Illustration by Akinyele Lexain Olalekan. View more of his work here
It’s January 2004 and Bolton Wanderers are playing Aston Villa in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final. In the 80th minute, Bolton are awarded a free-kick about 20-yards from Villa’s goal outside the top right corner of the box. Aston Villa, down 4-2 in the game, set a two-man wall while Bolton deploy three runners to the left of the penalty spot with five Villa defenders forming a line even with the wall. The whistle blows and up steps Bolton’s Nigerian catalyst, Jay-Jay Okocha. Everyone freezes.
Moments like this, frozen on film, are footballing magic. Okocha’s approach to the dead ball is direct. Anyone who’s played football knows the feeling in a different sense. That approach is best reserved for a ball trickling towards an already running player, sitting up just right for the someone to swing their boot through the ball sending it knuckling through the air to either the back of the net, or more likely for us mere mortals, into the upper stratosphere. We’ve seen it a million times, the whites of the eyes grow wide with anticipatory fervour because nothing more can be done. The shot is coming.
The sheer pace of Okocha’s run indicates there will be no cross. The right-footed strike, in the conventional universe, would be bent around the left shoulder of the leftmost man in the wall. But Jay-Jay Okocha doesn’t exist in the conventional universe. He belongs to a footballing multiverse where he controls space, time, matter and energy, and is the master of the physical laws and constants making up this strange place. Here, Okocha bends the ball with the outside of his right boot with such pace, power and accuracy that the venomous shot unleashed near-post is pure alchemy.
Displays like this spoiled the footballing world during Okocha’s career that took him from the streets of Enugu, Nigeria to the European football scene in 1990 with Borussia Neunkirchen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahçe, Paris Saint-Germain – where he is rumored to have been a pivotal figure for a young Ronaldinho – Bolton Wanderers, and Hull City. Internationally, Okocha featured for the Super Eagles in the 1994 World Cup in the United States and, later that year, was part of the squad that won the African Cup of Nations.
Two years later, Nigeria won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic games. In 1998, Okocha was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing World Cup in France as Nigeria lost their second round match to Spain. Okocha’s displays for Nigeria, especially in subsequent African Cup of Nations tournaments and matches, helped highlight the great football on display from African players (he never won African Player of the Year) – but it is his time with a club from a factory town in north-west England that emboldened his legend in the game.
When Bolton Wanderers signed Okocha in 2002, the terrace chant, “Jay-Jay Okocha, the man was so good they named him twice”, made perfect sense. At Bolton, Okocha juxtaposed the rigidity of an often frenetic Premier League, with his rubbery-legged audacity to pull off tricks, which are best saved for the school yard or park, unique to the professional game. His swagger on the ball and his effectiveness was as refreshing to the English game as it was inspirational to every football fan, young and old, watching him play.
The eyes of a youthful generation that tried the same flicks, tricks and feints under the dim streetlights late into the night, saw in Jay-Jay Okocha a footballer who proved self-expression is just as much a skill as a Cruyff turn or a rabona. For the older generation, one mired as thickly in pragmatism as the mud on a Sunday leaguer’s boots, Okocha represented everything unorthodox about football.
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Some players are remembered for how many goals they scored, but Jay-Jay Okocha’s displays in the Premier League are so much more important than goals – of which he scored some worldies. The Nigerian magician captained a Bolton side that boasted some great players on its teamsheets throughout the years, including Youri Djorkaeff, Ricardo Gardner, Gary Speed, Iván Campo, Fernando Hierro, Nicolas Anelka, Jussi Jääskeläinen. Tt is Okocha’s frequent displays of freestyle skills that typify that period of Bolton Wanderers’ football for the neutral.
Players in the mould of Jay-Jay Okocha are a rarity at the top level. The world over, there is no shortage of footballing tricksters, but Okocha could play the simple stuff, too. His effect on the game boasts an uncanny, unteachable and uncoachable ability to maraud box-to-box, tackle, ride challenges, pass over distance, slalom through opposing midfields and score excellent goals. You wouldn’t be faulted for believing he intentionally dribbled into the corner just so he could mazily weave his way out of pressure. His legs and mind seemed asynchronous, but the movements were fluid.
Okocha’s exquisite level of unorthodox technique has yet to be replicated in the Premier League. These days we see it in flashes, a dip of the shoulder from Philippe Coutinho or an immaculate first touch from Alexis Sánchez, but when Okocha took the field, it seemed to happen every game.
Few players can bring the freedom of expression and creativity harnessed from the purity of street football to the top levels of professional football and still keep their jobs. In an era that affords us the ‘expert’ pundits’ view of tactical analysis from six different high-defintion angles, the ability to watch just about any match available, and the access to see players in isolation on the pitch – football has certainly changed. A
A new generation of social media-savvy consumers of the game can instantly prop up the odd glimpse of supreme skill and audacious bits of flair from footballers. I even find myself mesmerised by these highlight reel snippets from time-to-time because football, quite honestly, has changed. This type of thrill-through-skill-seeking was available and on display every time Jay-Jay Okocha took the pitch.
Players fit systems and the catalysts of the game are exceedingly marginalized by the ethos of the footballing philosophy. The legendary Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp once said: “Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought.” For someone as clinical, composed and technically perfect as Bergkamp, these words serve as a reminder – a validation of the intelligence involved in football.
The premise of the statement reveals the contemplative nature of a player of Bergkamp’s quality. Okocha, however, took that statement and amended its meaning for his own playing style, which was just as much about thought as it was feeling and impulse.
Read | Nwankwo Kanu and the languid brilliance of Nigeria’s most celebrated footballer
We might catch a glimpse of the type of football Jay-Jay Okocha played far removed from the structure of professional academies, high-level training facilities, and on the pitches every weekend in football’s colosseum around the world. The intrepid skill he unleashed on opponents is hard to find today. His fluidity on the ball and propensity to toy with opponents – almost unnecessarily – is undoubtedly coached out of players from an early age. If we do see that type of skill, it’s manufactured in boot advertisements and marketing promo campaigns with computer-generated imagery oohing and aahing a new generation of football fan.
There’s a refreshing aura about this sect of football’s genus composed of magicians, of which Jay-Jay Okocha is a member. His jet-black boots might as well have been bottles with captured lightning. Watching him unleash it against the Premier League’s goliaths, one can’t help but wonder what a player of his quality and skill level would have done in the midfield for Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United or Bayern Munich. On the one hand, it’s a tempting thought to believe he would have excelled in the star-studded lineups of Europe’s best at the time. However, the truth may well be that he was given licence as a number 10 under Sam Allardyce to play anywhere he wanted — a freedom he would not receive at other clubs.
Okocha is a cult hero of the Premier League era, even more so for Bolton supporters who undoubtedly appreciated his contributions in helping the Trotters say in the Premier League. His enigmatic style was personified in Sam Allardyce’s Bolton team, which was an odd amalgamation of players that were not supposed to gel on paper. However, football isn’t played on paper and the pragmatic and direct style of Allardyce found a way to defy the judgements of pundits and raise expectations when his team played. The trickery of Okocha was bolstered by the steadiness and experience of Fernando Hierro. Add the vision and excellence of the diminutive Youri Djorkaeff and blue-collar composition and tenor of that Bolton squad and you have a team that was perfect for the Premier League at that time.
As a pillar in the squad, Okocha embraced responsibilities on both sides of the ball. It can be argued that the Premier League was more direct and less tactically versatile in comparison to today, but this only aided his game. He could easily pop between lines to collect the ball or lure opponents to tackle to open up channels for his team-mates. It’s amazing to see how much space he actually found in an era where the Premier League’s on-field generals like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira patrolled, both of whom he left for dead or chasing shadows on regular occasions.
Perhaps what makes Jay-Jay Okocha’s style of play so memorable is how few players would even dare emulate the step-overs, flicks, scoops and array of football tricks in their own penalty area. We don’t see players fearlessly juggling through the midfield grinning ear-to-ear, nor do we see the successful execution of backheels, scorpion kicks and devil-may-care rabona reversals of play against the world’s best players. He didn’t dive, he wasn’t in the news for the wrong reasons, he simply had ‘it’ — ‘the stuff’, the swagger, the confidence to enjoy football on his terms.
Simply put, Okocha’s efforts and effect on football are to be celebrated. Having captained a Bolton side that qualified for the UEFA Cup and helping the club reach a League Cup final upset the narrative for years. Additionally, his influence kept the club in the Premier League, all while playing some breathtaking football.
Jay-Jay Okocha certainly belongs to the fraternity of footballers hailed as the best to come from Africa, which includes legends like George Weah, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Abedi Pele and Nwankwo Kanu, to name a few – but for many, Okocha could be considered the most technically gifted African player ever.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3