Okocha helps to light Bolton's path to success

Carling Cup final: Millennium Stadium the stage for a happy wanderer to spread the word and appease faithful fans

Beneath his unzipped tracksuit top a large black crucifix dangles on a thick silver chain. It's enough to stop Dracula in his tracks, and prompts an inevitable question for Jay-Jay Okocha regarding the strength of his faith. "I'm a Christian - it was the way I was raised - and I do pray a lot," explains the Bolton Wanderers and Nigeria captain. "At least once a day. That may be in the hotel before a game, which is why I prefer a room on my own."

He smiles broadly, realising the possible implications of what he is saying. "It's not that I walk around with a Bible or go to people's houses to preach. I'm not insisting that my way's the best way, or try to change them so that they follow me. I've not tried to convert anyone." He issues one of his booming laughs, not dissimilar to Frank Bruno's. "Maybe I should try that. But it works for me."

If there's a born-again element to Augustine (Jay-Jay) Okocha's life, it exists in his football. Two seasons at the Reebok have, as he enters his thirties, reinvigorated a man who is as well travelled as Michael Palin. And it may not be over, with his contract due to expire at the end of this season. He must have thought that the Wanderers were named especially for him. Yet we all recall the cynical observations when he was first acquired by manager Sam Allardyce.

On the one hand, the African's sublime skills and trickery on the ball; on the other, the pragmatism of Bolton Wanderers attempting to retain their Premiership status. The two didn't appear to complement each other at all. The principal question was simply: how long would it last? Okocha concedes that assimilation into Allardyce's regime was not always comfortable. "Even before I signed here, people were expecting me to go to a bigger club, but when I had the opportunity to play in the Premiership and spoke to the manager, he made it clear how ambitious the club is," Okocha recalls.

"It was my decision to come here and I always knew that it was going to be very difficult. But no, I never thought about going home. I was unfortunate that I was injured on my debut, and that set me back." Okocha, 30, adds: "It was the only opportunity I had to play in the Premiership and I wasn't scared of the challenge. I'm pleased with the way things have gone so far. Of course, it's always nice to play for a bigger team, to be contesting the title or in the Champions' League, rather than trying to avoid relegation. But I am pleased the team has established itself in the Premiership."

Bolton are also contesting the Carling Cup final in today's engagement of the English managers, but one in which foreign flair and improvisation will be a major factor. Okocha does not promise to conjure anything special. "I'd prefer for us to play ugly and win," he maintains, although you suspect the Millennium Stadium stage will persuade him to exhibit some of his idiosyncratic ball skills when the occasion demands it.

Bolton qualified, albeit narrowly with that 5-2 home victory over Aston Villa, followed by the 2-0 defeat at Villa Park, while he was away at the African Cup of Nations. "I was trying to focus on my games over there, but I kept in contact with Sam, and I spoke to my wife, who had watched the game at Villa Park, about 20 minutes afterwards, and she was still suffering from nerves," Okocha says. "She told me, 'It's a good job you didn't see the game'. It was also the same day that we lost our first game in the [African Nations] tournament [1-0 to Morocco], so it was good for me to learn that we [Bolton] had made it through to the final."

Nigeria were defeated in their semi-final by the hosts and eventual winners, Tunisia. Okocha's team ended the tournament in third place, and he secured the Best Player award. He is also a contender for African Player of the Year, to be presented in April. Afterwards, he and his team were presented to his country's president. It was suggested that what he had achieved for Nigeria over the years entitled him to a palace, at the very least.

Again, his booming laugh. "No, all we got was a presidential handshake." He adds: "It was difficult for me to go away. The atmosphere, the team and the way we play was different to what I'm used to here, so it was difficult. It was also difficult to come back and adjust here."

What he has returned to is considerable conjecture about his own, and his manager's, future. The outcome of today's final could have a significant effect on both. Allardyce has been linked with a Manchester City vacancy should Kevin Keegan resign or be dismissed, while Okocha has yet to renew his contract with Bolton, causing speculation that he may end his career elsewhere.

Celtic, Tottenham and Frankfurt are among the clubs who could compete for his signature, reportedly for around £1.5m a year, if he fails to conclude a new agreement with Wanderers. Allardyce had earlier said: "Every one of the squad have won themselves a new deal. We will start with Jay-Jay, but he may be too expensive."

However, the player who stresses that Carling Cup victory and qualification for Europe next season would not influence his decision, insists: "I've had a great two seasons here, and hopefully we can sort something out so that I can stay. What I like here is the family atmosphere. Everyone at the club has one ambition and we all work together. When I was at Paris [Saint-Germain] it was a big club, and nobody really cared about each other. We didn't have that same team spirit." He adds: "I'd prefer to get it sorted out and behind me, so that I know what I'm doing next season. But if one door shuts, I'm sure another one will open."

On form, there will be no lack of clubs hammering on his door, although much would presumably depend on whether Allardyce is enticed away. Okocha says not. "I respect him as a good manager, and of course he brought me to Bolton, but I don't feel like I owe him anything," Okocha retorts. "I'm playing for Bolton. Not for Sam. Bolton are the ones paying my bills. In football, situations can change. He may go to a better place; he may get sacked. Whatever happens, the club is still there." And a better place, too, with Okocha's input. The man who introduced a magic wand to the Wanderers.

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