Like many African players of his generation, Augustine Azuka Okocha’s first affiliation with the game came kicking around any spherical object on the dusty streets of his homeland.
By the start of the 90s, with ‘Jay-Jay’ in his teens, the African player boom had just hit Europe. The lure of fame and fortune enticed many of the continents gifted youngsters to head away from home to follow the dream of a glorious football career. His first break in European football was a rather inauspicious start, as an 18-year-old at German third division minnows Borussia Neunkirchen. His displays there soon brought a move to the Bundesliga’s Eintracht Frankfurt, where Okocha teamed up with, amongst others, Ghanaian Tony Yeboah. His exuberant style made him an instant hero, not least for having the honour of making Oliver Kahn grovel in the mud as he rounded him twice before scoring a simply brilliant individual goal against Karlsruher.
After a fall-out with Eintracht coach Jupp Heynckes, Okocha was moved on to Turkish champions Fenerbahce where he scored at almost a goal every two games for two seasons. Paris St Germain made Okocha the most expensive African player of all time by signing him for £14m in 1998. He enjoyed mixed fortunes in the French capital, failing fully to harness his immense ability into what was already an uncohesive team. With Ronaldinho eventually taking his spot, Okocha’s contract was not renewed by the Parisians in 2002. With a failed big money move behind him, there were few takers for a player seen as an unnecessary luxury.
Following that summer’s World Cup (Okocha represented Nigeria against England) he was offered refuge at Bolton Wanderers. Sam Allardyce’s shrewd use of the Bosman ruling saw Okocha join an unlikely cast, already including Bruno N’Gotty, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo. Budgetary constraints meant Allardyce’s side adopted a less than aesthetic approach to avoiding relegation. Organised, obdurate and centred around a strong team ethic, Wanderers won over few neutral observers, yet one man was given licence to thrill. Okocha amazed spectators with a never-ending reel of skills, tricks and flicks, the next even less conceivable than the one before.
The Nigerian combined the delightful party pieces with quick dribbling and explosive shooting, to return a healthy goals tally. Okocha’s unique brand immediately delighted his new followers. His full repertoire of audacious footwork, dribbles and passes added a glossier touch to what was an otherwise spit and polish Wanderers side. His debut season confirmed Okocha as one of the most flamboyant and entertaining players ever to grace the Premier League. His performances were littered with quite mesmeric, often unbelievable pieces of skill.
For once, Okocha appeared to fit into a team. The artist amongst artisans, Okocha was the jewel in Bolton’s wrought iron crown, and provided the inspiration needed to help them beat the drop on the final day of the 2002/3 season at West Ham’s expense. Jay-Jay, ‘so good they named him twice’, as Trotter’s folklore will have you know, provided arguably his best football for the club at the end of that first season. He scored seven league goals, the most important of which came as the only goal of a 1-0 win over fellow relegation strugglers West Ham.
With that game delicately poised at 0-0, a loose ball dropped to Okocha midway into his own half. The Nigerian ace strode purposefully forward into Hammers territory, shrugging off Joe Cole’s desperate lunge before smashing home an unstoppable 25 yard drive into the top corner of the net. The goal invariably kept Bolton in the league and was voted their goal of the season and latterly their greatest goal in the premier league. The terrace idol then capped off a memorable first term with an exquisite final day free-kick against Middlesbrough to confirm survival, and celebrated with that dubious dance duet with Allardyce.
Okocha’s next three seasons at the Reebok Stadium coincided with the club’s most progressive in recent history. They reached the 2004 League Cup final, losing to Middlesbrough but marauded up the table to eighth position. In 2004/5 another six Okocha goals helped Bolton up to sixth and a place in the Uefa Cup, the club’s first involvement in European football. Okocha’s involvement became more peripheral by 2006 and he left Bolton for a pay day with Qatar SC but returned to England for a final season before retirement, with Hull City who were duly promoted from the Championship in 2008.
Internationally Okocha was capped 75 times by the ‘Super Eagles’ and competed in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups, captaining the side in Japan and South Korea. In a golden era for Nigerian football, Okocha was part of the ‘Dream Team’ who won the 1994 African Cup of Nations and then Olympic Gold at the 1996 Atlanta games. Okocha never won the African Player of the Year award, but was runner-up in 1998 and 2004. It’s hard to argue that Okocha ever fully utilised his immense ability. Many players have won and achieved more, few were ever as skilful, and certainly none were so good, they were named twice.
Name Augustine Azuka ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha
Age 36 (14/8/1973)
Position Attacking Midfielder
Clubs Borussia Neunkirchen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, Paris St Germain, Bolton Wanderers, Qatar SC, Hull City
Club level honours Turkish Super League 1996, Chancellor Cup 1998, Ataturk Cup 1998, Trophee des Championes 1998, Uefa Intertoto Cup 2001, Football League Cup Runner-up 2004, Premier League Asia Trophy 2005, Football League Championship Play-off 2008
National honours African Cup of Nations 1994, Afro-Asian Cup of Nations 1995, Olympic Games 1996