Artist In Residence is a series of articles showcasing the work of a specific artist over the course of a week and the stories behind the featured people and moments as well as a Q&A to kickstart the series. This series’ illustrations are from the brilliant Harry G Ward.
Promotion to the Premier League is an achievement for any club, doing it three times in seven seasons is a remarkable triumph. Considering Bolton Wanderers as a club located in the heart of Lancashire, a part of England which isn’t a luxurious setting as people would fit.
For the club, improving the squad is an imperative strategy any promoted team should make as they embark on a long campaign in the top flight. A strange inclusion to the Bolton team in the summer of 2002 would proceed the club to have a thrilling season. Jay-Jay Okocha signing for a free from Paris Saint-Germain isn’t spoken about as much as it should be in the current economic world we are in. But, this transfer should never really have happened – keep telling Bolton fans that fact as they look back at the time they signed soon to become a Premier League cult icon.
The club that famously produced Nat Lofthouse, the perfect solution to fit the bill as a traditional centre-forward in English football. Compared to the talented Nigerian international, Okocha would have known the surrounding’s he was getting himself into moving to the North West. Rainy days at the home stadium, known today as the University of Bolton Stadium. Theoretically, neither should a manager like Sam Allardyce and his managerial history. Known for setting his team up to defend from the start, restricting the flair players in the XI to scraps during a match. The pair were seen as opposite’s, one plays with the freedom to express themselves on the pitch, the other wants the win at all costs and that alone causes deflation to a player like Okocha. Moving abroad to a new country, you would think players analyse their team they are moving to, how they play, the manager’s tactics. Surely any player would before being fully convinced the pending transfer is the right conclusion for the footballer.
People that witness French football prior to his move to Lancashire would have observed the natural skill the Nigerian possessed. A vastly gifted individual capable of eye-catching skills most players would dream of performing. I’m sure players would try to emulate his wizardry skills, some wouldn’t admit sustaining injuries in the process. Football fans who knew about Okocha prior to his move to England would know about the tricks, but, would know how incredibly unselfish he is in terms of how dedicated he is on the pitch when it comes to defending.
The Premier League was being inflated with riches of foreign owners investing heavily in football clubs. Some mediocre clubs became the top teams in the league and even in Europe from the amount of high-level players enticed by the dream of playing in the Premier League, plus the gravitational pull of earning a salary that exceeds your expectations in your profession.
For all his immense talent, Okocha was known to be at his best as beacon of inspiration for those who are starved of success. His football career indicates his four-year stint at PSG, the club were nowhere near the finished article as they are now with the Parc des Princes bestowed with Qatari riches. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are two high profiled names brought into the draw dropping riches at the French capital, two players who are in similar mould to Okocha. Full of mouth-watering skills that get the fans out of their seat on every occasion.
Indeed, in his four seasons with PSG, Okocha’s only taste of success came in the Intertoto Cup, a now-defunct continental pre-season tournament as well as the Tropheé des Champions – similar to the Community Shield that stages at the beginning of every season in England.
From the very beginning, Bolton fans were captivated by the shear brilliance of their new arrival. The addition continued the brilliance in the transfer market that began a year earlier. Signings like Youri Djorkaeff, Fredi Bobic, Bruno N’Gotty, and long haired midfield maestro Ivan Campo. Not to mention Spanish centre-half Fernando Hierro was soon acquired from Spanish giants Real Madrid. All these were eclipsed by the signing of Okocha, basically suggesting the Nigerian was the icing on the cake of what was a remarkable year of incomings at the Reebok Stadium.
In recent years, the Premier league has been the stage that has shown remarkable show boaters who were no shortage of talent with the ball at their feet. Even today, fans can drool over the compilations on YouTube of their favourite tricksters that have lit up the English top division. However, even the very best that have come and gone didn’t match the brilliance of one individual who blossomed during their stint in the league and had that cutting edge in games in which defined the outcome of a match. Have a guess who that player was. Okocha was that name, only a few players came close to the Nigerian’s quality. Typically moments of brilliance stand out, especially on one occasion when he flicked the ball over Ray Parlour’s head against Arsenal, simply outrageous, only Neymar comes to mind when a footballer attempts a move like that. But, Bolton fans will recall his two magnificent free-kicks in the 2003/04 League Cup semi-finals against Aston Villa in which saw the Trotters to their first cup final in nine years. The final didn’t go as planned as they were eventually beaten on the day at the hands of Middlesbrough. Fans will still cherish those moments Okocha brought to the field given where the club is at the moment.
124 appearances for the Trotters, in fact, this figure is the most for any club he represented, helping Allardyce’s side finish eighth in the top flight on two occasions and once coming sixth, exceeding expectations most would agree.
“It’s a religion in my country,” he told FIFA’s official website in 2015. “It unites the whole country as one. If the football goes well, then everything goes well. It’s more than a game, more than a sport. It’s part of our culture.”
But his time in Greater Manchester ultimately ended in a way that doesn’t rectify the immaculate footballer. He was stripped of the captaincy in 2006 after being perceived to have had his head turned by lucrative advances from Qatar. He left to join Qatar FC later that year.
He would return to England for the 2007/08 season with Championship side Hull City, but, by then 34, his powers with the ball at his feet were limited and he was not the same force of nature and source of joy fans in England, regardless of club allegiance, had come to love.
As injuries became a more regular occurrence, and forced to come to terms with the deterioration of his ability, Okocha retired at the end of his single season with Hull after help guide the tigers in their promotion to the Premier League.
“Every second I’ve spent on the pitch is a good memory for me,” he told FIFA.com, looking back at his career. “Every moment when I’ve been able to express myself with the ball. I enjoyed every single moment of my footballing career, for every club I played with. I’ve got nothing but good memories.”
Anyone who saw Okocha in his prime would echo that statement. He will always be remembered as one of the most gifted, exciting and scintillating footballer to grace the English game in recent memory. A player who Allardyce would love to manage once again in his attempt in guiding West Brom to Premier League safety. Nevertheless, when people relay the name Jay-Jay Okocha, joy comes to mind and the memorable moments the Nigerian provided on a football pitch.