Durban – When he gets spotted by fans, the name “Feeeeesh” still rings out. Mark Fish may be happily retired, but the people have never forgotten the Africa Cup of Nations class of 1996, especially with the 2013 tournament on the go.
“It’s a bit unfortunate for the current team that people still talk about what we did in 1996, but they can also take this as their chance to emulate that,” Fish told The Sunday Tribune.
“When we played in 1996, not too many people expected us to get very far, but football is a funny game.
“After we got through to the quarter-finals, we suddenly had everyone behind us, believing that we could do it. But as a team we had a quiet self-belief in our ability, and I think that opening win over Cameroon was huge for us.”
Fish says that then, as in this year’s edition, Ghana were a massive threat, and Bafana’s imperious 3-0 victory over them in the semis was like a final.
“They were the team to beat in Africa, but everyone knows what happened that night. Playing them was like a final before the final, and our belief went through the roof after that game.”
Like many fans, the former central defender said he was much encouraged by Bafana’s win over Angola. After their stuttering start, it was important for them to get the nation back on their side.
“It was a great win for the boys, and they have got the country behind them now. I think they can kick on from there and go a long way,” Fish added.
The former Bolton Wanderers defender has been impressed by Dean Furman, who also plays in Lancashire, at Oldham Athletic.
“He had a great performance, and he is the new hero of the people. What he needs now is a nickname,” Fish cheekily added.
Yet he also warned that Furman would be under pressure to live up to expectations in the games ahead.
“That’s the challenge when you stand out. He is the only white guy in the team – not that colour has anything to do with it – but he is also standing out with his performance, too,” he said.
“So he will have to deliver again, and that is what you want as a player, the whole stadium behind you.”
These days, Fish divides his time between consulting in advertising and being the cheerleader for his sons’ various sporting endeavours.
“I am not as involved in the game of football as I would like to be, but that’s the way it goes. I play the odd game for the legends, and also do a bit of analysis, but most of my work is in advertising,” the 38-year-old explained.
Looking back on a career that was always entertaining, Fish still rates the 1995 Champions League win with Orlando Pirates as his greatest club achievement.
“It was huge for us, and we did it the hard way. That Champions League win was my biggest achievement at club level for sure.”
When he was turned from a galloping forward into a ball-playing central defender at Jomo Cosmos, it was the launchpad for a career that reached considerable highs for the Cape Town-born Fish.
“Growing up, I was obsessed with AC Milan. And I loved watching Italian football in general. At that stage, Serie A was the pinnacle of club football in Europe,” he recalled.
After his stunning exploits for Pirates and Bafana, the offers from abroad came in 1996. And it wasn’t just any club, but Manchester United and Italian giants Lazio.
“I went to Old Trafford and spoke to Sir Alex in his office. He said he wanted me to stick around for two weeks to see if I could adapt to their system,” Fish said.
“My agent and I never said no to that, but we told them that I was also duty bound to go to Lazio because they were also interested in me.”
Fish was snapped up by the Italians and fulfilled a boyhood dream of playing in Europe.
“People ask if I wonder what could have been if I had gone to United instead. As I see it, I still went and played at Old Trafford, and I had a great experience in Italy, and still went on to play in the top-flight in England.”
Fish acquired hero status at Bolton and at Charlton, even in the face of long injury lay-offs, and he earned the respect of strikers from all over the Premiership.
“At Charlton especially, we were a small club, but we always gave a good account of ourselves. I have great memories of playing in the Premiership.”
Fish even managed to score at the “Theatre of Dreams”, netting for Charlton Athletic.
“I was so chuffed with that goal, and I went a bit mad in the celebration. I ran around the whole field, looking for my mate to celebrate with him, but he was on the floor with cramp, so it was a bit of a comedy,” he chuckled.
In essence, that is how many will remember Fish on the field, constantly with a cheeky smile on his face. – Sunday Tribune