The Premier League has seen hundreds, perhaps even thousands of great players since its conception in 1992. With the commercialisation, questionable kits and growing attendances came an influx of illustrious foreign talent. English football, arguably more so than ever, was where players from all over the world dreamt of playing.
A decade later and the Premier League was still growing, not only in terms of its commercial value but also in terms of the array of world-class talent on show to its increasingly global fan base.
Brazilian free-kick specialist Juninho had arrived on Teesside whilst, 100 miles South-West, Nigerian International Jay-Jay Okocha had just signed for Bolton Wanderers. After successful spells with Eintracht Frankfurt and Fenerbahce, the latter of which he averaged nearly a goal a game for, Okocha had experienced less success in France with PSG.
During his first season at The Reebok Arena, the Nigerian registered seven League goals as he became an integral part of the Wanderers’ side who successfully steered clear of relegation, also scoring the club’s goal of the season against West Ham. The following season, Okocha was named club captain after former skipper Guoni Bergsson retired. During the 2003/04 campaign, Okocha made his mark on English football.
After being given the armband, Okocha went onto guide his team to the League Cup Final, where they were beaten by Middlesbrough. Okocha’s eye for goal, coupled with his flair and skill the likes of which the Premier League had rarely seen, quickly endeared him to the Bolton faithful. At the end of his first season, he was labelled with the tagline ‘Jay-Jay Okocha – so good they named him twice’.
However, a year later Okocha was stripped of his captaincy, with rumours of a move to the Far East allegedly the reason for the change. At the end of that season, the move became a reality as he signed for Qatari side Qatar SC.
A year later, Okocha was back in English football, this time with Hull City, after turning down moves to Real Salt Lake and Sydney FC. He cited his reason for joining the Tigers as ‘god having told him to do so’. His debut season was not a successful one for him personally, despite the club being promoted to the top flight for the first time in their 104-year history. A series of injuries meant that Okocha only made 18 appearances during the entirety of the season, without registering a single goal.
Following Hull’s against-all-odds promotion to the big time of the Premier League, Okocha announced that his plans for retirement had been put on hold. Despite this, he was still released as he was deemed surplus to requirements, and later retired without finding another club.
Okocha’s international debut had come eight years before his move to the Premier League, in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat against Ivory Coast in 1993. A year later, he was part of the squad who were victorious in the African Cup of Nations, and also travelled to the U.S for the ’94 World Cup, having been instrumental in a 4-1 victory over Algeria that saw his side qualify.
In 1996, he was also part of the Nigeria squad that won Olympic gold in Atlanta, before also being named in the Team of the Tournament at the 1998 World Cup in France two years later. His last major tournament for the Super Eagles was in the 2000 ACON, where he scored three goals. He retired from international football in 2006, around the same time as his ill-fated move to Qatar.
In 2004, Okocha was named by Brazilian legend Pele as one of the 125 greatest living footballers. Whilst his career may have fizzled out in its latter stages during his spells in the Far East and with Hull City, the effect that he had on supporters was almost unprecedented. During his time in Germany, Turkey and England, as well as throughout his international career with The Super Eagles, Okocha fascinated supporters with his skill and flair, ability which players are still compared to today.