Nobody was safe from the dressing room banter in Wanderers’ famous League of Nations – but Jay-Jay Okocha may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew when he took on El-Hadji Diouf.
Speaking to the Lion of Vienna podcast, Tunisian defender Radhi Jaidi recalls an occasion when Okocha was ribbing his team-mate for a T-shirt he wore under his kit, which bore a printed photo of a religious figure from Senegal.
Needless to say, while he got the better of plenty of Premier League defenders in his day, on this occasion Jay-Jay came off second best.
“Diouf when he scored a goal he’d take off his shirt and show another white shirt with a person on it, and that was a superstition,” explained Jaidi. “It’s someone really valued back in Senegal, spiritually, and probably at the level of God, or something like that.
“Jay-Jay was making fun of him in the changing room about the picture but Diouf warned him that it could go back on him, it can put him in trouble.
“The next day, by chance, Jay-Jay came back to training with swollen lips. I don’t know what happened, whether it was his teeth or something, but Diouf was saying ‘I told you!’ It was a curse.
“We all enjoyed it. We were all friends and that is what made the dressing room successful.”
Tales of Diouf’s time at Bolton are plentiful – the clothes, the controversy, the parking tickets – and Sam Allardyce was one of the few managers able to offset all that with consistent performances on the pitch.
Though branded a flop at Liverpool, where he had once cost £10million, Diouf became a cult hero at Bolton – and a different person to the one often portrayed in the headlines, believes Jaidi.
“He is a very clever person,” he said. “He is an interesting character and you have to have the right observational skill for you to deal with him.
“El-Hadji Diouf on the pitch and in the games was totally different to outside. Being around him in the changing room was always entertaining, as I’m a quiet person who likes to watch people.
“He has his own strengths and weaknesses as a character but you have to accept him as he is.
“I don’t think that was the case on the pitch sometimes, though.”
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Jaidi became the first Tunisian to play in the Premier League when he joined Wanderers in July 2004, having previously turned down overtures from West Ham United. His desire to win the African Champions League with Tunis giants Esperance meant he stayed on home soil until well into his twenties.
And though the big centre half adapted quickly to life on the pitch, he admits times were harder for those around him.
“When I came to Bolton I was 27 and some in Tunisia told me it was too late – they were finishing their careers at 27, so it was surprising,” he explained. “But it was a success because I was the first Tunisian to play in the Premier League and at the same time that age helped me to deal with the social and cultural challenges, and to adapt to the level of the league.
“My family – wife and daughter – struggled a bit. I go to train on a daily basis and enjoy it but my wife had to shift all our connections, new friends, new neighbours, new environment. It was tough.
“I went into training and had new friends, could ask questions and Bolton Wanderers made it really easy. Sam had a player liaison officer who helped us inside and outside the training ground and gave our family support.
“In football it was easy. It was an international language.”
Jaidi quickly developed a reputation for being a threat in the opposition box and scored three times in his first eight appearances, grabbing five goals in his debut season in England.
The most famous – his first – came in Wanderers’ penultimate trip to Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium.
In the matter of a few weeks, Bolton had beaten Liverpool, been cruelly denied three points by a late, late equaliser against Manchester United and headed to North London hungry to bloody the nose of another of the Premier League’s giants.
Jaidi remembers his part well.
“We were losing 1-0 and Jay-Jay had a corner and I smashed the ball into the net – the power and the sensation, it released by little bit of timidity,” he said. “It was my second game in England, I was new, but the goal came at a good time to give me the confidence and power to showcase my potential and enjoy myself.
“Every time I watch that goal back I get goose bumps.
“The celebration always makes me laugh. I didn’t prepare any celebration and didn’t know what to do. I was never good at that, anyway.
“I enjoy being involved in the set plays and Bolton Wanderers scared everyone at that time, even the biggest teams.
“I enjoyed practising the headers and scoring goals but also in the game I’d try to have a positive impact.
“It’s been my strength since I was in Tunisia.”
Wanderers would qualify for Europe in Jaidi’s first season, and the squad assembled by Allardyce in 2004/05 may very well be the best Bolton side of the modern era.
Bolton would finish above Manchester City, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Newcastle United, and level on points with fifth-placed Liverpool, who would qualify for the Champions League.
They did all that despite going on the top flight’s longest losing run of six games in mid-season, a dip Jaidi can remember well.
“I was proud alongside my team-mates, taking Bolton into Europe. I was proud to be a part of that process. It was a historical moment,” he said.
“If you go back to the start of the season and say Bolton were going to get into Europe, some people probably would have laughed at you.
“We had a setback during December, which is normal for the lower and mid-table teams, but straight away we picked up in January. The key game was Birmingham away – we went through a good psychology week with the staff and Sam Allardyce. We discussed potential issues that we had to sort out. We had good leaders in the team from Gary Speed, Jay-Jay, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo.
“We won that game 2-1 and started a good run of wins, home and away, and from there we gained points and gained places in the table.
“The last game against Everton at home, we won 3-2, I scored, and we confirmed qualification, so it was an amazing run.”
Jaidi, who now coaches Hartford Athletic in the US, would enjoy mixed success in his second full season at Bolton. Contractual wrangles and added competition in the centre of defence meant his position was no longer secure, and the following summer he joined up with Steve Bruce’s Birmingham City.
“The 2005/06 season was difficult for me, personally, I had an injury and I wasn’t involved in all the games and if I go back and reflect on my state, I was emotionally disappointed,” he said.
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“For Sam the clean sheets were the key. I remember in 2005 the only issue was that I wanted to be involved continuously, and I asked about that, which is normal, but he saw things in a different perspective. I accept that.
“I was preparing for the 2006 World Cup as well so if you have the national team manager asking you why you are not playing on a weekly basis, you cannot tell him he wants to rotate, you have to keep that consistency as an international player. I couldn’t really find a solution.
“I still speak to Sam now. But the difference of opinion is normal.
“I didn’t want to leave Bolton and if Sam had told me I’d be picked depending on my performance I would have stayed, my family loved Bolton.
“Unfortunately a footballer’s life is not always stable and you have to move in different directions.”
Jaidi also played for Southampton in a career that extended well beyond his thirties, eventually being offered a coaching position at St Mary’s.
The relationship between the Saints and Hartford enabled the 44-year-old to take his first senior coaching position, albeit his opening game was cancelled after a successful pre-season thanks to the coronavirus lockdown.
“in the back of my head I always wanted to be a first team manager,” he said.
“We all know the gap between the Under-23s and senior level is big, especially if you want to coach and manage in the Premier League but obviously I prepared a plan A and plan B, and this opportunity came along because of the partnership between the two clubs – Southampton and Hartford – so that’s what encouraged me to come along to the USA.
“I had never thought about going to the USA but when the opportunity came, I took it. I saw potential and benefit from it, personally.”
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