Q & A with former AFCON Champion, Premier League and Serie A footballer: Mark Fish

by Aiden Daries

I’ve had the opportunity to interview South African footballer, Mark Fish, who has plied his trade in both the Premier League and the Serie A respectively. We spoke about what prompted his decision to move from a striker to a defender, and the reasoning behind his decision for turning down Manchester United in favour of a move elsewhere.

Mark Fish began his professional footballing career at Jomo Cosmos before moving to Johannesburg with Orlando Pirates. Fish won the African Cup of Nations in 1996 with Bafana Bafana and, in the same season, the South African put pen to paper when he signed for Lazio.

He stayed in Italy for a season, before eventually moving to the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers. Mark Fish moved to Charlton Athletic F.C. in 2000 and stayed 5 seasons at the London club before going out on loan to Ipswich Town and eventually ending it at the club he began his career, Jomo Cosmos.

Aiden: Was there ever a specific moment where you thought a professional footballing career was the career you wanted to pursue?

Mark: I don’t think there was a specific moment when I was growing up where I pretended to be one of those footballers. I think when I matriculated and Jomo Cosmos were interested in me is when I thought I could become a professional footballer, but there wasn’t anything specific that happened where I said, “I wanted to become a professional footballer”. As I became older, I became more interested in football.

A: What emotions were you feeling at the time, when Jomo Cosmos spotted you?

M: At the time, Jomo was coached by Roy Matthews and I played with his son, Paul Matthews. He told his dad and his dad came to watch me play and he obviously told Jomo. I was actually only signed a year later after I found out about Jomo’s interest in me, so it was a bit dragged out. When I signed for them, I knew I had to take [the] opportunity with both hands.

A: What prompted the decision to move from striker to defender and eventually becoming one of the best defenders South Africa has had?

M: Jomo actually signed me to replace Phil ‘Chippa’ Masinga, who was an unbelievable striker. We played a Boksburg semi-final, as it was then called, and unfortunately or fortunately, our central defender got sent off. [There] was a good 50 minutes of the game still to be played, and Jomo looked at me and said I must play at the back. I played one or two league games as a defender and then I found myself playing against Kaizer Chiefs at the FNB Stadium in the Boksburg final.

A: It was rumoured that you turned your boyhood club, Manchester United, down and opted for a move to Lazio instead. What was the reasoning behind this decision?

M: The rumours are very untrue. During the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), somebody came to me and said scouts were watching me. Once we won the tournament, Sir Bobby Charlton came along and said he would like me to go to Manchester United and the other team was Lazio. The people representing me at the time said I should go watch Man United versus Everton on a Monday night. After the game, I went upstairs to Alex Ferguson’s office and he said he wanted me to stay a few weeks and see if I could adapt both to life outside of South Africa and adapt to United’s formation which was 4-4-2. The people representing me did not say no to Alex Ferguson but said we were at an obligation to go to Lazio as well. We went to Italy and at the time Serie A was the best league in the world so I decided to sign with Lazio. I don’t think I would change my decision if I was to have that option again. Certainly, I grew up as a Man United fan and it would’ve been a dream come true to sign for them, but it was just the circumstances at the time that prompted my decision in the end.

[ABOVE: Mark Fish being presented as a Lazio player]

A: How humbling was it for you to eventually secure a move to the Premier League with Bolton, especially as many South African footballers rarely get that opportunity?

M: I think before that when South Africa played England at Old Trafford was also a humbling experience. I did eventually get the move to the Premier League with Bolton when Colin Todd from Bolton watched me play. And it was humbling because when I was younger I watched the FA Cup on TV and now I was actually playing in the UK and against some clubs I watched on TV when I was younger. So it was very humbling and exciting for me.

A: Was there a massive gulf in quality between the leagues in South Africa and the Premier League, having played in both?

M: I think both leagues were a different experience. For example, when I played for Orlando Pirates I was training three times a week and playing over the weekend, whereas in Italy I was training twice a day and playing over the weekend. So it was a massive step up in the way the game was played and there was no better place for me to go to other than Italy, because as people know they are recognised for their defending. Stepping up from the Italian league to the English league was also a step up, considering the pace of the game, the players and coaches, the intensity. That’s why it is the league everybody wants to watch, and as a player, I was very fortunate to experience that.

A: Do you have any moments you regret from your career as a footballer?

M: I wouldn’t call them regrets, but you do sit down and think there were disappointing moments. The 1998 World Cup was one, where we didn’t perform as we should because I felt we had the right players, but I don’t believe we had the right coach at the time. I don’t think they should’ve [gotten] rid of Clive Barker because when we qualified for the World Cup we got a new coach and when we actually played the World Cup we got another new coach. So for me, that was a disappointment and something I wish never happened.

A: Who is the best manager that you’ve played under and why is that?

M: I had different managers throughout my life. I grew up playing for Arcadia Shepherds F.C. and I had a coach there that taught me a lot and certainly helped me to carry myself as an individual. Roy Matthews also left a mark on my life and of course Clive Barker who was a phenomenal coach for [the] national team and he knew how to handle players and what was the best for players. Colin Todd was another coach I really liked and Sam Allardyce was a hardcore individual who would say what he wanted to say in the changing room but after he would have a beer with you. Alan Curbishley was, tactically, a very good coach and I would say he had the best man-management. I had Carlos Queiroz for one game with the national team and tactically and technically he was one of the best coaches I worked with in the space of a week. There were different experiences with different coaches, so to say there was one who stood out would be impossible.

A: What emotions overcame you when you won the 1996 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) with Bafana Bafana (South African national team)?

M: It was a period of football [that] I was very fortunate to be involved in. On a personal level, in 1994 I won the ABSA Premier League with Orlando Pirates and from there we won the African Champions League and a couple of months later you find yourself lifting the most prestigious trophy on the continent for your country. The emotions are indescribable, because people that did not watch football a year before, [were] now watching their country win the tournament.

A: You’ve won many accolades throughout your professional footballing career, but what was the one moment that stood out above the rest?

M: There were many highs that I experienced and many lows that I experienced as well. But I think when I was at Charlton Athletic and I was struggling to get fit, Alan Curbishley sent me out on loan to Ipswich Town. And we had a Monday night game at Queens Park Rangers and the moment that stood out to me was when we were sitting in at half-time and I was looking at Joe Royle and he said he was going to put me in for the second-half. I knew I couldn’t play the game at the same level as I did before but the belief he put in me, especially as I was coming to the end of my career, really stood out to me.

A: Do you have any aspirations of becoming a manager in the future?

M: Sometimes I sit back and think how would it feel to be a manager? And players who go on to be managers [have] my full respect because there’s a way you need to love the game to be able to do that. Sometimes I think I would love to be a manager and other times I think it’ll be too much. But I love working with youngsters, so to be a youth coach I would certainly enjoy that, but to be a top-level coach I don’t think that will be happening in the future.

[ABOVE: Mark Fish playing for the national team, Bafana Bafana]

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