The Sports Gazette spoke to Shaka Hislop, the current ESPN FC/BT Sport football analyst to talk goalkeeper-pundits, playing for different nations and his professional career in England at Reading, Newcastle and West Ham United.
Shaka Hislop Q & A:
How difficult was the transition from playing college football in the USA at Howard University to your first experience moving to England?
It was a tough transition going into the unknown. I went to Reading on trial with $100 in my pocket and a suitcase.
I was already settled in the USA and had a number of family, friends and a serious girlfriend in Washington DC at the time who I’m happy to say now is my wife.
After two months on trial and somehow making ends meet, Reading offered me my first professional contract in a two-year deal in September 1992.
Even so at the end of my first year I seriously considered quitting. I wasn’t enjoying it and didn’t settle in well. But I remember going to Trinidad for that summer holiday and speaking to my dad about it. His advice was simply: “You signed a two-year contract and you have to honour it. If at the end of year two you still feel this way then you can quit.”
When I returned in 1993 for pre season the manager Mark McGee and his assistant Colin Lee called me into their office and said they had accepted an offer for starting goalkeeper Steve Francis and didn’t have money to replace him, so I’d be given the starting shirt.
I played every game that season, we won what was then called the Second Division (currently League One) and they offered me a new contract and the rest as they say was history.
Before committing to Trinidad & Tobago, you got an England call up as an unused sub vs Chile in 1998. What was the experience like & looking back all these years, any regrets or not of never trying to stay with England instead of playing for Trinidad?
No regrets playing for Trinidad. Although I was born in England, I left when I was only two years old so I had no recollection of England. I’ve always considered myself Trini.
No doubt being born in England and having that British passport served me well. When I moved to England to pursue my professional career, this was pre-Bosman ruling so clubs could only have three non-English players on your roster, so I qualified as English.
Early on in my time at Reading, Jack Warner tried to get me suspended because I declined to come to Trinidad for a friendly in November 1994.
Warner, given who he was, tried to use his power at FIFA to come down on the club and to suspend me and that was the unraveling of his and my relationship. I was able to lean on my British passport to avoid FIFA suspension.
Subsequently Glen Hoddle who was England manager at the time called me up to the England B team and I thought why not play as an opportunity to keep myself in the shop window because I was not 100% sure what was my club future, because my contract was expiring at Newcastle.
Tim Flowers got injured and I got called up from the B team to back up Nigel Martyn in the Chile game. Then a month later I played an Under 21 international versus Switzerland.
Bertille St.Clair was my footballing father having become my first coach at under 12 level. So when he became national team coach, I put Warner’s incident behind me and committed to Trinidad. I don’t think any other local coach for Trinidad could have got me to do that.
Even after that when Keegan became England manager he asked me to rejoin because my first game for Trinidad was a friendly against Jamaica. I had to politely decline because I grew up wanting to play international football for Trinidad.
Hislop during the 2006 World Cup group game against Sweden. Trinidad would eventually finish bottom of the group
Which of your four English clubs did you enjoy playing for the most?
Probably my two spells at West Ham.
When I made the move from Reading to Newcastle that was a big jump. That 1995/96 season was rough when we finished second to Manchester United after being top of table for most of the season.
Kevin Keegan signed me at Newcastle and he left after my second year and Kenny Dalglish became manager and he brought in Shay Given who was his preferred number one.
So when Harry Redknapp reached out to me to join him at West Ham, I went on free transfer because I was coming to the end of my contract and Given was set to be Newcastle’s long term goalie.
I really enjoyed my time there. West Ham finished fifth in the Premier League which remains a club record. It was exciting for me there because at West Ham the expectation wasn’t like at Newcastle.
That same 1998/99 season that I was signed, Redknapp also brought Neil Ruddock from Liverpool, Ian Wright from Arsenal and Paolo Di Canio from Sheffield Wednesday. It was a great bunch of characters, a good team and I really enjoyed my football.
Hislop would go onto make over just over 100 appearances for the Hammers over a period of four years
The 48 team 2026 World Cup in North America might make it easier for former Caribbean World Cup participants Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti to appear again. But compared to your time, how direct do you feel is the correlation between lack of recent World Cup appearances and Caribbean players from these three nations especially no longer playing much in England?
Yes I think there is although it’s a catch 22. To qualify for UK work permits as players your nation has to be in the FIFA top 70 rankings. Trinidad and most CFU nations are well outside of that. So that direct link from Trinidad to the UK is gone, players now have to use another league as a stepping stone. So that’s the challenge.
But I feel we [Trinidad] have never had a long term plan in place despite getting to World Cup 2006. There’s no plan in terms of developing players via our domestic league which despite criticisms of it can be used better as a valuable platform to other leagues whether is MLS, USL [USA] or another league in Europe.
We have just relied on natural talent and hoped the stars aligned. When you are a nation as small as Trinidad and Tobago, that’s a dangerous approach and you have to be more thoughtful and strategic.
Your final professional game in English football was at age 37 in the 2006 FA Cup final when Gerrard scored that famous goal.
In previous interviews you have hinted you felt you could have saved it and wondered if you were 10 years younger that maybe you could have. Is that a view you still hold ?
Yes I do although I’ve not gone back and looked at that goal in detail after all these years.
Certainly at the time that’s how I felt because as well as Gerrard hit it, I thought I had the perfect view in order to saved it. But I also accept the fact that I was 37 and five to ten years past my best football so your game has to adjust at that age, you rely more on instinct and experience.
Finally your view on the lack of former goalkeepers as pundits. Should the football television broadcast community have more and how has your transition from player/keeper to television pundit been?
Absolutely I think there should be more of us. I think it speaks to how the position is undervalued. Nobody kind of understands and respects that goalkeeping as an individual position is different from any other position on the field.
Normally analysis and punditry stops at “he should have stopped that, he should have saved it” – and move on. If that’s all you’re going to limit your goalkeeping analysis too then what is the point? If you want more in depth talk, then you should have more former goalkeepers on your panels.
As goalkeeper you can offer a different perspective in analyzing strikers and how goals are scored.
Having said that Tim Howard [formerly Everton] just started with NBC in the USA and in Canada on TSN there is Craig Forrest [formerly Ipswich Town, West Ham and Chelsea].
I’ve enjoyed being a pundit. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, the opportunity basically fell in my lap as I retired with FC Dallas.
January marked 13 years since I’ve been doing this job. I came into it with eyes wide open knowing I had to learn and gain experience and I still have that same mindset today.