Premier League Career: Bolton Wanderers (2002-2006)
Jay-Jay Okocha was one of the stars of the Premier League in the early 2000s. His flair, panache and skill made him a player who could often do amazing things on the football pitch. Widely regarded as the best Nigerian player of his generation, Okocha enjoyed a wonderful time on English shores for four seasons as a Bolton Wanderers player.
Okocha won 75 international caps for Nigeria and is one of the most iconic African players of all-time. He played at three World Cup finals, reaching the round-of-16 in both 1994 and 1998. He was also part of the Nigeria squad that stunned Argentina to win the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta in the football competition. Football runs through Okocha’s DNA. In fact, his nephew is Alex Iwobi who currently plays in the Premier League for Arsenal and is now a Nigerian international himself.
He started his career in Germany and joined Eintracht Frankfurt in December 1991. Frankfurt might have not won any Bundesliga titles but were a thrilling team to watch and often finished in the higher positions in the table. Okocha played alongside Ghanaian hotshot Tony Yeboah, Norway’s Jørn Andersen and midfielder Maurizio Gaudino. Frankfurt finished third in 1993 and fifth in 1994 and Okocha won Goal of the Year too in 1993 for a mesmerising dribbling strike against Karlsruher SC.
In 1995, Okocha spectacularly fell out with coach Jupp Heynckes who also took a dislike to Yeboah and Gaudino. The latter pair moved on to pastures new in English football whilst Okocha stuck around until 1996 but Frankfurt’s first-ever relegation from the top-flight meant he would leave the Bundesliga behind and join Fenerbahce that summer.
He scored 30 times in 62 games across two seasons for the Turkish side and would become a Turkish citizen too before switching to Paris Saint-Germain in 1998, spending £14 million to acquire this gifted talent. By now, Okocha had a fearsome reputation as one of the best direct set-piece takers in world football. His time in PSG was more frustrating. They won the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 2001 but league success eluded Jay-Jay, who did at least pass on his experience and talent to a young Brazilian superstar by the name of Ronaldinho during his four-year stay in the French capital.
After the 2002 World Cup, Okocha moved to Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer. It was seen as a wonderful coup for a club that were always likely to be fighting a relegation battle. He sparkled at his new challenge, scoring seven times including the club’s Goal of the Season winner against relegation rivals West Ham United in April 2003. On the final day of the season, a trademark free-kick helped Bolton to victory over Middlesbrough that ensured their Premier League survival at West Ham’s expense. In the celebrations that followed, Okocha taught his manager Sam Allardyce some of his dancing moves which went down well with all the supporters at The Reebok Stadium.
Allardyce appointed Okocha as the club’s new captain in the summer of 2003 following the retirement of long-serving defender Gudni Bergsson. He led the club to their first cup final in nine years, scoring two breathtaking goals in the League Cup semi-final defeat of Aston Villa. Bolton faced Middlesbrough at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium but came up short on the day, losing 2-1. Amazingly, Okocha failed to score a single league goal in the campaign but that wasn’t for the worth of trying. He ended his drought on the opening weekend of 2004-2005, scoring twice in the 4-1 victory over Charlton Athletic. Another four goals followed as Bolton achieved their highest finish in the Premier League, ending sixth in the final standings.
His final season saw the Nigerian removed of the captaincy in November 2005. His head had been turned by a potential move to the Middle East and Allardyce elected to give the armband to Kevin Nolan. Okocha carried on playing but it was clear the spark had gone and he rejected a contract extension at the end of the season to go and play in Qatar. It was a slightly acrimonious departure and his relationship with Bolton supporters wasn’t helped six years later following their Premier League relegation when he said: “We laid a good foundation at Bolton but, unfortunately, for the fans, they have to deal with Bolton being a struggling team again.”
After one year in Qatar, he returned to the English game to conclude his career at Hull City, retiring at the end of the 2007-2008 campaign. He is currently Chairman of the Delta State Football Association and has also expressed previously a desire to become Nigerian Football Federation President in the past.
He was so good, he was named twice! Jay-Jay Okocha certainly didn’t do dull during his time in the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers.