Nigeria’s most celebrated midfielder Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha is eyeonthesports.com’s man of the month of December, 2014. Okocha’s exploits in the round leather game are remembered today, as we traced his fantastic reign at Bolton Wanderers, where he wowed fans of the English Premier League with his magic displays. Enjoy this special piece, a story written about Okocha’s exploits in the EPL between 2002-2006, though it’s ‘Down Memory Lane’, enjoy it:
It was only a matter a time wasn’t it before we looked at Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. Our series into the weird and wacky of the football transfer window would be incomplete without Big Sam’s Bolton.
During his time at Bolton, Allardyce brought in Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, Gary Speed and a certain Nicolas Anelka. Not bad for a club that only gained promotion to the Premiership in 1995, yet none of these signings where as important or as bizarre as the signing we’ll be looking at today.
The man of the hour today is someone who went from being valued at $24 million but four years later was allowed to leave for free. This was a man who had two stellar World Cups in 1998 and 2002 but couldn’t find a top European club. This was a man so good they named him twice and somehow ended up at Bolton. Yes today readers strap yourselves in, sit back and enjoy the ride. Today our spotlight falls on none other than Austin Jay-Jay Okocha.
For four years, Jay-Jay terrorized defenders in the Premiership, transformed Bolton and provided us with many happy memories. His time at Bolton marked a period of great success for the Trotters, with the club firmly establishing itself in the Premiership, qualifying for the UEFA Cup and even reaching its first cup final since 1958 all under Okocha’s leadership.
Granted Okocha never won a trophy at Bolton but he won the hearts of millions of fans the world over for his personality, incredible skills and outlandish goals. What’s more, Bolton signed Okocha for free, four years after PSG spent roughly $24million on the Nigerian Superstar.
So who is Jay-Jay Okocha, and how did he end up going from PSG to Bolton?
Okocha came from a golden generation of Nigerian footballers and his story, like many of his contemporaries, began on the streets. It’s almost a cliché at this stage to mention it, but on the streets of Lagos Okocha learnt a free flowing form of football that is often removed from the football academy.
The street is where some of the greatest footballers from Pele to Maradona have learnt their trade. Okocha was no different. Okocha’s talents couldn’t be confined to the streets of Lagos for long however as he was soon snapped when on a trip to Germany to visit a friend.
A Borussia Neunkirchen scout, not believing his luck, brought the young man from Nigeria to the 3rd division club. It wasn’t the biggest club in the world but it was the start of a career that spanned Germany, Turkey, France, England and Qatar.
Okocha’s ability was soon to prove too much for the German third division. Within one year, his performances with Borussia Neunkirchen earned him a move to Eintracht Frankfurt. Okocha was to shine in Germany’s top flight; the Bundesliga. It was here where he really began to capture audiences both domestically and in Europe.
What’s more, Okocha’s ability to turn football into a spectacle too good to miss began to emerge notably when, during his first season at Frankfurt Okocha shimmied and jinked around a young Oliver Kahn several times before sticking the ball in the back of the net. It was one of the goals of the season.
Okocha was soon known as a magician, a worthy moniker. No matter how amazing Okocha was on the pitch, a dispute with Frankfurt coach Jupp Heynckes meant that Okocha was to leave Frankfurt in 1996.
The magician’s next destination? Turkey, namely Fenerbache. Although his time in Turkey was brief, two seasons in fact, the magician’s time there was hugely important for he got to showcase his talents on Europe’s biggest stage, the Champions League.
Apart from wowing audiences in Europe, Okocha was a revaluation domestically. At Fenerbache, Okocha scored an incredible 30 goals in 63 games. Not a bad return. His goal scoring record was supplemented with a strong World Cup performance for Nigeria in 1998.
Once more he had caught the eyes of Europe’s biggest clubs and soon they came calling for him. Despite his love for Fenerbache and Turkey (Okocha adopted a Turkish name [Muhammet Yavuz] when he obtained Turkish citizenship), the lure of Europe was too much. When Paris St Germain came calling with a massive $24 million deal to take him to Paris, the magician couldn’t decline.
$24 million was a lot of money in 1998, just as it is now. Needless to say, expectations were high. Initially it seemed as if the magician was up to the task as he hit the ground running with a stunning debut goal versus Bordeaux but soon expectations became too much for Okocha. It wasn’t just the $24million price tag. Okocha had been given the number 10 jersey from PSG, a number formally held by PSG and Brazilian legend Raí. Raí had helped PSG win both domestic and European trophies.
Okocha had big shoes to fill and sadly luck wasn’t in his favour. A series of injuries and disputes with the management plagued Okocha’s time in the French capital. PSG soon began to look for a replacement. In the 2001-2002 season PSG began this process and signed Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho.
Unsurprisingly, this signalled the beginning of the end for Jay-Jay at PSC. Ronaldinho and Okocha were considered by the club to be too similar to be complimentary. The magician was headed for the exit. At the end of the 2001-2002 season, PSG decided not to renew Okocha’s contract.
He went into the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea a free agent looking for work. Nigeria’s early elimination meant that this time, Europe’s top clubs were not sniffing around Okocha.
In fact, his best offer came from a middle of the table Premiership side from England called Bolton Wanderers. It seemed for many a step down for Okocha. Okocha went on a free transfer to Bolton four years after commanding $24 million. Were the critics right, was he past his best? Not even close. What followed were four years of magic. Okocha was to shine once more.
And boy did he shine. Okocha’s spell at Bolton signalled one of the most fruit fall parts of his and Bolton’s time. For four years, from 2002 until 2006, he turned out for the Trotters an impressive 124 times, scoring 14 goals. But Okocha was more than statistics.
For four years he was the lynchpin of Sam Allardyce’s team, roaming freely up and down the pitch controlling the game. It wasn’t the starry lights of Paris, but Bolton was the perfect fit and the perfect stage for Okocha. Once allowed to roam, Okocha drove Bolton to a 6th place finish in the Premiership, a Cup final and European qualification.
He is undoubtedly a Bolton legend and is still fondly remembered by fans of the club. What’s more, he came on a free transfer. Not a bad bit of business from Big Sam I think we can all agree. Memories of that Bolton team inevitably evoke images of Okocha, ball at his feet, jinking around players and creating a sense of wonder that is so rarely found in top fight football. The magician was king at Bolton.
Okocha had the talent and the skill that most players could only dream of. Pulling off tricks in training is one thing but doing them in the middle of a match, with opposition players charging you down is a completely different thing. Yet Okocha managed to do it with ease.
He looked most comfortable when the pressure was on. The man exuded coolness. Had he been luckier at PSG, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing him in England’s Premiership, something that would have been a tragedy to fans of the English game.
Granted he may have gained greater recognition at bigger clubs but for Bolton fans, he is a legend. His transfer from PSG to Bolton was for many at the time a signal that the magician was losing his touch. Once more the critics were wrong. Just because a transfer seems bizarre, doesn’t mean it won’t work out. Okocha was testament to this.
So here’s to Jay-Jay Okocha, the man so good they named him twice, the man who went from a $24 million transfer to a free transfer and the man who captured so many of our hearts.
-Culled: Pundit Arena.