Football: Fish prepares for life in a smaller pond

Guy Hodgson meets Bolton's flamboyant South African defender, a cult figure on two continents who is determined not to repeat the mistakes of last season
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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL LIKES its piscatory terms, as in FA Cup minnows, transfer catches and even Eric Cantona's seagulls and trawlers. But the fishy business will come to a climax on two occasions this season when Bolton Wanderers meet Grimsby Town (the first occasion a week tomorrow), and the stands will resemble Billingsgate Market.

Grimsby, nicknamed the Mariners, naturally, still have their "Harry the Haddock" effigies, but Bolton fans know their plaices too - all thanks to one player, Mark Fish. In his native South Africa, his supporters carry the real things skewered on sticks, but thankfully, if only for the sake of the nostrils, the Wanderers fans stick to synthetic hats.

They also issue a sinister sounding hiss when ever Fish gets the ball which, to the uninitiated, sounds rather like abuse. Rather, it is "Feeeeesh", borrowed from the South Africans and issued in the accent of his country.

It goes without saying that Fish, a swashbuckling centre-back, is a cult figure on two continents and will be one of the most colourful figures in the First Division this season. He would have preferred to be similarly extrovert in the Premiership, but thanks to Bolton's last-day collapse against Chelsea in May, it will be at Bury and Tranmere, rather than Blackburn and Tottenham, where his surges forward will be seen.

"It'll be a different experience for me," he said with some understatement, as he was playing in the World Cup only six weeks ago. "I'll be visiting grounds I never dreamt of going to. It's going to be hard, but as long as we can motivate ourselves I'm sure we can get promoted. It's a challenge and that's why I stayed here, I want to get Bolton straight back so we can forget about last season."

Forget? Fish's senses are only just clearing so that he can remember. In a tearful dressing-room at Stamford Bridge the disappointment was too raw. "It's easier to look back now than then," he said. "I was totally devastated, wishing that I could have played more times for Bolton than I did because on several occasions I'd had commitments with South Africa.

"Getting relegated on goal difference is very hard to take. You think of times when the ball hit the post or when we dropped points when we shouldn't have done. Most of all, though, I was upset that we didn't put up a good enough fight on the last day.

"We always believed that we were a mid-table team and we were, if you judged us by the performances we put up at the Reebok Stadium. Our problem was our away form. I don't know if we felt inferior to the teams we played against but we just didn't perform, right up to the last day of the season. That led to our downfall."

For Fish, 24, failure hitherto this had been an alien concept, but one that he would suffer again at France 98. The centre-back, whose instincts to attack have had him likened to a latterday Franz Beckenbauer, won his first of 40 caps for South Africa in 1993 and is very much a national hero.

Not many white men are venerated in Soweto but Fish is - as much as anything because he epitomises the changing concepts of his country. When he was young he eschewed the "white" sports of rugby union and cricket to play football, which then was considered to be the sport of the townships.

Typically of the apartheid times, he found no problems with his black team-mates at club or country level but was not acknowledged by his old school when he won international caps, and was only invited back when he became a renowned member of the African Nations' Cup-winning team. His response, not surprisingly, was forthright: "I didn't go back and I never will."

He would gladly revisit the World Cup, though, even if his country's first brush with the finals was a mixed one. South Africa won one and lost two matches, failing to qualify for the second round, and although Fish found the experience "everything I dreamt of: the hype, the excitement, the people" the squad was not a happy one.

There were arguments with the South African Football Federation over money, but most of all there was deep unhappiness among the players because Clive Barker, the coach who had guided the team to France, had resigned four months before the finals. His replacement, Philippe Troussier, was not a popular choice.

"He wasn't the right man for the job," Fish said. "He didn't understand our mentality; Africans are different to Europeans, and that was the biggest problem. We had a lot of players who wanted to go home, who didn't want to be in France, because of the situation our federation had put us in.

"Clive Barker understood us. He made each man feel he was the best player in the world and that's why we performed for him. The Frenchman was entirely opposite."

It was Barker who described Fish as the most irritating player he had worked with, but the erstwhile national coach also said: "He is not the first player on my team-sheet. He is my first, second and third."

Fish smiled at the references. "It's my style of play. I remember him saying once, `This is a very important game, concentrate on defending', and the first time I got the ball I charged forward in attack. I was young in mind and heart and I did my own thing, but I learnt a lot from him."

Did he give Colin Todd, who paid pounds 2m to bring him to Bolton from Lazio, similar palpitations? "He'd seen me play and one of the reasons why he signed me was because I provide an option in attack; I don't think he wanted me to change too much. In the First Division he just wants me to be more careful, to pick my times when I go."

The more circumspect Fish will be unveiled at Crystal Palace tomorrow, a match between two relegated teams who, if last season is a precedent, will be among the front-runners in the First Division this time. For Bolton, who amassed 100 goals and 98 points en route to the championship in 1996- 97, the expectation is greater.

"A lot of people will put Bolton among the favourites because of the way they went up two years ago," Fish said. "But it's a different team and everyone will want to beat us because we were in the Premiership."

Big fish in a smaller pond, you might say.