Words: James Beardsworth
Images: Offside Sports Photography
A Carling Cup semifinal, the chance of silverware and a day out at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium: that’s the kind of opportunity any fan dreams about. Never mind an 8-year-old, who supports Bolton, who’d only ever seen his team lift the Play-Off trophy.
That night felt season-defining, but then, at 8-years-old, every game does: there’s no A Good Point Away From Home, or Ah, Forget It, I’ll Catch The Highlights, and there certainly was no such thing as a Mickey Mouse Cup.
After a day of dreaming and playground re-enactments, my dad, grandad, and I piled in the car for the two-mile journey down the road. Having parked in the usual semi-legal spot, an MOT station we’d buy a season pass for, we joined the procession down to the Reebok. A walk I’d done hundreds of times, and a walk my grandad had probably done thousands more. Well, that’s if you include our previous ground, Burnden Park. The ground’s irrelevant, these pre-match trundles were the same anywhere: predictions, programmes, another biased referee. It was always the same.
As we approached the ground, the nerves would start to set in. We were early as always, just how we liked it. Swapping the freezing night for the draughty concourse, my dad and grandad would head straight for the bar. Not for me, obviously, ten years off pint-legality. ‘See you at kick-off’, I’d say, heading straight to my seat, the warm-up would be starting any minute. The warm-up was a time you’d get to know the players a bit, the way they behaved, juggled the ball, you’d get a glimpse at each of their personalities, something you just wouldn’t get during the game. Jay-Jay was a joker; he’d saunter on and off the field, balancing the ball on his head, exchanging forty-yard volleys with Djorkaeff. It was a cold night, but watching that sort of skill was not weather dependent. Neither was scouting the opposition: who else was going to do this if not me? How could I be sure Big Sam and his clan of very-slightly-over-the-hill All-Stars could get a result until I’d seen the opposition striker sky one over in the shooting drill? Nothing was set in stone.
Villa were in town for what would be a tough game. They’d just knocked out Chelsea in the quarters and were probably going into the tie as favourites. They were good, but so were we. The stadium seemed quieter than usual; the patches of blue seats around the ground just weren’t a thing back in 2004. It would be five years before they’d really start to appear, on a Saturday, anyway. But tonight was a Tuesday, and we were on the tele. All shit excuses, if you ask me.
As the players disappeared then reappeared, so did my dad, right on cue, fresh Kronenbourg (another fancy continental introduction during Allardyce’s reign) and ready for kick-off. No sooner had we sat down from kick-off were we stood in angst watching Okocha poised over a free kick from thirty yards.
‘Reckon he’ll go for goal?’ was just not a question you asked when Okocha squared up to a free kick. It was going at goal, whether you liked it or not. As he strolled up to the ball, you wondered where the power was coming from, how a keeper couldn’t get across his goal from that kind of distance. As the ball whipped around the wall, bouncing, skidding on its way into the bottom corner, the Reebok for the first time that night, found its voice. It woke with a start. A free kick that should’ve easily been smothered by Sorensen found us 1-0 up inside the first two minutes. As Jay-Jay wheeled away to celebrate, one thing became clear: tonight was all about him.
But even for Jay-Jay, that night he played with a swagger I’d never seen on a football pitch. He just moved differently from anyone else; there were flicks, nutmegs, disrespectful celebrations, showboating of the absolute highest order. Jay-Jay taught me to love the game. As he stood over another free kick ten minutes from time, from a position that any mortal would deliver to the back post, Jay-Jay rifled it around the wall with the outside of his boot, the ball still accelerating as it hit the top right-hand corner. A free kick you’ll have to refer to Dr Roberto Carlos to explain the physics of. I don’t even think I was surprised anymore, that night I became desensitized from his brilliance—an 8-year-old boy who’d seen it all now. On his last game, before he disappeared off to represent the super-eagles at the 2004 AFCON, Bolton and Nigeria’s greatest-ever showman rose to the occasion, embodying just about everything you could possibly love about the game of football.
That was 15 years ago now. 15 years. Fucking hell. As I watched the Wanderer’s protests over Anderson and his crooked clan from the warmth of my living room on Monday night, I couldn’t help but just feel an overwhelming sadness of what has become of our club. If Jay-Jay embodied everything I love about football, then bastards like Anderson represent all that is shit. But I’m lucky; I got to see the rainbow flicks, the packed out Reebok, the European nights. My nephew, he’s been brought up on a diet of Will Buckley at the University of Bolton Stadium. It’s no wonder he has two clubs. We won’t talk about the other one.
In what finished a resounding 5-2 victory, Jay-Jay single-handedly crushed any Cup dreams Villa might’ve had. In what was undoubtedly the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in a Wanderers shirt, unaware as I was, my life as a Wanderer’s fan had climaxed. If I could go back and tell my 8-year-old self something now, it would be enjoy it, even more than I did then; don’t allow yourself to be desensitised to the brilliance unfolding in front of you, hold these moments even closer; because players like Jay-Jay don’t come around very often. And things wouldn’t be getting any better, not for a long time anyway.
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