a footballer,” says Udoh.

Jay Jay Okocha in action 04 February 2004 in Sfax, during their African Nations Cup match against Benin. AFP PHOTO ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

But that year would also see a breakthrough for African football on the global stage.

Neighbouring Cameroon defeated reigning world champions Argentina in the opening game of Italia 90 before going on to reach the quarter-finals, losing out 3-2 to England in a thrilling encounter.

It was the furthest any African team had got in a World Cup previously.

Following the finals, an inspired Okocha travelled to Germany – eager to see how football was run in a country that had just become world champions.

It would prove to be a life-changing trip.

“He had a friend who was playing for Borussia Neunkirchen in the third division over in Germany, and he just went there on his summer holidays to visit him and it was just a classic schoolboy’s dream,” says Ed Aarons, Guardian football journalist and author of the book Made in Africa: The History of African Players in English Football.

“He went to a training session, dazzled all the coaches and was picked up.”

English is the official language in Nigeria, but Okocha knew Germany may be his only gateway to the top.

“The best chance for any African footballer, whether you were from a French speaking or English-speaking country was to go to mainland Europe, because the English league was a closed shop – even for people outside of Britain until the 90s really,” says Aarons.

Moving from the heat of West Africa to West Germany would be a culture shock for anyone, let alone a teenager.

“When you think about how Nigeria was back then and how the whole lack of communication was back in those days, as an African kid going to Europe – the first thing is always the cold,” says Udoh. “That cold shocks you into reality.

“The one thing we always tell ourselves in Nigeria is that Nigeria is a challenge on its own. So if you can make it through in Nigeria, you can make it through anywhere else. It might sound cliche but it’s fact.

“When you have to go through all the things you have to go through here – lack of electricity, terrible roads, sometimes you have to travel long distances to get fresh water – when you get from there to a first world country where everything works, you have access to water in your bedroom, you can just drive to training, while there’s that difficulty in adapting to the weather – the new ease of life just makes it a whole world of difference.

“That adaptation isn’t as hard as it would be if you were coming from Europe to Africa.”

“It was almost like he was working in a circus”
Two years at Borussia Neunkirchen was followed by four years at Eintracht Frankfurt.

It was there where one moment would put him into Bundesliga folklore forever.

Collecting the ball inside the 18-yard box, Okocha twisted right, left, right, left, leaving three Karlsruher defenders in a spin before burying his finish past future German goalkeeping legend Oliver Khan.

 

Jurgen Klopp described it as “the most spectacular goal in the history of German football”, in an interview for the book Made in Africa.

“I think there had been very few players of his type in the Bundesliga before that,” says Aarons.

“Anybody who remembers Jay-Jay Okocha, I don’t think there’s been a player like him since because he was just so skilful. It was almost like he was working in a circus with some of the skills he was doing.

“But actually, rather than just doing skills for the sake of it, his skills were actually effective and he’d beat a man then play the ball.

“There was obviously a bit of showboating from him because he was so amazing with his feet but often it wasn’t just about showing off, it was to help his team out. He was just a fantastic player. Anyone who saw him in the flesh will probably never forget it.”

Okocha was a key part of the Nigeria teams that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and Olympic Gold in 1996.

But following Frankfurt’s relegation from the Bundesliga during the 1995/96 campaign, he left for pastures new, joining Turkish side Fenerbahce for £1m.

There, the 23-year-old Okocha reached a new level, scoring 34 goals in 62 games.

Paris Saint-Germain were convinced enough to pay £14m for him in 1998 – making Okocha the most expensive African player ever at the time.

“It just took him to a totally different level entirely where the others were concerned,” says Udoh.

“But it also put some pressure on him because whenever he played for PSG or he came back home to play for Nigeria, there was this expectation that, ‘look, hey mate, you’re the most expensive African player ever, we want to see you demonstrate that on the pitch’.

“That combination of being happy with what he’s accomplished, getting that move being at PSG, was almost a millstone around his neck because people wanted him to demonstrate why he was the most expensive African player when he played for the national team.”

“Sam comes with this reputation…I think he is misunderstood”

While Okocha was moving up in the world, across the channel and up in Lancashire, Bolton were preparing for life back in Division One.

Relegation from the Premier League in the 1997/98 season had delivered a setback – a campaign in which they had moved into their new £25m state-of-the-art Reebok Stadium.

In just over a year, they were under new ownership and management.

New chairman Phil Gartside replaced manager Colin Todd with Sam Allardyce and in doing so, laid the foundation for their future success.

By 2001, they were back in the Premier League and, unlike their previous stint in the top-flight, they were able to stay there.

“Sam comes with this certain reputation of being this gruff character that can only play in one way and I think misunderstood,” says lifelong Bolton fan Maggie Tetlow.

“The nutrition thing was huge. You would never think it to look at Sam Allardyce as a figure of a human being, and I know he won’t mind me saying that, but you wouldn’t think he would be the master tactician on nutrition as well and add to that he was a big advocate for sport psychology as well.

“So I think he’s always credited with a get-out-of-jail card, the person who digs you out of a hole, you’re scrabbling at the bottom end of the table and he’ll either save you or get you promoted – but there’s much, much more to him than that.”

But after four years in France and with PSG looking to reduce their wage bill, Okocha’s time at the club was coming to an end.

His final act at PSG was mentoring a future world superstar – the emerging Brazil forward Ronaldinho.

“I think he really took him under his wing,” says Aarons.

“Ronaldinho was very young when he arrived there, he’s admitted before that he wasn’t really the finished article.

“Okocha has said since that Ronaldinho used to imitate some of his skills and dribbles, and he taught him some of the skills he knew. You can see a certain similarity between them.

“I know they’re completely different physically, but some of the skills they were able to produce were unbelievable and not really seen since. They were definitely cut from the same cloth.

“You would pay just to watch them, they were so good with their feet. The sense of entertainment that makes everyone go ‘wow, did you see that?’

“You compare them to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, some of today’s players who are so much more clinical but play with less enjoyment, it’s more of a job for them maybe.”

“No disrespect to Bolton but there was some sense of disappointment that it was only Bolton”

Sam Allardyce was more than adept in the transfer market – the acquisition of France World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff in 2001 had proven it.

 

A year later, he was eying another unexpected coup, with Okocha his target.

“Sam went in for him and, at that point, had that been in isolation, you would have said Bolton were crazy, they cannot possibly, and they’re not in this market for that sort of player,” says Bolton News’ former chief football writer Gordon Sharrock.

“But they had ambitions to establish themselves. He was told there was money there if it was for the right players. Obviously, it was big bucks in terms of the contract but he was getting him on a free. He was a decent age – 28, going on 29.

“There was never really any doubt that Bolton, once they let it be known that they were in the market, that they were serious contenders.”

Back in Nigeria, there was a different feeling though.

“No disrespect to Bolton but there was some sense of disappointment that it was only Bolton,” says Udoh.

“We thought he might have gone to one of the big teams, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, maybe even Chelsea.

“So Bolton was a bit of a let-down, and we thought, ‘OK, if you can’t play in the English league, there’s Barcelona, Real Madrid, all the other top teams – why Bolton?’

“But once he signed on, people just sort of gravitated towards Bolton.”

Bolton fans were just as surprised.

“There was an element of incredulity that somebody like that could come,” says Tetlow.

“But then you’ve always got so much pride in your own club, however lowly that might be, to think, ‘yeah, we can do that’ – you all get a bit giddy when there’s talk of somebody signing and everybody thinks it’s never going to happen, all the pundits say it’s never going to happen, and of course it does, so it’s like a dream come true.”

Okocha was not the only big-name arrival that summer. Two-time Champions League winner Ivan Campo joined on loan from Real Madrid in another demonstration of Allardyce’s powers of persuasion.

Defender Nicky Hunt was a young player in that squad and saw his manager’s drive to improve the club close up.

“Sam Allardyce had a knack of bringing these big names in,” he says. “Alright, maybe they were towards the end of their careers but he had a knack about bringing them in.

“He used to go meet with them personally, which I don’t think you get that much these days with agents getting involved etc. He just gave it a personal touch really and that’s why I think we got so many world-class players playing for Bolton.”

“When you produce like that, you should be at Real Madrid, not Bolton Wanderers”
A trip down to London to face Fulham in the opening game of the 2002/03 Premier League season would provide Okocha with his first taste of English football.

With expectations high, the Bolton fans travelled in numbers.

The journey would turn out to be a waste of time though – a 4-1 defeat and Okocha hooked at half-time.

“He had a bad start,” says Sharrock, who was in the press box that day.

“Allardyce always used to say, to warn the fans, us and the players themselves that he brought from the continent or brought from abroad, that it was tough in the Premiership.

“He always said it was the toughest league in the world. The demands of the Premiership are different to the demands of any other league, and he always warned you about expecting too much too soon from players. It was too much to ask for them to hit the ground running and that was what Jay-Jay, by his own admission, discovered.

“He played the first game at Fulham and Bolton got beat, and we were told that he picked up an injury, but he came off at half-time and I think it was all about finding the pace, the demands, the rigours of the Premiership pretty tough.”

Okocha did not start a game in the Premier League again until November as Bolton endured a difficult start to the campaign.

But once back in, he did not disappoint. His first goal was a superbly taken volley away at Birmingham City, prompting a pre-rehearsed one-legged dance celebration with team-mate Bernard Mendy.

“I was finding it very difficult to get into the pace of the Premiership and get into the system, the way of playing,” Okocha said after the game. “But after some time, I started getting my fitness back, now I am feeling great. Especially the game against Fulham, I was lost. But now I am enjoying it, I know the way it goes now.”

Bolton remained in relegation trouble though and, by the midway point in the campaign, they were only above the drop zone by goal difference.

A titanic battle for survival ensued with fellow strugglers West Ham.

Okocha became Bolton’s driving force in their bid to avoid the drop and ultimately turned out to be the difference between the sides.

In a mid-April showdown with the Hammers, Okocha provided one of his greatest, and arguably most important, goals for the club to secure a 1-0 win on a sunny afternoon at a sold-out Reebok Stadium.

“That goal, he took it on the halfway line, left Joe Cole for dead, a number of other players tried to intercede and he wasn’t having any of it,” says Tetlow.

“I remember distinctly being there and thinking he can’t be, can’t be and as he advanced up the pitch, you think he can’t be, can’t be and then yes. It was so fantastic, unbelievable.”

Okocha thrived on the pressure as the relegation battle intensified.

Even deep in stoppage time in one of the final games of the season – drawing 2-2 against title-chasing Arsenal – Okocha could not resist a trick.

Ray Parlour fell victim to a rainbow flick on that occasion – but he was just one of many.

“Games were littered with Jay-Jay hoodwinking defenders, sending players the wrong way, taking the mickey out of opponents, they don’t like it, let’s face it, you don’t like being humiliated,” says Sharrock.

“But it’s Jay-Jay and that’s what he does, it’s no disgrace to get sent the wrong way by him.”

Okocha’s standout performances were raising eyebrows across the country.

The national media couldn’t resist cheeky questions about his future.

“When you produce like that, you should be at Real Madrid, not Bolton Wanderers,” posed Sky Sports’ Chris Kamara.

“Well,” said Okocha, “I don’t know wherever I find myself, I try to give my best, I try to show I am worth my wages and I am glad I am doing it here.”

Premier League survival was secured on the final day of the season with a 2-1 home victory over Middlesbrough – Okocha scoring the decisive goal.

It was party time for Okocha – and Allardyce.

“I think it took him and the gaffer a few weeks to perfect even that,” says Hunt.

“They did about six moves in it but I think Jay-Jay had the whole dance and the gaffer was like, ‘I can’t do that, I’ve just got to do a 10-second clip if we’re doing it.’ He ended up doing that.

“Every Christmas do, it came out- he had a few beers and stuff and it would always come out on the dance floor.”

Those back home were finally convinced Okocha had made the right choice in heading to Bolton and now Nigeria had another hero – Big Sam.

“Nigerians started following Bolton, watching their games, I think the profile grew to the point where Sam Allardyce almost became a cult figure in Nigeria just because Jay-Jay was at Bolton,” says Udoh.

“I think Sam Allardyce must owe his popularity in Nigeria to Jay-Jay because I remember when he came here a few years ago, fans were all over him and he owes that to Jay-Jay.”

“Jay-Jay was happy sipping on a glass of red wine, eating some nice food and stuff, watching us act a bit stupid and funny really.”

The summer of 2003 saw Allardyce hit the reset button.

No longer content with just surviving in the Premier League, his ambition was to disrupt England’s elite clubs.

The strategy was to scour Europe for big names on low fees.

In came the likes of Stelios Giannakopoulos from Olympiakos and Mario Jardel from Sporting Lisbon, while Ivan Campo’s loan from Real Madrid was made permanent.

Allardyce’s bold new vision was taking shape, but he needed a new leader following the retirement of Gudni Bergsson.

“We will have a world-class player captaining Bolton Wanderers and, hopefully, we can go upwards and onwards from here,” he said.

Okocha – experienced and multi-lingual – was handed the armband and charged with leading a team of mixed nationalities up the Premier League table.

“He wasn’t one of these ranters or ravers, he was a quietly spoken character, never one to lose his rag,” says Kevin Davies, his Bolton team-mate.

“He’s one of those types that had a lot of respect in the dressing room so when he spoke, I think people listened. He said things at the right time.

“I remember we used to stay behind at the Bolton training ground and we’d play a bit of snooker, bit of pool with him, teach him how to play. He was always keen to learn and try and improve.

“He loved his football, loved being a professional football player, and as a captain, he did his talking on the pitch, the way he trained and prepared for games. He was a model pro really.”

Sometimes Okocha’s professionalism would even be to the detriment of his team-mates – at least in training.

“Every day, you wanted to be on his team,” says Hunt. “You didn’t want to be playing against him because you knew as soon as he got the ball, he could do amazing things with it, you see. Every five-a-side or eight-a-side we did, you’d want to be on his team.

“I’d be pressing the assistant manager Phil Brown saying, ‘just put me on Jay-Jay’s team on this game because he’s gonna be on fire in a minute in training and I do not want to be defending against him’. Everything you saw on the pitch, he did probably 10 times in training, he just loved to show off.”

A slow start to the 2003/04 season by Bolton ensured doubts remained though.

The turning point came against Tottenham in November, with Okocha producing a mesmerising display.

“It was a 1-0 massacre,” says Sharrock. “Jay-Jay hit the woodwork three times and laid on the winner for Kevin Nolan. It was an out-and-out masterclass – he just ran the game from start to finish. He was on it from the first whistle to the last.

“Spurs, David Pleat was their manager at the time, and they were completely and utterly outclassed. The London journos didn’t like it. There weren’t very many in the media down in London who enjoyed seeing Sam’s Bolton put their teams in their place. But that was one occasion of a number that they did. It was something special.”

Victories over Chelsea, Everton and Leeds followed, while creditable draws against Arsenal and Liverpool showed Bolton were no longer a soft touch in the top-flight.

Big Sam’s masterplan was beginning to come together, on and off the pitch.

 

“We had quite a good culture at Bolton where we trained really hard, we played really hard but then when he did give us a weekend off or a little afternoon off, we’d all get together whenever we could as a group,” says Hunt.

“Quite a few younger players were single maybe at the time, knew about Manchester, knew about places to go out and stuff. I think Jay-Jay, people like Bruno NGotty and Youri Djorkaeff, Campo, not necessarily came along for the ride but were just happy sipping on a glass of red wine, eating some nice food and stuff, watching us act a bit stupid and funny really.

“I think they took a backstep with all that because I’m sure they’d done it in their time. They were towards the end of their careers and just wanted to lift their feet up a little bit, I think.”

“It was a crazy one – almost Roberto Carlos style”
By January, Bolton were as high as 10th in the Premier League and preparing for a two-legged League Cup semi-final against Aston Villa.

But with Okocha set to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations after the first leg at the Reebok, he set out on a mission to get Bolton to the final before he departed.

He’d already scored one free-kick as Bolton surged into a 4-2 first-leg lead, but another would give them one foot in the final.

Having curled his first into the top corner with the inside of his right foot, Okocha went the other way round the wall this time.

That goal proved to be decisive in the tie and ultimately set up a final against Middlesbrough at the Millennium Stadium.

“The free-kick he scored was just something only a certain amount of people in the world can do or have that audacity to try that kind of shot, outside of the right foot, 10 or 15 yards to the left and bent in,” says Davies.

“It was a crazy one – almost a Roberto Carlos style free-kick. It gave us that little bit of a cushion to go into the second leg which we just managed to scrape through.”

Okocha was the showman. He was the performer who never broke character on the pitch and never failed to deliver with a smile.

His jovial nature could be mistaken for a lack of seriousness, but behind the scenes was a man driven to succeed.

“He saw himself as an entertainer, a crowd pleaser and all he wanted to do was to entertain, and he put pressure on himself on matchdays to entertain and to deliver,” says Sharrock.

“In that respect, in interviews before games and after games, it was quite business-like. He was always accommodating, always there and would do his stuff. He was always honest, always smiling – that smile, incredible – but he was often guarded, it was business.”

Okocha delivered at the Africa Cup of Nations too, being named player of the tournament and finishing as the joint top scorer even as Nigeria finished third.

Once back in England, silverware eluded Okocha once more as Middlesbrough triumphed over Bolton in the League Cup final, thanks to a 2-1 win.

“A trophy would have been something, even the League Cup,” says Sharrock. “They deserved something, they deserved some silverware for it. It would have given players like Jay-Jay, a feeling that they had left a legacy at Bolton more than they actually did.

“I think it would have elevated Sam and that Bolton team of that era.”

“We started to believe we could actually blow this top 10 apart”
Despite cup disappointment, Bolton finished eighth in the Premier League – their highest finish in the top division for 44 years.

Big-name arrivals kept coming as well.

Fernando Hierro and El Hadji Diouf signed in the summer of 2004, while seasoned Premier League pros Gary Speed and Les Ferdinand also came in.

Okocha still remained the star attraction though – and he would play a captain’s role as Bolton finished sixth in the 2004/05 season, three points off the Champions League places.

It secured them a place in the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history.

“We started to believe after that first season, to be honest,” says Hunt.

“After we got to the Carling Cup final, we started to believe that this squad of players, if we can keep them together for another couple of seasons, we could actually blow this top 10 apart and maybe, possibly, challenge for European football which has never been seen before.

“We had a belief, and Sam had a belief, he had psychologists working for him and everyone he brought in behind the scenes, they were all on board with what he wanted to do in the next five years. If they weren’t on board, then he wouldn’t bring them in. It was literally a big family. We were just excited about what was round the corner and what was going to happen next really.”

Okocha was the figurehead. “He was the one that kind of led us, organised us, he’s the link between the managers and the players which obviously a captain should be,” says Davies.

The idea of Bolton being in European football had previously been beyond the fans’ comprehension.

Less than two decades ago, they had been in the fourth division.

“If you would have told people in those days when 2,500 were watching them at Darlington on a wet Tuesday night that they would be playing in Europe in the not-so-distant future, they would have thought you were crazy,” says Sharrock.

Bolton were now an established Premier League club and with that came a level of recognition and responsibility around the world.

This was demonstrated in the summer of 2005, when Bolton joined Manchester City and Everton in the pre-season Asia Cup tournament in Bangkok, Thailand.

Months before, the country had been devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

The three clubs flew out representatives from Bangkok to an affected coastal region as a goodwill mission. Sharrock was the only journalist with the Bolton players, Okocha and Speed.

“Since Jay-Jay and Speedo knew me and trusted me, they were both completely relaxed for the entire day and it was tremendous to see them interact with the unfortunate locals that had suffered with this catastrophic natural disaster,” says Sharrock.

“It wasn’t like it was a duty for them. Even more than Gary Speed – the people out there knew who Gary Speed was, but everyone knew who Jay-Jay was. Eyes lit up when he appeared.

“It wasn’t ‘these three football teams from England are visiting us’, it was, ‘crikey, this is Jay-Jay Okocha’. He was ever so modest about it, but gave them what they wanted.

“The smile… he had time for everybody and that was seeing him at his best, relaxed. It wasn’t business, it was enjoyment.”

“The fans probably have to pinch themselves looking back now, the amount of players we managed to get in in that era. Jay-Jay was probably the biggest one of the lot really”
Bolton, now with a European campaign in the 2005/06 season to contend with, continued to make waves in the transfer market.

Mexico striker Jared Borgetti and Japan superstar Hidetoshi Nakata were among those to arrive as the ambitious Allardyce strived for even better.

Okocha’s position at the centre of Big Sam’s plan was beginning to fade though.

Injuries and a loss of form during the first half of the season, in addition to speculation over a possible big-money move to Qatar, saw him stripped of the captaincy.

Kevin Nolan took the armband, as Bolton reached the UEFA Cup last-32 and finished eighth in the Premier League.

Okocha – now 33 going on 34 – still featured for Bolton, but the writing was on the wall.

Sharrock says: “From time to time, Sam would have his press conferences interrupted by, ‘what’s this about Jay-Jay going to Qatar’, ‘are you going to lose him at the end of the season or is he going to go now?’

“It was a bit of a distraction, which didn’t help matters as they could do without distractions. They were in Europe and Jay-Jay played in most of the games in Europe, the UEFA Cup that season. His impact, I think, was beginning to wane.

“There was talk of a one-year contract offer, but for Jay-Jay weighing up that one-year contract offer at Bolton – where he might not get all that much game time and might not be the man any longer – he had to weigh that against the riches he could pick up in the Middle East.”

Okocha departed for Qatar Sports Club that summer.

He spent just one season in the Middle East before returning to England for a swansong with Championship side Hull City.

Okocha retired from the game in 2008.

For Bolton, the 2006/07 season proved to be their last under Allardyce.

Frustrated by what he saw as the club’s unwillingness to match his ambitions for Champions League football, he left for Newcastle.

Bolton remained in the Premier League until 2012, but never reached the same dizzying heights of the Allardyce and Okocha era.

“Once Sam managed to get one or two on the hook, it attracted the others that followed and bought into what we were trying to achieve at the football club,” says Davies.

“It was an amazing period for the football club and Jay-Jay was very much a part of that in terms of big-name signings. The fans probably have to pinch themselves looking back now, the amount of players we managed to get in in that era.

“Jay-Jay was probably the biggest one of the lot really. He was just quality all round. You can watch his highlights reels on YouTube and the Premier League highlights when they’re on – he’s just a pleasure to watch.”

“There was no shame being a Bolton fan… You had Sara Cox, Vernon Kay, the whole Phoenix Nights thing… it’s a little offbeat, a bit quirky”
Within 10 years of relegation from the Premier League, Bolton were playing in the bottom tier of the Football League.

Tetlow has stuck with her team through thick and thin – European away days have since been replaced with trips to Accrington, Burton, Shrewsbury and more.

But she will never forget the golden years.

“You got the sense that we were up there competing and there was no shame being a Bolton fan,” she says.

“We all know what it’s like, kids are fickle, and they tend to support the teams that are doing the best at the time. But for us, you started to notice the Bolton shirts were a lot more prevalent than they ever were around and yes, it did give you the pride because you thought we are definitely up there competing.

“It coincided with a time when a lot of people from Bolton were breaking onto the scene and becoming celebrities as well. You had Sara Cox, Vernon Kay, you’ve got the whole Phoenix Nights thing – I think it was partly that, and partly because we were doing well at the time.

“It’s a little offbeat isn’t it, it’s not obvious and it’s a bit quirky, so I’ll go with that and people like that – they like the underdog.”

No player symbolises Bolton’s iconic team of the noughties quite like Okocha.

YouTube will remember his skills, but his team-mates, like Hunt, remember the person more.

“He was a family guy and he was always ready to step up in any form for Bolton Wanderers Football Club,” says Hunt. “I think that’s what made him the football player he was.

“If he had an ego or knew how good he was – he obviously did know how good he was – but if he acted on that or in a way that was derogatory or affected us as a football club, I don’t think we’d have been anywhere near as successful, because his goals, assists and his all-round leadership was second to none.”

In truth, Okocha’s legacy on the Premier League and English game transcended all of his magical moments on the pitch.

He helped open the door for a whole continent of unearthed talent.

Nearly 20 years on from his arrival, England’s top-flight is now brimming with the very best African players.

“He was one of those players that would just get you out of your seat,” says Aarons, author of the book Made in Africa. “You just didn’t know what to expect from him and that made it so much better.

“When someone can take your breath away with just a couple of touches, even if he’s playing for the other team, that’s what football is all about – going to a match and seeing something like that live. Although Bolton probably weren’t everyone’s favourite second team at the time, Jay-Jay was probably among most people’s favourite players.

“I get lots of people saying to me, ‘why didn’t you put Jay Jay on the front cover’, more than anybody else.

“All these players in African history – Didier Drogba, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Yaya Toure – but a lot of people say to me Jay-Jay should be there because that’s how important his role was and actually I think they’re probably right, I should have put him on. But there we go.”

Source: This is Football’s Cult Heroes by Sky Sports, a series telling the stories of the players that carried their clubs on their backs – on and off the pitch.

 

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