Hislop prepared for a giant leap

Joe Parkinson
Date Published: 
The Independent

Reading's keeper has his eyes on higher things, says Joe Parkinson

While you try and work out who might win the First Division play- off final at Wembley on Monday afternoon, here is a question: which player in the match has a degree in robotics?

Let's make it a bit easier. Possessing one of the more memorable Christian names in English football, this player is more entitled than most to use the cliche "over the moon'' following a year's stint at Nasa.

Still not there? We are talking about the only black goalkeeper in the English professional leagues, a man so confident in his ability that he has repeatedly turned down the chance to play for one country in the expectation that one day he will wear the England jersey.

Shaka Hislop hopes he is just 90 minutes away from fulfilling another of his dreams, when he steps out with the Reading to face highly fancied Bolton. The 26-year-old cult hero from Elm Park has come a long way since those days when, as a gangly striker in Trinidad, he dreamt of scoring a hat-trick at Wembley.

"When I went up for the national trials at under-12 level in Trinidad I was a forward, but the coach took one look at me, could see that I was the tallest, and told me that from that point on I would be a goalkeeper," Hislop recalls. "I wasn't going to argue with him and, besides, I discovered I was quite good at it."

Hislop then went to Howard University, Washington DC, where, as well as studying mechanical engineering - specialising in manufacturing and robotics - he also played football for the splendidly named Baltimore Blasters. On tour with them against Aston Villa at the Birmingham Indoor Arena he was voted man of the match.

"Although my studies were interesting, especially when I spent a year at the Nasa headquarters in Washington working on manufacturing robots for use in space, I set my sights on English football. Although I had lived in Trinidad since I was two years old, I was born and first lived in London. When an agent recommended me to Reading I jumped at the chance of a trial."

The fortnight's trial turned into a contract and Hislop found himself in a team rooted to the bottom of the Second Division. Since his arrival Reading have enjoyed an astonishing revival, winning the Second Division Championship last year, and now finding themselves just one game away from the Premiership. Hislop has been voted the division's best goalkeeper and the club's player of the year.

With that kind of success, is it any wonder that Hislop has turned the Trinidad international team down in favour of a possible England place?

"I was Trinidad's substitute goalkeeper for a three-match Caribbean tournament in 1992, but never played. If I had, I would have been ineligible to play for England," he said. "The national team's been asking me ever since to play, but I want an England cap. I was born here, I have a British passport. I'm entitled. But, back in Trinidad, it's been interpreted that I've turned my back on them. Even Fifa's been pressurising me to change my mind, sending faxes threatening to ban me, but they can't go against their own guidelines. My friends, like Villa's Dwight Yorke, understand, though."

Nothing will dent Hislop's enthusiasm or ambition when he makes his first appearance ("except for a Madonna concert!") at Wembley. "There's no reason why we can't beat Bolton," he insists. "Who would've thought we would go this far? I must play Premiership football, preferably sooner rather than later."

If be does make it next season, there is one more useful fact to know about the man whose African name derives from King Shaka Zulu. Shaka is his middle name. His first name is Neil - as in Armstrong.