Just relax, you're in safe hands

Amy Lawrence
Date Published: 
UK Guardian

According to the Carling Opta statistics, Shaka Hislop has been top of the goalkeeping charts for most of this season. Frankly, he'd glean more satisfaction knowing the kindergarten class of Barking Primary measured him as one of the tallest men at Upton Park. Computed analysis of football, along with the assessments of press reporters and television pundits, is an irrelevance in Hislop's world. Good or bad, praise or condemnation, he couldn't care less.

Come 90 minutes, and the moment he reaches the sanctuary of the players' tunnel, he switches off. It is a self-taught discipline, picked up at Newcastle United as a defence mechanism to deal with microscopic attention that preyed on his confidence. For long periods of his spell on Tyneside he felt he was constantly on trial: one error and you are dropped.

First of all it was Pavel Srnicek, and then Shay Given, tugging relentlessly at his jersey whenever he was in the side. Hislop accepts competition is healthy, but not to the extent that it bypasses incentive and breeds jitters instead. Rotation may be all the rage, but goalkeepers are generally best left out of it. He knows he will eventually reach a time when the gloves no longer fit, but until then he would prefer to play every single game, thanks very much.

Starting today, of course, when he fulfils a personal dream by playing at Old Trafford against Manchester United for the first time... and facing his old pal from Trinidad, Dwight Yorke.

West Ham's manager Harry Redknapp seems happy to oblige. Last summer he took the 6ft 4in Hislop to Upton Park as a Bosman free agent and it has proved an equally positive, productive move for club and player. Stability and security have bloomed all round. Hislop responds to the knowledge that he is the management's first-choice keeper. 'I'm able to relax a lot more,' he beams. 'I've dropped a few clangers already this season, but Harry hasn't pulled me into his office straightaway and warned, 'One more of those and you're out!' As a matter of fact it has been quite the opposite. He has been saying, 'You've been playing well, what are you worrying about one of those for? We've all done it.' His motivation has been great for me, and I'm allowed to go and express myself. I am enjoying my football.'

And making an impressive fist of it, as nine clean sheets from 20 Premiership games testify - even if the facts and rave reviews go sailing over his head. West Ham's goalkeeping coach Les Sealey believes a call from Glenn Hoddle is due, to add to the England under-21 cap Hislop won last year (albeit as an over-age player now approaching 30). That thrill ranks as one of the proudest of his career, and he insists he felt no patriotic guilt towards Trinidad, the land he calls home, the land he represented at every youth level.

It was during his first trial, as a lanky nine-year-old, that he was ordered to play in goal simply because he towered over the other hopefuls. As an aspiring striker, he was miffed. 'But I was in no position to argue with a grown man,' he says with a smile now. Anyway, he walked straight into the national team - with Yorke and cricket legend-to-be Brian Lara.

Although he was born in England, he remembers nothing of his earliest years. He lived in Trinidad from the age of two-and-a-half. His parents are Trinidadian, his wife is Trinidadian, his accent is Trindadian. 'I have dual citizenship and to be honest I feel quite strongly about both countries,' he remarks, before adding: 'They say home is where the heart is and Trinidad has my heart.'

The decision to choose England, should the call come, is two-fold. He wants to scale the highest possible professional peak (Dwight Yorke's international limitations have been well documented), and he also harbours long-standing discontent with the Football Association of Trinidad and Tobago. 'They don't look after simple things which Conference players here would take for granted - if you break a leg your club would make sure you get a cast put on it. It's not acceptable for players to get injured on national duty and have to fend for themselves - imagine if it happened to Dwight...'

Conversation with Hislop reveals an opinionated yet circumspect man. He knows precisely what should remain private and what is fit for public consumption. He speaks with the eloquence and authority of the scholar he was until the age of 23. A graduate of mechanical engineering, who later specialised in industrial robotics - 'not as technical and flash as it sounds,' he blushes - when he gets the scientific urge these days he sets to work with his glove manufacturer to perfect designs to his own specifications.

Having attended Howard University in Washington DC on the back of a soccer scholarship, he was all set to return to Trinidad when Baltimore Blast invited him for a trial. His performance alerted a scout from Reading. 'I had no idea where it was geographically, no idea what division they were in, but it didn't matter,' Hislop recalls. 'A professional team in England were interested in me and there were no questions asked. If I had a choice between football and anything else, football would have won hands down. 'Coming here was a big upheaval and many times in my first year I considered: this isn't worth it. But I was living a dream, surviving while playing football, and I was determined to get over my difficulties.' He did, with bells on. Promotion from the Second Division was followed by a wonder year in the First. Reading performed heroics to reach a thrilling play-off final, while Hislop won the PFA divisional award for his position and, regarded the best goalkeeper outside the Premiership, he was earmarked for eminence.

He was transferred to Kevin Keegan's Newcastle for £1.5 million, a scorching spotlight, and a struggle for the shirt. His observations are honest: 'I had three good years there, but they weren't as I'd envisaged them in my wildest dreams. In the long run, though, they were the three most important years of my career. It has made me a much stronger person, able to deal with the bad games, the losses of form, the knocks every professional has to take. 'Once West Ham came into the picture, a number of things felt right: Les Sealey, whom I had known since Reading, told me it was a fantastic club. Having friends and family in London was another bonus. The club has a tradition of passionate support, which I had become accustomed to at Newcastle, but at the same time it is a family club - you get the feeling we are all in it together. Then there's coming back to my birthplace!' He roars with laughter.

Listed in the Rothmans Football Yearbook - 'Born: Hackney' - he regrets to inform everyone that he was in fact born near Hyde Park Corner. Still, all in all, he appears to be comfortable in his element at Upton Park. Galvanised. Ambitious. Content. Most of all, relaxed. Hislop intones the word and gives a perfect example of onomatopoeia. Gently rolling the 'r', indulgently lingering on the 'lax', you feel your load lightening just listening to the word. Peter Schmeichel, who should be his opposite number today, is instead seeking R & R on Carribbean beaches. Eat your heart out, Peter.