Football: D-Day for the B boys

Simon Turnbull talks to two players who have risen to join the fringe party
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The Independent Online
YOU do not necessarily need to be a rocket scientist to calculate the value of Glenn Hoddle resurrecting the England B team this coming week. Just for good measure, though, Hoddle happens to have one (well, as good as one) in the squad he has selected for the match against Chile at The Hawthorns on Tuesday.

Neil Shaka Hislop did, after all, spend a summer vacation on work experience with Nasa in his student days in the United States. It would be fair to say the Newcastle goalkeeper, who graduated from Howard University, Washington DC, with a degree in mechanical engineering, was appropriately, if only metaphorically, over the moon when his name appeared in Hoddle's second-team squad. So was Steve Guppy, who started his working life as a bricklayer. Like Hislop, if not Chris Sutton, the Leicester winger needed no qualifications to appreciate the worth of the international honour he stands to gain this week.

Rejected by Southampton as a teenager and off-loaded by Newcastle without making a first-team start, Guppy did not play in the Premiership until last March - at the age of 28. And Hislop, as recently as November, was bench-bound at Newcastle and facing a distinctly unpromising future. Indeed, with Shay Given installed as No 1 and his own contract running out, there appeared to be no future on Tyneside for Hislop. But then Given was struck by injury and the man named after a Zulu warrior - Shaka, that is, not Neil - has taken his chance with relish.

Like Guppy, Hislop has made it to the fringe of international level as a 28-year-old unlikely lad. Though born in London, he was raised in Trinidad, where he played schoolboy football with two strikers who never quite made the grade in the beautiful game. But, then, Ato Boldon is the 200m world champion, and Brian Lara is the cricketing captain of the West Indies. Hislop did pad up with Lara at the Harvard Cricket Club but pointed out: "I wasn't anything like as good as him, even though I once read somewhere that I had been on the fringe of the West Indies Test squad. I must have been some player - I packed in playing seriously when I was 12."

It was while keeping goal for Baltimore Blast, against Aston Villa in an exhibition match, that Hislop got his chance to play in England. His debut for Reading, in 1992, was at The Hawthorns. The men from Elm Park failed to pull up any trees. They lost 3-0.

Like Hislop, Guppy was signed for Newcastle by Kevin Keegan, though he only spent three months on the staff at St James' Park, in 1994. He left before the 6ft 4in goalkeeper arrived from Reading. With him, as he stepped down into the First Division with Port Vale, appeared to go his chance of making it at the top level. Released by Southampton after a 10-week trial as a 19-year-old, Guppy worked as a brickie while helping Martin O'Neill lay Football League foundations at Wycombe Wanderers. Keegan felt he was overawed even on the training ground at Newcastle.

"He was probably right," Guppy reflected. "But I had come from the Third Division to the Premiership. Even when I went to Leicester it took me time to settle in. I was only at Newcastle for three months. I only played one game, and that was as a second-half substitute against Manchester United in the Coca-Cola Cup. In the end, going to Port Vale turned out to be a smashing move for me.

"I'm grateful to John Rudge for the chance he gave me and I'm grateful to Martin O'Neill, too. I was 28 when he signed me last year. I'd been talking to a club in Holland. I thought maybe I wouldn't get a chance in the Premier League."

Eleven months later, Guppy has played European football in the Vicente Calderon, on the winning side against Manchester United at Old Trafford and is back on the international scene. Back? He played for England against Wales in 1992. "We won 2-1," he said, "at Cheltenham." That, though, was in his days as a semi-professional winger.

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