Shaka Hislop: Gentleman at the Goalpost

James Ferguson profiles one of his favourite players in English football - West Ham and Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop - and discovers there's much more to him than being a brilliant footballer

  • A pin-up poster of smartness in Newcastle gear
  • At the end of his first season with West Ham, Shaka was voted Hammers Player of the Year by supporters. Photograph by Gary M Prior/ Allsport
  • With wife Desha and daughters Khazia (left) and Maalana. Photograph courtesy George Hislop
  • Training at Newcastle, part of a formidable team assembled by Kevin Keegan. Photograph by Stu Forster/ All Sport
  • A picture of concentration, Shaka jumps at the ball. Photograph by Mark Thompson/ Allsport
  • Christmas 1983: 14-year-old Shaka poses in a Manchester United uniform, a gift from his uncle. Photograph courtesy George Hislop
  • Demonstrating early signs of football prowess on Clapham Common. Photograph courtesy George Hislop
  • Newcastle paid £1.5m to get Shaka between the goalposts. Photograph by Stu Forster/ Allsport

On Friday I spoke to West Ham goalkeeper Shaka Hislop to fix a date for the interview. The next day he broke his leg. The highlights of the game – West Ham against Bradford last February 12 – were on television that night. As the ball came into Hislop’s penalty area and he ran to clear it, he seemed to collide with Bradford striker Dean Saunders. I remember thinking it didn’t look too bad, the goalkeeper would soon be on his feet. But it wasn’t to be.

“I heard a crack,” says Shaka, “but actually didn’t feel too much pain at first. I thought it might be a trapped nerve or something not too serious. But when I stood up, I realised it was bad.” In fact, it was a fracture – fortunately a relatively clean one – four inches above his left ankle. He hobbled off after only three minutes, and West Ham went on to win an eccentric match, 5-4.

Three months later, we are sitting in the canteen at West Ham’s training ground in the depths of suburban East London. There’s an odd mix of glamour and old-fashioned coziness about this place. Outside, the Porsches and individualised number plates suggest that the players aren’t exactly scraping by. The mercurial Italian striker Paolo di Canio is followed by three Armani-clad gents, who I take to be his agents or minders, while a public relations blonde is waiting to take Rio Ferdinand by helicopter to shoot a TV commercial.

But inside, it’s friendly and informal and, of course, reassuringly bloke-ish. There’s a sort of school dinners atmosphere, with an end-of-term feel thrown in as the last match of the season is coming up. Young trainees eat alongside the stars, and there are many older men, trainers and ground staff, who have clearly been here for years. The photos of Bobby Moore take me back to the 1960s and 1970s, West Ham’s and England’s glory days. “Ah, Bobby Charlton!” murmurs one of the Italian minders respectfully, pointing to a photo of a cup-brandishing Moore.

The first thing you notice about Shaka is that he’s very tall, six foot four to be precise. Not that the other players are exactly midgets, but he stands out. He’s on his feet now, receiving daily physiotherapy and hoping to be match-fit for the beginning of the next season.

I ask whether he’d always wanted to be a goalkeeper. “No, not at all. I started playing outfield at school, but goalkeeping was thrust upon me because I was the tallest. I must have been about 10 at the time.” I suppose there is some schoolmaster at Petit Valley Primary School, near Port of Spain, who should claim credit for this tactical move. Or maybe it was just Shaka’s friends who put him in goal.

In any case, the young Neil Shaka Hislop showed a gift for goalkeeping from an early age. He was born on 22 February 1969, not in Trinidad, but at St George’s Hospital on Hyde Park Corner in London, where both his parents then lived. His father had been to law school and was a teacher, with Shaka the eldest of three boys.

Why Shaka, I ask? “It was my father’s choice. I think he’s proud of our African heritage, so he went for the name of a Zulu chief. I’ve always preferred it to Neil.”

At the age of two he moved with his family to Trinidad, near Diego Martin, where he went first to Petit Valley and then to St Mary’s College in Port of Spain. And this is the second thing you notice about Shaka: that he is intelligent and articulate – a million miles away from the old stereotype of the monosyllabic footballer. ” I was pretty good at school,” he says modestly, “did my O and A Levels there, and then got a place at Howard University in the States to read mechanical engineering.” It was a soccer scholarship, offered because Shaka was already looking like a serious prospect, but he also wanted to make a proper job of the studying. “I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to play football professionally, but I was also realistic and knew that I should get some qualifications.”

Did he have role models in the 1980s? “Yes, we saw English football in Trinidad and I remember admiring players like Ray Clemence and Joe Corrigan.”  And what were the attributes he attached to such heroes? “I suppose a belief in their own ability, a sort of calmness, being able to keep your head under pressure. Goalkeepers have a different mindset, you know, they’re not outwardly crazy, but they certainly have to be a little bit odd.”

In the following five years at Howard, the African- American university near Washington DC, it was football that had the edge over mechanical engineering. Shaka finished the course and graduated, but by now he was more determined than ever to get into the game professionally. It took the unlikely appearance of Reading Football Club, hardly the most legendary name in English football, to make the ambition a reality. In May 1992, just as he was about to graduate, Shaka was playing in a friendly match for Baltimore Blast against Aston Villa (a team at that time starring his Tobago-born friend, Dwight Yorke). The tall goalkeeper was spotted by a Reading talent scout, and in July the Berkshire club offered him a contract. Within two months he was in England, a professional player with Second Division Reading FC.

“I suffered from real culture shock at Reading,” Shaka recalls. “First there was the weather. Soon it was winter and I wasn’t at all used to the conditions. The ball would skid off the icy ground, pitches were waterlogged. And the physical demands were intense, with training every day and sometimes a game twice a week.” Shaka’s form was erratic at first, and he was in and out of the first team. He admits he went through moments of self-doubt and homesickness. “At the end of my first season there, I really didn’t feel like going back. If I hadn’t signed a two-year contract, I’m not sure I would have carried on.” But then, as is often the way, his form changed and he became the regular first team goalkeeper. In fact, he played every game for two seasons, a period which culminated in Reading winning the Second Division championship in 1994. “The fans were excellent,” Shaka says, “a real inspiration.”

Word of Shaka Hislop’s abilities had by now reached the higher echelons of the English football business, and in the early summer of 1995 speculation was rife that he would soon be on his way to a bigger club. Then Newcastle United, at that time managed by none other than Kevin Keegan, approached Reading. To Shaka’s disappointment, the Reading management turned down the offer. It was a bitter blow, he says, but there were happy events to take his mind off the setback, for that summer he married Desha, his girlfriend from San Fernando, who, he says with pride, comes to almost every game.

Suddenly, the Newcastle deal was on again. The northern club paid £1.5 million for Shaka’s services, and by the beginning of the 1995/96 season he had moved up to St James’ Park. Surely, I wondered, this must have been rather different from Reading? “It was completely different, another sort of culture shock. I went from crowds of 6,000 to crowds of nearly 40,000. And they were incredible, truly fanatical.” The problem – if you can call it a problem – was one of celebrity. “It was difficult to get away sometimes. In Reading I’d been able to go out, and perhaps a few people might recognise me. But there everybody seemed to know who I was. It could all get a bit too much sometimes.”

At Newcastle, Shaka was part of a formidable team assembled by Keegan, including international stars like David Ginola and Les Ferdinand. “Keegan is an excellent motivator,” he says, “and I was proud to be part of that team.” The highlight of his three years at Newcastle was probably when the club finished second in the Premiership, leading on to European football, with memorable games against the likes of Barcelona and Dynamo Kiev.

But there was also stiff competition for the first team goalkeeping job, particularly from the in-form Republic of Ireland’s Shay Given. Don’t you end up disliking somebody who’s competing for the job? I ask. Shaka looks genuinely surprised, as if the idea had never crossed his mind. “There’s no animosity between goalkeepers at the same club,” he says. “I suppose we’re a different breed. When you train together and just want the club to succeed, there’s no room for jealousy.”

By the summer of 1998, however, Given seemed to be firmly in favour and Shaka’s three-year contract was coming to an end. Then he heard via his agent that West Ham’s Harry Redknapp was looking for a goalkeeper. “I jumped at the chance,” he says, “and in any case I was ready for a new challenge.” In July the deal was done, and Shaka, by now the father of two girls, Maalana and Khazia, moved down to East London.

It’s easy to believe, as we sit in this cheerfully boisterous canteen, that the atmosphere at West Ham is rather special. “It’s a very family-oriented club,” Shaka says, “with everyone working together – the players, the training staff, the backroom people like secretaries and so on. People stay involved all their lives here.” I see that di Canio and his entourage have left, braving the cluster of autograph hunters outside, and I ask about the hot-tempered Italian. “In fact, he’s a fantastic professional, not really like his image at all. He’s really galvanized the team since he arrived and we’ve played some incredible football. It’s a shame that the season seemed to fizzle out.”

Not surprisingly, West Ham’s fans have taken Shaka to their hearts. At the end of his first season at Upton Park he was voted Hammers Player of the Year by supporters. It was the climax of a good run for the club (fifth in the Premiership) and Shaka (16 clean sheets). The one blot in his copybook was being sent off against Leeds for upending Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank, itself an act of considerable bravery.

Had he ever encountered any racism from fans? “Yes, I have to say I’ve come across racism at various levels, but it seems to have reduced over the last couple of years. You know, those supporters with a reputation for racist behaviour, say Everton or Millwall, are often the most appreciative. I’ve not had any real problems myself, although I think it was harder earlier on for players like John Barnes.”

Even so, Shaka has been involved in a campaigning group called Show Racism the Red Card, and has spoken at schools and meetings about being a black player in Britain. “The organisers wrote me a letter asking if I could help and I was pleased to. I don’t see myself as some sort of pioneer, just a goalkeeper, but I’m happy to put my name to that sort of thing.”
Shaka is now 31, hardly old by normal standards but beginning to feel that he can see an end to his career in the not too distant future. “I’ve got a few seasons left at the top level,” he says, “and I’d like to give up before my body does.” Is there anything he’d still like to achieve? “Sure, I’d like to win a trophy with West Ham and maybe playa few more internationals. What I really want to do is to be able to look back at the good times, not just to remember the daily training, the grinding out of results. I know I’ll miss the competition and the comradeship, but I want to quit while I’m at the top.”

Of course, another thing you can’t really help noticing is that Shaka is Trinidadian. There’s a bottle of hot sauce on the canteen table, especially for his use, it seems, and he talks warmly about home. He goes back at least once a year, usually in the close season, and stays with his parents near Diego Martin.

Do people treat him as a returning hero? Shaka laughs. “I have the same friends now that I had at primary and secondary school. I would be amazed – and disappointed – if they treated me any differently. And they don’t.” He says he has definite plans to retire to Trinidad. His father is looking after a few business interests; he has invested in a piece of land. Shaka’s father has been, and still is, a big influence. “He’s a man with very high values,” he says, a slight touch of emotion in his voice. “I talk to my parents all the time on the phone, they come over and they can see me on television there.”

But would he give up football when the day comes to retire? “Absolutely not. I’d like to do some coaching, especially goalkeeping coaching, in Trinidad, to put something back. There’s a professional league now, and Trinidad is emerging as one of the strongest footballing nations in the region. Did you hear we beat Haiti yesterday?” So what about playing in goal for Trinidad and Tobago? “I’ve played three times for the national side – all friendlies. Of course, I’d love to play again when I’m fit, but I have to be selected first.” Where, I ask, does he feel most at home: in Britain or Trinidad ?There’s no contest. “Trinidad is home. It always will be. Everything about it – the food, the weather, the music, the people – spells home to me.”

And then it’s time for him to return to the physiotherapist’s bench for another session on his leg. I resist the urge to ask for any autographs (“they’re for my son, honestly”) and somewhat reluctantly leave the Porsches behind for the more modest scenery of Romford and the A24. And I can’t help thinking that Shaka Hislop is the complete antidote to the Gazza-Beckham school of celebrity, where skill doesn’t seem to be matched by either thoughtfulness or modesty. Maybe those qualities make him an unusual footballer, I don’t know. But they certainly suggest that his future, whether in football or anything else, looks as bright as what he has already achieved.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.