Legendary Substitute Appearances: Stephano Okako
Geoff Wicken starts a look at those who have come on and changed a game
There can be no argument that Heiðar Helguson’s 36 minutes on the pitch against Leicester City in 2009 represents one of the great all-time substitute appearances (see YBR! 36). But recalling it got me thinking. Who are the other contenders? There’s surely a place in the pantheon for Stefano Okaka.
There are so many games that don’t stick in the memory. Looking back at a distance it’s often hard to distinguish one from another. Just sometimes, though, you see a game that transcends the norm in every way. Our game against West Ham United at the London Stadium in September 2016 was one that just kept on giving. Stuff happened, then more stuff happened, then – when it scarcely seemed possible that even more stuff could happen – we got to enjoy a truly legendary substitute appearance. It lasted little more than ten minutes, but was a classic of the art. Okaka, making his debut, produced a vignette of true magnificence.
But we’ll come to that. There was so much else to digest first.
That summer, West Ham had moved into the Olympic Stadium – or the London Stadium as it was to become known. This was only their second home League match, so presented an early opportunity to take in a new away match venue. I’d hoped to visit during the London Olympics in 2012 and, along with many, had entered the ballot for lots of Games events. But I only got tickets for one of them, and it wasn’t at the Olympic Stadium – rather, they were for an afternoon volleyball session at Earls Court. Not the hottest tickets in town. Hell, you could go there for the Ideal Home Show. I remember nothing of the day, not even which countries’ teams were involved, save for the train journey from Watford Junction. Shortly before we reached Kensington Olympia, Jarvis Cocker got onto our carriage and sat diagonally opposite. When I caught his eye, he did that National Treasure thing of giving the slight nod that says ‘Yes, I am who you think I am, and thank you for not broadcasting it to everybody’.
In September 2016, with the Olympic Stadium now converted for football, one’s immediate impression was that it wasn’t optimal for that purpose. Not least, too many seats were too far from the pitch. West Ham’s fans, with a longstanding reputation of being a tad unruly, certainly hadn’t got used to the place. They were even fighting with each other over the seating arrangements – West Ham later announced that 13 of them had been banned for life for misbehaviour that afternoon.
As for the match, West Ham took a 2-0 lead with two headers by Michail Antonio, both set up by Dimitri Payet, the second with a rabona cross that was as unnecessary as it was showy. The Watford reaction followed. First, Odion Ighalo rolled back the years – well, the months – to 2015. Dancing into the box, he fired off a shot which deflected in off James Collins. Soon after, confusion between Collins and goalkeeper Adrián allowed Troy Deeney to score with a technically beautiful chip from the side of the penalty area. You remember the one.
So, 2-2 at half-time. In the second half Étienne Capoue put us ahead and José Holebas made it 4-2. Isaac Success (on as a substitute) should also have scored, if I recall. But that was true in plenty of games.
Then came Stefano. He took the field as a substitute for Deeney after 78 minutes and rushed around like a madman, harrying defenders and making a complete nuisance of himself. He immediately set up Roberto Pereyra for a run on goal. From the resulting Watford corner he bundled the ball in, only to see his effort ruled out for offside – wrongly. He carried on. He was called offside again, committed a foul, had another shot saved, and was shown a yellow card for protesting too vehemently. All this in ten minutes on the pitch.
He then treated us to a final flourish, by pulling a hamstring and having to go off injured. (We wouldn’t see him again for more than two months). With all the substitutes used, this left Watford playing the four minutes of added time with ten men. These passed without hazard, and we came home with a win that was memorable in a great many ways. Stefano Okaka’s inspired substitute performance was the perfect conclusion to it.