IT’S close to 20 years since Mark Fish left Bolton Wanderers for Charlton – a bitter divorce which prompted a strong rebuke from his manager Sam Allardyce.

The South African had become a cult hero on the terraces in his three years at the Reebok but a row over a new three-year deal led to Big Sam accusing his defender of “not wanting to play” for the club.

Wanderers had been forced to balance the books that summer, selling Eidur Gudjohnsen to Chelsea for £4million and Claus Jensen to Charlton for the same fee, to offset costs at their brand new stadium and the devastating effect of two successful play-off defeats.

Fish, one of the biggest earners on the books at the time, had been expected to follow suit and head to the Valley for £1.5m.

But after the move collapsed, he returned to Bolton to sign a new contract – or so fans thought. Just weeks after Allardyce announced that he had shaken hands on the deal, he was voicing his displeasure in the pages of the Bolton Evening News.

"I don't like what happened," fumed the Whites boss. "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."

Two decades on, Fish, now 46, gave his side of the story in a podcast interview with the Lion of Vienna Suite – insisting that he was pushed towards the exit door.

“I don’t think everything was told to us, as players about the financial situation,” Fish reflected. “It all came in one shot and affected everyone.

“The sad thing is that when we’d lost to Ipswich my agent told me Charlton were interested, and I went down to have a medical in the off-season. I had so much wear and tear on my knees that they said they didn’t want to take the chance.

“They said to the agent that they’d monitor me – but that’s when me and Sam (Allardyce) fell out.

“He wanted to me to sign a new deal. He put a lot of pressure on me and we didn’t’ see eye to eye.

“I distinctively remember playing Birmingham away and with about 15-20 mins to go he subbed me. He had never done it before and the Sunday night I got a phone call to say I was going to Charlton.”

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The game at Birmingham proved to be the last of 132 Fish played at Bolton, and a £700,000 move to London gave him Premier League football for another five years.

The speed at which the move accelerated, however, still disappoints Fish all these years later.

“Bolton was such a good club, the fans were so good to me. But unfortunately the way that I left, Saturday substituted, Sunday gone,” he said.

“I said to the kit man that I’d come down to say goodbye to the players but Sam was so disappointed in me that he didn’t allow me into the training ground.

“The kit guy came out to give me my boots but I never got the chance to say goodbye to the players.”

After coming through the ranks at Jomo Cosmos to earn a big move to Orlando Pirates, Fish caught the eye of English clubs from his early twenties.

“In 94 when the club’s owner called me in and said Harry Redknapp wanted me to come to West Ham,” he said. “I said no, I wanted to develop myself a bit more, and then the same thing happened in 1995.

“The president asked me to stay on and it was fortunate because Orlando Pirates went on to win the African Champions League as a club, which was great.”

An even bigger club would then come calling, as Fish’s performances for his country had been noted by Manchester United.

“After the African Nations Cup the people representing me said Lazio and Manchester United wanted me,” he said. “So I actually went to United and watched them against Everton when (Andrei) Kanchelskis had left for Everton and was playing against them.

“It was a Monday night game and I’d sat with Sir Alex Ferguson in his office and he said he’d been recommended to me by Sir Bobby Charlton, who had flown out to watch the African Nations Cup.

“He wanted to me to train with them and see how I adapted to the surroundings. The people representing me didn’t say no, but they said we were under obligation to go to Lazio. We did and the coach there was Zdeněk Zeman, and he wanted to sign me straight away.

“Manchester or Rome at 21 years old? It’s not really a choice. I was single as well, so you can imagine.”

Fish played for 12 months at Lazio but despite starting the season as one of the favourites for Serie A, a talented squad including Alen Boksic, Giuseppe Signori, Pavel Nedved and a young Alessandro Nesta failed to climb into the top half of the table before Christmas.

Although the South African featured in roughly half the club’s games that season his regular starting spot was lost after Zeman was sacked in January 1997 and Dino Zoff stepped back down from a presidential position to coach the team.

Fish believes the Italian experience helped him become a better defender but admitted the move was not as financially beneficial as it should have been.

“I signed for Lazio in February and the deal was for $2million - $1m to the club, $500,000 to me and $500,000 split between the agents, that was the agreement,” he said.

“Orlando Pirates were not too sure about the agents involved, so the president flew over and met with the club and they gave him the whole $2m.

“As a youngster I found myself sitting there, the agent calls me and says ‘they’ve taken all the money’ and I’m like ‘OK.’ “Should I fly back to South Africa and feel sorry for myself? It’s just money. Fortunately I got the opportunity to move on to the biggest club in the UK!”

Colin Todd brought Fish to the Reebok for the start of the 1997/98 campaign after seeing him play for South Africa against England at Old Trafford in May.

Wanderers were looking to build on a record-breaking promotion season and build some foundations in the Premier League – but, alas, the team would be found wanting by the narrowest of margins, relegated on goal difference.

Fish would watch the fateful 0-0 draw against Everton, which marked the opening of the new stadium, whilst waiting for his UK work permit to come through.

He made his debut in the following home game.

“It was against United,” he said. “Lots of people always ask me why I didn’t sign for them but to play against them and get a result, the really feels good. We drew 0-0, played well.”

Other memories of that season were not quite as happy for Fish, including one hiding at Hillsborough.

“That Sheffield Wednesday game, being 4-0 down at half time, as a player you sit there in the changing room and think ‘oh my god’. What happened?” Fish said.

“You had Di Canio, Carbone, they ripped us to pieces.”

Todd’s side came close to bouncing back the following season but failed to show up in the play-off final and were comfortably beaten by Watford.

The consequent cost-cutting left Todd with little choice but to resign the following season, leading to Allardyce’s arrival from Notts County.

Fish was sorry to see Todd go, despite different opinions on international football.

“We had a good enough relationship,” he said. “He liked me as a player but the issues of me playing for South Africa and going back and forth hampered me. I always felt that if I went to play a qualifier I wouldn’t play the weekend after and he’d take it personally.

“We played some good football under him, though, and there were some really good technical players in that team.

“To get to Wembley and I was the captain, it was so disappointing. It was the hardest thing.”

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Fish went to play for South Africa at France 98 the following summer and returned to find Bolton having to cut costs.

Manager Todd eventually fell on his sword over the sale of Per Frandsen to Blackburn Rovers but the man selected to replace him took a little time to adjust to the characteristics of the squad.

“Losing the play-off final, I went to play for South Africa at the World Cup so that helped a little bit,” Fish said.

“You want to be playing in the Premier League, but the Championship is as – of not more – competitive.

“It took our team a bit of time to get used to it. Halfway through that season Todd left and Sam Allardyce came in, so that was a big challenge.

“He was a big defender – kick the ball, head the ball as far as you can – and what I did respect is that he inherited a team that wanted to play football.

“His first training session he stood at the side, kicked the ball high up in the air, and asked us to head it as far as we could. I was like ‘no, brother, this isn’t really going to happen.’ “But I think it took him two or three months and he realised what type of players he had, and we grew into it.”

Wanderers went close once again in the play-offs, losing on a wretched Knight at Portman Road.

“It was comical what happened that evening,” he said of the 5-3 defeat at Ipswich.

“We went there with optimism but the refereeing wasn’t the best.

“That was a bigger disappointment, for me, than losing the final at Wembley.

“If we would have got through that, we’d have gone up.”

After the contract row the following season Fish departed for Charlton – Bolton fans would bay for “Fiiiisssshhh” no more.

Two decades on there is no bitterness – and Fish has gone on to become an important figurehead for South African football, helping take the game to poorer areas of the country and improve the lives of young players.

“We played against Grimsby, a fishing town, and the Bolton fans were singing ‘There’s Only One Fish in Grimsby,’” he recalled.

“I am very grateful for everything – the hats, the chants, they just took to me.

“Bolton the town, I have fond memories and I miss it… except the weather.”

To listen to the full podcast, including Fish’s views on South African football, the best defender he played alongside at Bolton and why Arnar Gunlaugsson compared to an ice cream, listen to the LoV pod.

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