Celebrating Okocha’s magical Bolton Wanderers team

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The relegation of Wimbledon and Watford in 1999/00, two overly direct teams, seemingly marked the death of route one football in the Premier League, until Sam Allardyce came along with his Bolton Wanderers side in 2001/02.

At the time, Jay-Jay Okocha was still plying his trade for Paris Saint-Germain, the club who made him the most expensive African player in a £14 million deal in 1998.

The Nigerian playmaker joined the Bolton revolution on a free transfer after the 2002 World Cup as PSG didn’t take up the option of renewing his contract.

The idea of Allardyce and Okocha joining forces was a strange one, owing to their contrasting styles: the English manager was intent on bringing back old school British football to a changing Premier League that was gradually becoming more global, while the skilled artist was a mesmeric showman who simply wanted to have fun after crossing the white line.

For his part, the talented Super Eagle was so excited about playing in England that he probably didn’t hesitate with his decision to play for the Bolton icon.

As it turned out, the next four seasons were thrilling for the West African star who thrived in Allardyce’s system.

Sam Allardyce Sunderland Newcastle Premier League 25102015

Their style was degradingly tagged 'hoof ball' by naysayers, who felt exasperated by the swathe of long balls the Trotters played into dangerous areas. However, even though it seemed that way, there was a lot of method to the perceived madness that was witnessed on most weekends.

While what was often experienced on matchdays wasn't easy on the eye football, it was the result of several hours spent poring through clips of the opposition, trying to find strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to prevent the former and exploit the latter.

Allardyce perfected this in his time at the club, and it is to his credit that after finishing in the bottom five in their first two campaigns back in the big time, the Wanderers ended in the top eight for the next four years.

The English manager took football back to basics, and while this irked many, it tended to bring out the best in his signings, Okocha inclusive.

Under the ex-defender, the Nigerian formed a major part of a side that possessed more technical players than they were given credit for, but also perfected their direct style of play.

Okocha and Frenchman Youri Djorkaeff, who signed months before the ex-Nigeria star, playing at the Reebok Stadium was a big deal for fans given they were thrilled by both exciting imports who gave the side a bit of guile in the final third.

Austin Okocha

Allardyce also added Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro, multi-time Champions League winners from Real Madrid whose exquisite passing ranges highlighted how the manager’s ethos wasn’t just about destroying the game plan of the opponent.

Furthermore, the addition of Stelios Giannakopoulos in 2003 gave the side added bite in attack owing to his propensity to time his runs into the box intelligently to score, while Kevin Nolan’s prowess at attacking second balls was equally impressive.

Still, the grit of Kevin Davies, a target man whose presence was nearly every centre-back’s nightmare, made Bolton’s strategy even more effective. On many occasions, the Trotters played balls forward to the striker knowing full well his physical presence would be a handful to their opponents’ rearguard.

Even though the Englishman averaged eight goals in the Premier League for the side from Greater Manchester, what he contributed to the side shouldn't be watered down by his modest numbers.

Many of the aforementioned were in the Bolton side that made it to the League Cup final in 2003/04 but fell to a 2-1 defeat by Middlesbrough.

Jay-Jay Okocha of Bolton and Ali Benarbia of Man City

While it took a collective effort to make the Wanderers an established top flight side, Okocha’s influence in making the club regular in the top eight saw him named captain at the start of his second season.

Indeed, the Nigerian turned out to be more than just a tricky showboater for Bolton, taking their 02/03 season by the scruff of the neck to score an important strike in a 2-0 victory over Sunderland, a late winning penalty against Tottenham Hotspur, an incredible winning goal in a 1-0 success over West Ham United and the winner on the final day at Middlesbrough’s expense.

The aforementioned four of the playmaker’s seven league goals came in the final nine games of the campaign, which helped the Wanderers retain their top flight status.

He not only led Bolton to their first final in nine years, but also captained the side in their Uefa Cup sojourn in 05/06 where they reached the Last 32 on their first taste of European football.

Allardyce’s men may not have been the most eye-catching side to watch, but with players like Okocha in his ranks, the Englishman transformed an unfancied side from Greater Manchester into one of the most consistent teams in the Premier League.