Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a wing wizard so good they named him twice.
There are a hundred different reasons to take exception to Sam Allardyce’s patented brand of nullifying football that admittedly grinds out results when it works but sends us to sleep regardless.
Right up there on the list is the undeniable fact that ultra-pragmatic fare designed to deconstruct is so out of kilter with the modern norm that sees little magicians performing their tricks in midfield and full-backs bombing forward at every opportunity: Premier League clubs now all have fantastic fortunes that enable them to showcase the very best of themselves. They have the means – and possibly too the obligation – to entertain.
That Allardyce recoils at such aspirations is frustrating and on occasion repellent and that disgust can be squared by a large amount for those of us who still fondly recall his Bolton Wanderers side of the early to mid 2000s. Because that team certainly had an ambition to entertain. That team was ace.
In an era where sensible soccer wasn’t so frowned upon the arch-contrarian Allardyce dared to create an eleven forged on the continental defending of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro; that released Ricardo Gardner down the flanks, usually set free by the imagination of Stelios Giannakopoulos or the ever-artful Gary Speed.
And ahead of them all positionally and in every conceivable sense frolicked the wonderful, spirit-lifting, so-good-they-named-him-twice Jay-Jay Okocha.
For all of his endeavour and mileage the silken Nigerian was so not the big gaffer’s type that in later years he would surely be banished to the sub’s bench, kept there only for late emergencies. Yet here, before a spell-bound Reebok Stadium, Okocha was placed centre stage and more so encouraged to ad-lib to his heart’s content. And Okocha ad-libbed a lot.
The remarkable playmaker from Enugu State played as if the frenetic environs of top flight football was a kickabout in the park, thinking nothing of exhibiting skills and trickery that made the old feel young and a raucous crowd turn into an audience. His audience.
His fleet of foot was matched by a breath-taking speed of thought and when an abundance of talent is thrown into that mix it meant defenders were frankly petrified at the prospects of facing him one on one. Guess and commit and he had the ability make the very best look stupid. Wait and he was gone.
His securement on a free transfer from PSG – where Okocha had mentored a young Ronaldinho – a matter of weeks after the 2002 World Cup was a major coup for Bolton and Allardyce too as he sought to establish the little-fancied club as one that competed for European places rather than fend off the drop on an annual basis. And it is fair to say in hindsight that the move was a big success.
Okocha remains loved in Greater Manchester to this day and not just for the numerous moments of pure magic that light up YouTube. It’s because he was a formative figure in Bolton’s greatest period for many a generation as the Trotters finished inside the top ten for four consecutive seasons. They also reached the 2004 Carling Cup final, narrowly losing to Middlesbrough.
In the semi-final first leg against Aston Villa a flight to the African Cup of Nations was postponed in order that Okocha played. He was integral to Wanderers. Without him their chances of a dream trip to the Millennium Stadium was essentially halved.
Two minutes in and the incomparable wizard put his side ahead with a clever free-kick. Watching it back now it unnerves because the flight of the ball goes around the wall at thigh level. Yet there is no discernible curve. And there is no gap. It is Okocha 1, Physics 0.
Villa for their part wobbled, shaken by the early concession and to make matters considerably worse the flying winger was brilliant that night, at the heart of everything good about a Bolton side thoroughly in the ascendency. Inside the opening half an hour they were three goals up without reply. With ten minutes to go Villa had reduced the deficit to two.
Then came the second waving of the wand. Again a free-kick. Again with the right boot. Only this time the spell was cast wide on the left with everyone in attendance understandably expecting a floating cross.
Instead Okocha walloped it. There is no other word to describe it. He walloped it and the ball whizzed and dipped and swerved and popped to the shops for a loaf of bread all in a matter of nanoseconds and when its motion was stopped by the net the Villa keeper dived more out of instinct than expectation. “Simply awesome,” was how the commentator coined it. And it was. He was. Twice-over.