Football: Happy end to Hislop's nightmare

Premiership focus: Keeper discarded by Newcastle looks to reassert his England credentials at Upton Park
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The Independent Online
HE SAT on the Newcastle bench at Wembley on FA Cup final day, wondering whether his stubbornness had cost him a career in English football. Shaka Hislop was on his way out of the club, but had no idea where, if anywhere, he might end up.

With his wife eight months pregnant with their second child, times were indeed worrying for the Hislop family. Now, three months later, however, the goalkeeper from Trinidad makes his home debut for West Ham in a nice, gentle opener against Manchester United.

Hislop will have every reason to smile this afternoon as he greets his new home supporters at Upton Park. Until last Saturday's win at Sheffield Wednesday he had not made a Premiership appearance since February, the month when contract negotiations with Newcastle collapsed.

"They wanted me to stay, and made me a good offer, but there were certain parts of the contract where we just couldn't meet eye to eye," the 29- year-old admits. "So I refused to sign. I knew what was going to happen to me as a result. I was never first choice keeper again for Newcastle."

Even without the contract complications, the man who left Reading to join Kevin Keegan's cavaliers was growing increasingly disillusioned with the rotation of goalkeepers under Kenny Dalglish.

"With Shay Given joining me and Pavel Srnicek, I always knew competition would be tough, but I never felt I was ever given a real, extended run in the first team. I always knew that one mistake in a match could quite easily cost me my place, and that's no way to feel in training or during an actual game."

Still, Hislop appreciated the irony of the timing of his dropping from the Newcastle team. "It was the same week that I was picked for the England squad to play against Chile," he adds, fulfilling a dream which justified his decision not to play for Trinidad, despite pleas from the island and even from Fifa, football's world governing body. "I was on the bench for the match and it made it a very strange and emotional week for me."

For the rest of the season Hislop sat on the sidelines and wondered if he had done the right thing. "I had to live with the consequences of my stand and it caused me a great deal of concern, believe me. Any choice you make in football these days seems to have immense consequences.

"The longer it went on the closer I came to buckling under the pressure and signing a contract. For long periods I wondered if I had blown my big chance in football. Then I recalled how I felt at the start of the season, when I wasn't part of the team. I didn't want to keep experiencing that, so I stuck to my guns. I'd like to think I'm my own man."

He can say that again. One of a handful of black goalkeepers in English football, Hislop can count among his friends his fellow Trinidadian Brian Lara, and Dwight Yorke, from the neighbouring island of Tobago, who makes his debut for Manchester United against West Ham. Hislop also has a degree from an American university in robotics, and spent a year at Nasa headquarters working on manufacturing robots for use in space. Oh, and his very original African Christian name derives from King Shaka Zulu. Not your run-of-the- mill footballer, then.

He was spotted on tour, playing for the wonderfully named Baltimore Blasters against Aston Villa at the Birmingham National Indoor Arena, where an agent recommended him to Reading. Helping the Berkshire side to the First Division play-offs three years ago, Hislop then made what he believed would be his dream move to the North-east.

At first it worked well, but soon he found himself swapping the goalkeeper's jersey with first Srnicek, and then Given, as the club's prospects began to falter. "Newcastle's mentality has changed under Dalglish and it's going to take a little time to get used to it. Keegan was all about attack, whilst Dalglish is trying to build from a defensive base. I have no doubt success will come to St James' Park, though, but it won't happen overnight."

Not, though, with Hislop, who departed for a holiday in Trinidad three days after the Cup final with his pregnant wife, and with no club to return to in readiness for the new season. "I collected my loser's medal and left," he says. "I was thrilled to be there at Wembley, of course, but since February I'd felt on the sidelines at the club. Sure, I was worried about my future, but I had faith."

With a second daughter added to his family, a mightily relieved Hislop signed for West Ham on 1 July. This time he had a contract to his liking, and just felt good to be in a team again.

"I'm loving it," he freely admits. "The dressing-room is buzzing, we all genuinely get along very well, and it's just great to be playing again after such a long break. I think everyone sees West Ham as an excellent side, and there's no reason why we can't do very well this season in all competitions.

"Of course, the competition for the goalkeeper's jersey is tough here, too. Right now I am the number one, because I played at Sheffield Wednesday, but that's only one game. I know that Craig Forrest and Ludo Miklosko will both be trying hard to play as well.

"It felt so good when I ran on to the pitch at Hillsborough. I felt a mixture of nervousness and joy. To keep a clean sheet and be part of a winning team on my debut made it the perfect start. Now I hope for a good result against Manchester United, and I'm really looking forward to be playing at Upton Park as a West Ham player."

And after this? Presumably the man who was born in London but left for Trinidad at the age of two would like to secure a first international cap? "Well, obviously I want to get myself back into the England squad. The past few months haven't done me any favours there, but I'm hoping for a fresh, new start at West Ham, and a good enough season to get myself back into the reckoning."

Whatever may happen this afternoon, he has every right to be pleased with himself. After an agonising period of time when his nerves were stretched to their limit, he was proved to be right. "It was beginning to turn into a nightmare at Newcastle, so I'm overjoyed how things have worked out," he says.

"Now I know I made the right choice." Shaka Hislop laughs. "Believe me, it's a very sweet feeling to have."

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