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Eight White Stars at the Star Sixes

The former Wanderers gracing the turf once more in the Star Sixes Tournament

Lokomotiv Plovdiv v Bolton Wanderers
Jay-Jay Okocha. There are no words to describe this talent.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Last night, World Cup 1998 and European Championship 2000 winner Youri Djorkaeff was interviewed at the Sky Sports Star Sixes tournament. The man who appeared in FIFA’s Team of the Year in 1997, won everything there was to win in France both in Ligue 1 and at international level, turned to the camera, and gave a “special dedication” to “all the Bolton fans in the world – let’s go Wanderers!”

When you think about it, it’s truly mad. Here, amongst a collection of some of the world’s best footballers of the 1990s, was a true football legend reacquainting with the fans of a second tier English football team where he spent just three years of his 22 year career.

Former player tournaments are usually occupied by semi-obscure ex-professionals in the absence of actual footballing legends. England followed this trend, with Luke Young and Lee Hendrie appearing in the Three Lions’ four games, taking their total England caps from 8 to 12.

Other squads have taken the tournament far more seriously. Nowhere else in 2017 has the world seen Oliver Khan, Roberto Carlos, Juninho, Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero, Deco, Carles Puyol, Fernando Morientes and… Dominic Matteo sharing a football pitch.

What amazes even more than Youri’s incredible tribute to Wanderers fans is the sheer amount of ex-Wanderers in the Star Sixes tournament. No fewer than 8 ex-Wanderers have appeared thus far, and another two were perilously close to joining them in the golden era.

England: Emile Heskey is the only former Bolton player in the England squad. Not bad, when you consider that Michael Ricketts was the alternative. Heskey was signed by former boss Neil Lennon, which makes him something of an anomaly– most others are from the Allardyce era. Heskey had a so-so time at Wanderers, though his winning goal at home to Blackburn Rovers at the Macron Stadium was enough to leave many Wanderers fans looking back at Heskey’s time with the club with a smile.

Scotland: Man-mountain Colin Hendry signed for Sam Allardyce in 2000, initially on loan. Hendry was a key and experienced figure in the side which won promotion to the Premier League at the turn of the century. Hendry was commanding centre half with an unrivalled talent for scaring centre forwards into obscurity, and an ability to score impressive headers from corners. Former Premier League winner Hendry is well remembered by Whites fans, some achievement considering he is a former Rovers player also. Signing an aging talent with experience at higher levels of the game would be an Allardyce hallmark for the years to come.

Germany: Didi Hamman is an infamous Bolton Wanderers player, despite only ever officially being a Wanderer for 24 hours. Signed on a free from Liverpool, Hamman found out about Manchester City’s interest just hours too late, and got cold feet. Allardyce and then chairman Phil Gartside didn’t want to keep the Germany international at the club when it became clear that he didn’t want to be there, and sold Hamman immediately to Manchester City. Allardyce called the fiasco “the easiest £400,000 I ever made”. Hamman, to my knowledge, has never commented on this very short but fascinating period of his career.

Mexico: Jared Borgetti joined Bolton in 2005 from Pachuca for a fee of £1 million, becoming the first Mexican to play in the Premier League. Nicknamed the “Desert Fox” in his native Mexico, he came with a reputation for a prolific heading ability. Until this year, he was Mexico’s all-time top scorer, now replaced by ex-Manchester United striker Chicarito. Borgetti took the opportunity on his recent trip to England to visit the Macron Stadium with his family. For a player who spent just one season at Bolton Wanderers, the club clearly left its mark on him. Borgetti rarely got the opportunity to start in Allardyce’s Bolton side, making many of his 19 appearances from the bench or in the then-named UEFA Cup. He scored two goals in the Premier League, another two in the UEFA Cup and three goals in the FA and League Cups. After seven goals in his only season at Bolton, Borgetti was released, moving to Saudi Arabia.

France: Two ex-Wanderers grace the France squad: Youri Djorkaeff and Vincent Candela. Djorkaeff signed for Wanderers initially on loan from Kaiserslautern in 2002, his career seemingly petering out after a disappointing spell in Germany. Just two years after his European Championship winner’s medal, Djorkaeff’s transfer to a struggling Premier League team in the unfashionable North West of England turned heads. His exploits at the Reebok Stadium far exceeded anyone’s expectations, except Djorkaeff himself. In his short three season stay at Bolton Wanderers, he was a quiet but explosive talisman, often playing on the left wing of Sam Allardyce’s 4-3-3 formation. It was Djorkaeff’s bravery to take on the challenge of playing at Bolton which inspired others to follow. Djorkaeff now rightly occupies a starting place in any Wanderers fan’s Bolton Wanders all-time XI.

Vincent Candela joined Wanderers on loan from AS Roma in 2005 after 8 years in Rome, soon taking Simon Charlton’s then-cemented place in the team at left back. He played just 10 games for the Wanderers, but his wand of a left foot left a lasting impression on Sam Allardyce. In a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, he memorably went agonisingly close to breaking the crossbar supporting the goal facing the South Stand. Despite Big Sam’s best attempts to persuade Candela to remain at the Reebok, Candela chose to move back to Italy with Watford feeder club Udinese.

Denmark: Simon Charlton-lookalike Stig Tofting joined Bolton in the 2002-03 season. The “Lawn Mower” made 41 appearances for Denmark in his career, and came with a fearsome reputation for being the hardest man in football. Off the field, his circumstances were tragic- it emerged in the summer in which he signed for Wanderers that, as a child, his father had killed Tofting’s mother, before committing suicide. He certainly proved his hard man reputation was well-earned, but only made 14 appearances in his one year at the club. By 2007, he was assistant manager to former Wanderers boss Colin Todd at Randers FC. He also had a foray into boxing after his football career ended, a natural progression for one of the most feared men in football.

Nigeria: Now we get to the big one, Jay-Jay Okocha. No words can describe the magic of this man. In the 2002 World Cup, my dad and I had breakfast in Lanzarote, we were up early to watch England play Nigeria in the so-called “Group of Death”. We both had a keen eye on Okocha, who had been strongly linked with a move to the Reebok. The Nigeria captain was unplayable, tormenting England in their 0-0 draw, and nearly breaking the deadlock on the half hour mark with a stinging free kick at England goalkeeper David Seaman. We left with a belly full of Full English breakfast, a place in the last 16 of the World Cup, and a firm belief that in no way would Wanderers be able to sign a world class talent such as his. What did we know? I’m not going to explain what Okocha did for Bolton Wanderers, because words wouldn’t do him justice. People often say that Jay-Jay was “so good they named him twice”. Even that doesn’t go far enough. Without doubt, he is the best Bolton Wanderers player ever. And that goal at home to West Ham? If you know, you know.

The Nearly Men: Spain’s Joan Capedevila was offered to Bolton Wanderers by his agent in the summer of 2010. Then-gaffer Owen Coyle refused, replying to the offer of Spain’s left back that he “already had him” in Marcos Alonso. At the time, many thought Coyle was mad. When he signed for Fiorentina, many felt that Coyle’s madness was simply confirmed. Now, with Alonso winning titles at Chelsea, the Scot’s prediction doesn’t seem too far off, though he is still yet to make an appearance for his country above Under-19 level.

Finally, we come to the ultimate story of “what might have been” transfer saga – Rivaldo. In 2004, a deal was desperately close, the player himself admitting so to Brazilian press. However, one of the greatest Brazilian players of all time failed to agree personal terms with Bolton, eventually joining Olympiakos in Greece. Rivaldo would have been the pinnacle – the former Barcelona forward and Ballon D’Or winner would have ushered in a new level of superstar at the Reebok. However, Wanderers fans will always pine for what might have been. The other two of the Three Rs – Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, would almost certainly have joined him in the North West, and we would have won the Premier League, and been agonisingly beaten by a machine-like AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. Oh well, we’ll be back. Guys? Guys? I said we’ll be…Never mind.