AROUND 6,000 miles away in the cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town or Pretoria, a good few football fans wearing the colours of Bolton Wanderers or Charlton Athletic will be tracking the score of tomorrow’s game with interest.
That the two clubs are so well represented in the Rainbow Nation of South Africa is down in no small part to charismatic former defender Mark Fish, whose work at the Reebok and the Valley won him supporters in both hemispheres.
Fish, who has just turned 40 and now works in the football media back home, is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s greatest-ever players, rivalling Leeds United great Lucas Radebe – his great friend – as their finest centre-half.
His legend in these parts was cemented when newspaper reports heralding his arrival claimed he had turned down a move to rivals Manchester United.
But as Fish explains, the English journalists at the time may have got the wrong end of the stick.
“After the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 I had a meeting with agents who were looking after me and at the time we were obligated to see Man United and Lazio,” he explained. “I met Alex Ferguson, after having watched Man Utd v Everton, and we were under obligation to see the Italians as well.
“I ended up signing for Lazio, but the fans thought I had joined Bolton instead of Man United so I had to explain myself at the first fans’ forum I went to.”
Fish wasted no time endearing himself to his new club after Colin Todd had secured his services from Italian giants Lazio, where he had fallen out of favour under Sven-Goran Eriksson.
His every contribution cheered to the strain of “Feeesh,” the elegant centre-half also spawned a brand of Fish hats, sold in the club shop.
His debut came in only the second game to be played at the Reebok, against old foes United. It finished in a fiery 0-0 draw, with Nathan Blake and Gary Pallister sent for early baths.
“It was a dream come true for me, not only to play for Bolton but also to play my first game against Manchester United, who I had grown up watching,” Fish said.
“In the apartheid era we could only watch the FA Cup and people in South Africa grew to support Man United, Liverpool or Everton because they always seemed to be in the FA Cup final.
“It is still most youngsters' dream to play in the Barclays Premier League now and it will be for years to come because of the way the game is played, the way it is supported most of all.
“You have clubs whose supporters all or mostly come from the surrounding area. I was very fortunate, the fans really took to me and started making Fish hats to support me and I have very fond memories of Bolton Wanderers.”
Of course, history tells us that three weeks before that draw against United, Wanderers were held 0-0 by Everton in the stadium’s opening game.
The infamous “goal that never was,” scored by Gerry Taggart but ruled out by referee Stephen Lodge, ended up costing the club a small fortune.
Fish remained with Wanderers after relegation, which had included a 5-0 hammering by Sheffield Wednesday and one of the South African’s lowest points in English football.
“That was my worst memory," he said. "We were 4-0 down after half an hour and Paolo Di Canio wreaked havoc.”
Fish won 34 of his 60 international caps for the Bafana Bafana during his time with Wanderers and played at the 1998 World Cup Finals, crossing swords with team-mate Per Frandsen in one of the group games.
Todd’s side failed to bounce back, losing in the play-off final to Watford and then in the semi-final, under Sam Allardyce, in the infamous “Barry Knight-mare” at Ipswich a year later.
Fish made 13 appearances in the 2000/01 season, making his last appearance in a 1-1 draw with Birmingham City, before moving back to the Premier League with Charlton in a £700,000 move.
Wanderers followed him to the top flight the following season and Fish would have mixed fortunes against the Whites whilst playing for the South Londoners, scoring his first home goal for the Addicks in a 1-1 draw in 2003 but also featuring in a 4-1 hammering at the Reebok.
But he did enough with both clubs to ensure the names Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic were recognised in the vicinity of Table Mountain.
“Unfortunately, there are not that many of us South Africans that have gone abroad and been successful,” he said.
“So a lot of local fans became Bolton or Charlton fans because I was playing there and even more so at Charlton because they had Shaun Bartlett and the club has a big South African history.”