by Chris Glover
It never really seemed like it would happen to us.
Growing up watching Bolton you learn to idolise qualities such as grit, determination and leadership, while true technical ability and flair was something you were treated to on a Saturday night when the highlights of Zola, Bergkamp or Henry were televised. Sure, players like Eidur Gudjohnsen, Per Frandsen and Arnar Gunnlaugsonn had given us glimpses of brilliance, but they had always moved on before they hit their peak or had never quite reached the top level.
Things started to change with the arrival of Bruno N’Gotty and Youri Djorkaeff, but peaked when Jay-Jay Okocha made a shock arrival at the Reebok just after the 2002 World Cup. Yes, the very same Okocha who you had seen on Supergoals videos and signed on Championship Manager: a genuine star of world football, at the Reebok.
Finally, we had not just a hero, but a genius to call our own. For a supporter of a smaller team it’s hard to capture exactly how special it is to have a player of whom the opposition are genuinely terrified and would like nothing more than to call him their own. When holding onto a 2-2 draw with Arsenal we would no longer need the likes of Nathan Blake to hold up the ball, but instead could look forward to outrageous pieces of skill from the Nigerian wizard to keep the opposition at bay.
Suddenly we were an interesting team. Whether it was his laissez-faire attitude, crazy dances, or other-worldly skills, Jay-Jay made us relevant in a way that I had never experienced before. He also contributed some of the greatest moments in Reebok history, including the last minute penalty to beat Spurs, a stunning free kick to help send Bolton to the League Cup final and, of course, the greatest of them all . . .
I never have, and likely never will, understand what it means to watch your team score the goal that seals a title or brings home a piece of silverware; that is the deal you make when you sign up to support anyone not bank rolled by billionaires these days. A part of me doubts, however, that it could possibly be as good as staying in the league against all odds. The thoughts of cold trips back to Gresty Road on a Tuesday night as opposed to welcoming the likes of Henry or Zola to your ground makes the pressure almost too much to bear. When that Okocha goal went in against West Ham it was pure unadulterated joy, topped only by his post match interview when he summarised that Joe Cole had tried to foul him but wasn’t good enough to do so (The Hammers ultimately went down that year, while Bolton were safe once again).
The goal summed up what was great about Okocha and what is great about football. That one moment of pure ecstasy when you know everyone else wishes they could be a part of your experience and all your heartache and sleepless nights are instantly justified. 25,000 people instantly bonded by a ‘where were you when . . .” story to share for years to come.
Bolton have of course gone on to be relatively successful in the Premier League and are now an established team playing well again under Owen Coyle. The likes of Nicolas Anelka have been and gone and we’ve enjoyed trips to Bayern Munich and Marseille, but nothing will ever be quite as good as when Jay-Jay was around and the crowd had to pinch themselves and ask “is this really happening to us?” every time he took to the field.