In 1996, some of Europe’s biggest clubs were angling to sign Mark Fish.
Fish had just starred as part of the South Africa team that made history by winning the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil after a 33-year exile from the international game.
A former striker successfully converted into a defender, Fish’s exploits for Bafana Bafana had several major clubs in the hunt for his signature.
There was tentative interest from Bayern Munich, though ultimately it was Lazio and Manchester United who ended up vying for his signature.
“I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson and actually watched Manchester United play against Everton on a Monday night,” Fish recalls.
Ferguson told the defender he had come highly recommended by Sir Bobby Charlton, who had watched him play for South Africa, but Ferguson still needed some convincing.
“He wanted me to train with them for a few weeks, acclimatise to the weather and the way his team played,” Fish said. While the South African appeared happy with the offer, his agents told him he was under obligation to speak to Lazio.
When he arrived in Rome, he found an entirely different situation awaiting him. “They just wanted to sign me straight away,” Fish says. “So that was it.”
A tough season
“For me, the attraction was Serie A. I was a Serie A fan in the 90s. It was the best league in the world with the best players playing there,” he explains. “Obviously as a defender that’s the place where you want to go and learn your trade.”
The prospect of playing under the attack-minded manager Zdenek Zeman also appealed. “Manchester United played a 4-4-2 under Ferguson,” he says. “Whereas when I played in the national team it was more of a 3-5-2.”
Zeman was a famed proponent of an attacking 4-3-3 formation throughout his time as a manager, with his teams characterised by their propensity to score lots of goals and ship plenty too. “Zdenek allowed us to express ourselves on the field,” Fish recalls.
Unfortunately, that expression didn’t translate into consistent form. A 2-1 defeat to Bologna on January 26 proved the final straw for the Lazio board, who had spent big in the hopes of propelling the team up the table. Zeman was fired with the Biancocelesti 12th.
After a summer in which six new players including Pavel Nedved and Paul Okon had joined, Fish felt Zeman should have been given more time.
“He had a tough start to the season. Zeman had put together what I thought was a strong team but because there were so many new players, we didn’t really gel from the beginning.”
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A few days after Zeman’s dismissal, Fish turned out in a Europe XI v Africa XI friendly at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. By the time he returned to Rome, his Lazio career was as good as over.
“Dino Zoff came in when I wasn’t here. He picked his team and they went on to perform really well. Not only in that game but for the rest of the season,” he says. “I only managed a couple more appearances which just wasn’t enough for me to stick around.”
Fortunately, fate had other ideas. In May 1997, Fish turned out for South Africa in a friendly against England at Old Trafford. Sitting in the stands was Bolton manager Colin Todd. He liked what he saw.
Bolton had finished 18 points clear at the top of Division One the previous season but Todd was eager to bolster his defensive ranks having finished bottom with the Trotters during their inaugural Premier League season back in 1996. Fish didn’t take much convincing.
“I jumped at the chance to join them and play in the Premier League,” he says. “The team had been promoted, there was a new stadium, it was exciting times.”
The £2.5 million Bolton paid that summer looked like money well spent after Fish put in an imperious display to keep Manchester United – and, more specifically, Andy Cole – at bay in a 0-0 draw at the Reebok.
“That’s a fond memory because obviously there was a chance I was going to sign for them. That was a good United side who went on to challenge for everything that season.”
Ultimately, his debut season would end in disappointment with Bolton going down just behind Everton on account of their inferior goal difference. It was frustrating, not least because Bolton had scored a legitimate goal against Everton that was missed by officials.
That game ended in a draw and is a continued source of ire among Trotters fans. Fish, who had yet to sign for Bolton when the game was played, remains philosophical about it.
“Times have changed. Goal-line technology has come in now. A lot of fans will bring that up but I don’t think of it as a turning point.,” he says, “I can think of a lot of games where the team just didn’t turn up when we should have and maybe we would have stayed up this season.”
Despite dropping back down to Division One, Fish stayed on and recalls enjoying the rough and tumble of playing in the second tier. “It was a different challenge because you were trying to get back up. There were a lot of games and a lot of travelling but I loved it,” he says.
Todd guided the team to the playoff final but they would suffer defeat to Watford at Wembley. A slow start to the 1999-2000 campaign coupled with the sale of influential midfielder Per Frandsen to Blackburn proved the final straw for the manager, who departed soon after.
“Sam Allardyce came in. He wanted us to get the ball in the air. Work it down the line and get crosses into the box. It took him five or six games to realise he didn’t have those types of players. In the end, he adapted his system. But it worked.”
Fish and Bolton would suffer semi-final heartache on three fronts in 2000, losing in the last four of the playoffs, League Cup and FA Cup.
Despite this, the South African has nothing but positive memories from his time there. “We lost the finals and playoffs at Wembley but the whole Bolton experience was something that I cherished. The Bolton fans took to me as a person and the players took to me as part of the team.”
Life moves on
His time with the Trotters would end on a sour note, however. With Fish’s contract running down and an offer on the table from Charlton, he became embroiled in a dispute with Allardyce who accused him of “not wanting to play” for the club and trying to force the move.
“I don’t like what happened,” Allardyce told a local newspaper at the time. “He’s left, he’s gone, he’s history now. We couldn’t hold onto him any longer after his performances since the contract business broke down. I just didn’t want to play him any longer.”
Bolton had already sold Eidur Gudjohnsen and Claus Jensen that summer in an attempt to balance the books and the sale of Fish, who was one of the club’s highest earners, made sense in that respect. Fish has previously spoken about being pressured by Allardyce to sign a new deal, despite Charlton’s interest.
Though he acknowledges the treatment meted out to him was not fair, he’s made peace with Allardyce in the years since.
“I spoke to him when we played against Bolton when I played for Charlton and on a radio show a couple of years ago. Life moves on.
“At the time I was very disappointed with what was said and how it was treated… what happened at the time wasn’t pleasant, but what’s done is done.”
Fish moved on to Charlton and a five-year stint in South London that he looks back on fondly.
“We had some brilliant young players coming through like Scott Parker and Paul Konchesky,” he said. “Alan Curbishley was very tactically astute and very good at getting the best out of players.
“I remember Chris Powell went on to become one of the oldest guys to ever represent England as a player. So much of that was down to Curbishley and his staff knowing how to maximise the talents of these players.”
Curbishley left Charlton in 2006, a year after Fish had departed the club. Fish admits it was “a little bit of a surprise that he left” but acknowledges the Addicks boss was part of a dying breed of managers to remain in charge for such an extended period of time.
“Only a few coaches stay 10 to 20 years like he did. Maybe you get to a point where you’ve been in a place long enough and you need another challenge, a new challenge. Unfortunately that doesn’t always equal success.”
The grass is greener
Asked whether he thinks the fact Charlton repeatedly missed out on qualifying for Europe in those glory years may have affected things, Fish appears unsure, suggesting that perhaps some of the team’s emerging stars may have stayed there a little longer.
Charlton got particularly close during the 2003-04 campaign when they occupied the Champions League and UEFA Cup qualification places for much of the season before a slump in form saw them drop to seventh.
“It would have been special for the club,” Fish says. “Maybe that was what Curbishley was looking for. It all goes hand in hand. Players move to other clubs because they think the grass is greener on the other side.”
Fish doesn’t recall his toughest opponent but he has fond memories of playing against Thierry Henry cutting in from the wing, having to deal with the physical presence of Alan Shearer or knowing Duncan Ferguson was “going to elbow you.”
“My whole career, whichever club I went to, I had different experiences. I just tried to make the most of it,” he says. “The players I have played with and against and the different cultures I have experienced are what I have enjoyed the most.”
This interview was originally published in February 2022.