Could the mesmeric playmaker have played for and thrived in any of these Premier League-winning sides?
This heralded a period of dominance for the rest of the 90s, in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops came out on top in four of the next six years, thus winning five of the first seven titles following the English top flight’s revamp.
While Blackburn Rovers proved to be a flash in the pan with their 94/95 success under Kenny Dalglish, Arsene Wenger turned out to be a formidable adversary after his arrival in September 1996, and won the first of his three league titles with Arsenal in 97/98.
The Frenchman changed the culture at the North London club, which ultimately spread across the league, consequently silencing prior doubts about his competence.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, the Gunners’ London rivals were seemingly intent on breaking the duopoly that existed between the Red Devils and their city rivals.
The Blues’ rise began in the mid-to-late 90s, due to smart, relatively cheap purchases of experienced heads like Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola who possessed undeniable star power.
This process culminated in Roman Abramovich’s purchase of the club and subsequent Premier League success in the 2000s.
Prior to the West London club’s success, the previous era was dominated by three brilliant number 10’s, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Zola, at United, Arsenal and Chelsea respectively to transform the English game.
But could Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Okocha have played a part in that revolution instead of the flamboyant Frenchman at the Red Devils, the exceptional Dutch at Highbury or the diminutive Italian at the Bridge?
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) May 7, 2020
In fairness, it’d be difficult making a case for the mercurial Okocha, despite his genius and ingenuity. However, given the enormous talent the West African possessed, some observers may suggest that it was a surprise he wasn’t sought after as English sides looked for their perfect playmaker in the mid-90s.
Indeed, the success of Cantona’s move to the red half of Manchester had prompted many Premier League sides to scout players of a similar profile in Europe and South America.
Hitherto the ex-Leeds United’s man arrival, English sides usually lined-up in a basic 4-4-2, with attacks largely channelled down both flanks and crosses sent in to two big strong strikers to fight it out with opposing centre-backs. It worked domestically, but they suffered in Europe at the time owing to their antiquated tactical knowledge.
Okocha, at the time of Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford with the 92/93 campaign ongoing, was still a 19-year-old in his maiden season at Eintracht Frankfurt and perhaps wasn’t ready for that sort of responsibility.
However, three years later with the mercurial France star serving an eight-month ban from football for his assault on a Crystal Palace supporter, Sir Alex thought about signing Paul Gascoigne, one of the most talented English players of his generation, to replace the suspended attacker.
In reality, Gascoigne was not a pure number 10 but more dynamic than a typical playmaker, capable of running at a defence, setting up goals and scoring them.
As it turned out, the Englishman signed for Rangers in the summer of 1995, while the legendary Scot focused on convincing Cantona to stay…any potential Okocha move was dead in the water.
So, how about Arsenal and Chelsea?
The former’s move for the exceptional Bergkamp in August 1995 blocked the possibility of adding the Nigerian magician to the group at North London while Zola’s transfer to West London the following year shut the door at Stamford Bridge.
Of course, a transfer could still have happened in theory, however, it’d have been a waste of the African’s skillset to play him on the flanks or perhaps even in central midfield.
Players of Okocha’s profile were signed by Premier League managers at the time to give their side an advantage, and also find the ‘new Cantona’, given his feats at Man United.
Given most coaches at the time favoured a 4-4-2 with a flat backline, the playmaker imports to the English top flight were required to drop deeper and receive the ball between the lines (in the area behind the opponent’s midfield and in front of their defence) before wreaking havoc.
This made some managers switch from the aforementioned rudimentary tactic and formation to mostly adopt a 4-4-1-1, now accommodating a talented playmaker who was largely given carte blanche to do his thing.
However, Okocha wasn’t part of this era in England and joined Fenerbahce where he enjoyed two prolific campaigns, which foreshadowed an amazing World Cup showing in 1998.
— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) April 23, 2020
The Nigerian maverick’s brilliance at the finals was certified with Paris-Saint Germain’s decision to make him the most expensive African player at the time, where he’d then go on to form a brilliant partnership with Ronaldinho.
Cantona retired in 1997, and United signed Teddy Sheringham from Tottenham Hotspur as his replacement. In an alternate reality of ifs, buts and maybes, perhaps Okocha could’ve been the guy to fill the Frenchman’s boots at the Theatre of Dreams.
While Bergkamp was key to Arsenal till the mid-2000s, Zola departed Chelsea just before Abramovich’s purchase of the club in 2003.
A year earlier, PSG let the native of Enugu leave on a free transfer for Bolton Wanderers, where he was to transform the lowly Trotters from Premier League also-rans to the top six.
If events had turned out differently, and the Blues signed unaffiliated Okocha in 2002 to replace the Italian icon, the playmaker could have worked under a certain Jose Mourinho, who joined the club in 2004 and won back-to-back league titles.
Having enjoyed an amazing partnership with Deco at Porto, the Portuguese could, in theory at least, have appreciated Okocha’s ability and harnessed it early doors at the Bridge.
The upshot of this, however, is that Frank Lampard’s career may have been affected by the Nigerian’s presence, and consequently he’d probably not have become the club’s all-time top scorer and the Prem’s highest scoring midfielder.
In truth, the fantasy of having Okocha play for one of these Premier League winning sides persists, but it wasn’t to be.
Genius playmakers typified the early years of the English top flight, and it’s a shame the Nigerian maestro didn’t get to strut his stuff in England sooner than he did with that Bolton move in 2002.