Sam Allardyce was on a mission.
After a successful 2001-02 campaign that marked Bolton Wanderers’ return to the Premier League with survival, Allardyce was intent on establishing the Lancashire outfit in the top-flight. To do that, he needed proven quality.
The arrival of French World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff had already set pulses racing, but in the summer of 2002 one signing would capture the hearts of Wanderers fans. Nigeria captain Jay-Jay Okocha joined Bolton on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, and at the age of 28, he was still in the peak years of his career.
Although his debut season was hampered by injury, Okocha made an instant impact in a Bolton side that faced another relegation battle. His seven goals played a huge role in the Whites’ avoiding the drop but two, in particular, stood out.
In a crucial clash against fellow strugglers West Ham United, it was the former PSG man who made the difference. His surging 40-yard run on the counter-attack was matched by a stunning shot that was unleashed from the edge of the area and sailed into the top corner to seal a 1-0 win. That was matched on the final day of the season when Okocha’s curling free-kick sealed another three points against Middlesbrough and ultimately preserved Bolton’s Premier League status.
It wasn’t just the goals that caught the eye. Okocha’s tricks and flicks made many a showboating compilation, with an audacious rainbow flick over Ray Parlour in a 2-2 draw with Arsenal a particular highlight.
After the retirement of club legend Gudni Bergsson, Allardyce handed Okocha the captain’s armband ahead of the 2003-04 season and the new skipper was instrumental in Bolton reaching the League Cup Final. Okocha’s brace of free-kicks, including one that rocketed into the back of the net from an acute angle, sealed a memorable 5-2 Semi-Final first-leg win over Aston Villa and Bolton’s first cup final appearance in nine years.
Unfortunately for Allardyce and Wanderers, Middlesbrough prevailed in a 2-1 victory in Cardiff, but an 8th place league finish offered further evidence of progress.
In 2004-05, the signings of Gary Speed, Fernando Hierro and El Hadji Diouf further supplemented Okocha as the Nigerian’s six league goals helped the Whites secure a top-six finish and UEFA Cup qualification. For the first time in the club’s history, Bolton was going on a European tour.
However, what proved to be Okocha’s final campaign at the club in 2005-06 ended on a sour note. Injury and a loss of form saw the No.10 stripped of the captaincy and his playing time decreased as a result.
A move to QSL side Qatar Sports Club followed where he would last just 12 months, before a return to England to play for Hull City in the Championship was dogged by injuries.
His career may have petered out, but for a generation of Bolton fans who witnessed his remarkable feats Jay-Jay Okocha’s name will always be associated with the greatest spell in the club’s modern history.