Okocha knows only one way to save Bolton's big family

Premiership relegation fight: Two leading performers must seize moment as respective clubs face the drop
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If in the desperate last few minutes of Bolton's final match of the season, they have to protect a lead to stay in the Premiership, Jay-Jay Okocha will not be taking the ball to the corner flag and shielding it with his body as an Alan Shearer might. In similar circumstances, in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal which proved so pivotal to both teams, the African Footballer of the Year flicked the ball over his head and juggled it beyond a bewildered Ray Parlour.

If in the desperate last few minutes of Bolton's final match of the season, they have to protect a lead to stay in the Premiership, Jay-Jay Okocha will not be taking the ball to the corner flag and shielding it with his body as an Alan Shearer might. In similar circumstances, in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal which proved so pivotal to both teams, the African Footballer of the Year flicked the ball over his head and juggled it beyond a bewildered Ray Parlour.

"That's me; that's my own way of running the clock down," he smiled. "I have the confidence that I won't make a mistake. If we are comfortable, you can expect something similar from me. It's a game, not a war.

"The way I learned to play was to go out there and enjoy myself. I never knew that one day I would be a professional. In Europe it is different. They start playing for club sides even at the age of nine but in Africa we don't have that opportunity, we just play for the fun of the game. That's where I learned my tricks and my technique. Having to do it on bad pitches helped, too."

For tomorrow's decisive match against Middlesbrough in which they must match West Ham's result at Birmingham to survive, Bolton have tried collectively to relax. Their manager, Sam Allardyce, who has promised to dance on the pitch with Okocha and Bernard Mendy should Bolton escape, said training had been "light-hearted". It does not always work. Allardyce admitted having had difficulty sleeping "and when you wake up it is the first thing that drops into your mind".

Bolton know that popular sentiment is running West Ham's way. It is perhaps because of Glenn Roeder's stroke, perhaps because of Trevor Booking, perhaps because the "academy of football" at Upton Park is contrasted with Bolton's "mercenaries", recruited on short-term contracts from Scandinavia, Africa or France.

The Times described Bolton as "unhealthy for English football". Little credit was given for bringing Okocha, the captain of Nigeria who cost Paris St-Germain £10m in 1998, or Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner in the same year, or Ivan Campo, a European Cup winner with Real Madrid, to a debt-laden club in a relatively obscure part of Greater Manchester.

Okocha, who since he was a teenager has been travelling around Europe plying his trade as a world footballer, has been relegated before, with Eintracht Frankfurt, an event which did not bother him so much as it would now. "I had a difficult time in Frankfurt, I was very young and did not know what it meant to be relegated. I was thinking of leaving the club anyway. Now I have a family and I want to stay but I will have to think about moving if we get relegated. It could be my last game."

Having nearly lost the chance of a contract because of a reported wage demand of £70,000 a week, Okocha began slowly, suffering a knee ligament injury in the first game of the season, a 4-1 drubbing by Fulham, which cost him two months of the season. "Before I came, I knew it was going to be difficult but, although it was a very big challenge, I thought I could handle it. But getting injured made my case harder; I was not only fighting to know what English football is like, I was also fighting for my fitness."

Lately he has dazzled; his goals were instrumental in victories over Newcastle, Tottenham, Manchester City and, most vitally of all, West Ham on 19 April, a stunning strike that should have seen Bolton safe, until the Hammers won their next three matches, an event nobody at Bolton foresaw.

He has been helped by Djorkaeff, whom Okocha describes as "a player who can understand you without saying anything". Their experience should be crucial tomorrow, although Allardyce is more cautious. "An older player can sometimes be more nervous than a younger one. In their light-hearted lives it's just another game of football but the older player realises the consequences."

The huge foreign contingent know the consequences only too well. "We are all professionals, we know what we are here for," Okocha said. "Sometimes in a club, if you have two or three foreigners, they spend all their time together but here most of the players are foreign so it's like a big family."

Last Saturday, Bolton had to play at Southampton minutes after they had watched West Ham beat Chelsea; an utterly draining experience which Allardyce hoped no team would have to go through again. "It was the first time I had felt that kind of pressure in my whole career," Okocha said. "We knew that if we lost our advantage over West Ham would disappear. It really affected me. On Sunday, we know we are playing for many people; for the town of Bolton, for the manager, and for ourselves because most of us have our future at stake."

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