COVER STORY: FOOTBALL
Shaka Hislop played for some of the biggest clubs in English football before taking his seat in the ESPN studio as a football analyst. A university graduate before embarking on a professional career, he has been outspoken on a number of issues including the treatment of T&T’s 2006 World Cup squad. Sheldon Waithe chats with him about his career, the Soca Warriors, VAR, and his picks for the 2019-20 season
Published in Parkite Sports Magazine
“I never felt comfortable between the posts; I’m really a striker … goalkeeping was just a temporary gig!” Neil Shaka Hislop insists that his first love was being an outfield player. But as temporary jobs go, his goalkeeping stint didn’t do too badly.
He has a slight limp from his last outing on the pitch – not in goal of course – and immediately warns of his capacity to speak ad infinitum, a trait he now draws on as a beloved pundit on ESPN. “I can real talk; everything with me has a back story.” And he is refreshingly open: “Ask me anything.”
Full football spectrum
The self-proclaimed “reluctant role model” has done the full player spectrum: from College soccer in the US while he earned his degree, to promotion from the English Division 2, chasing the Premiership title in a memorable dogfight with Manchester United, an FA Cup final appearance, promotion to the Premiership from Division 1 and, to cap it all off, goalkeeping for his nation at the World Cup.
He was at the forefront of the T&T players’ battle for proper payment after that World Cup, and is on FIFA’s technical committee. He launched “Show Racism The Red Card” in the UK, a topic that has sadly become headline news once again across the football landscape.
It’s little wonder that he has a lot to tell.
Football or NASA?
Shaka’s height dictated that he was put in goal for T&T’s first national under-12 squad, to play against Venezuela. It was a squad bursting with talent, with the likes of Russell Latapy and Brian Lara, and was his first contact with coach Bertille St Clair.
Secondary school football was followed by a scholarship to Howard University and a budding internship with NASA. But there was an offer from Reading FC across the Atlantic, so a choice had to be made. “My mentor at NASA said ‘Give it a go, you don’t want to be an engineer wondering what if?’ So I gave it a go … and it worked out.”
So began his path towards the top flight. “I had a nice progression. Reading was in the bottom half of the 2nd Division, not a lot of expectation, but even so I struggled in my first year. I stand by this: I signed a two-year contract, and if I hadn’t, I would not have gone back after the first year.” But reluctance turned to joy as he flourished, playing every match, and Reading were promoted. “That changed everything for me.”
The top flight
Kevin Keegan came calling and suddenly Shaka was part of a crack Newcastle United squad that were on course for the EPL title. As before, he took some time to acclimatise. “I struggled to settle, it was a big step up, and all of a sudden there was expectation. When ManU pegged us back in that 95-96 season, I didn’t deal with that well emotionally.”
Then came perspective. “In my second season at Newcastle my eldest daughter was hospitalised; I was going from training or the game to the hospital. Again, it changed everything. All of a sudden I realised what was important.” For a player coping with the pressures of weekly matches, fans and media, “Home became my safe place where I could put everything away. Similarly, I could dislodge myself from issues at home and focus on the match.”
This leads to the subject of blocking out the crowd, chants, and coping with nerves. The goalkeeper’s position is somewhat isolated, leaving them more open to anxiety. “I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, ‘You have to be able to challenge your nervous energy’, there’s nothing wrong with being nervous. I also started chewing gum, I found it would help.”
Within the tribalism of various clubs across the breadth of England, he was adored. Chants claimed him as one of their own, ringing out “Shaka’s a Geordie!” or “Shaka The Hammer!”. “Whoever I played with, I tried to make myself a part of their community, and that is what started Show Racism The Red Card. It was my way of giving back; these people pay money to come and see me play, so I felt I owed them a debt.”
Raheem Sterling, spearheading the current football anti-racism campaign, harks back to Hislop’s pioneering role in tackling the issue. What is Shaka’s solution? “Banning a club will never erase what is the underlying problem, which is racism in society. I don’t feel that the authorities have been innovative enough in their approach to the problem.
“What I would like to see happen is, say, a fine of $500,000 for a club found guilty; that’s an extortionate amount of money, but if you then say that you’ll suspend $400,000 if the club spends $150K on an educational programme trying to address the issue within their fanbase, that would work a whole lot better that just increasing fines.”
2006 World Cup
The pinnacle of Shaka’s playing career came in 2006 at Germany’s World Cup, but he believes that T&T was better placed to qualify in 2002. “The team was good but Jack [Warner] didn’t like [T&T coach] Bertille [St Clair] because Bertille was so outspoken. So he sent an ultimatum to Bertille that if he didn’t win the 2000 Gold Cup, he’s getting sacked. Ridiculous! Keep in mind that that 2000 semi-final appearance is still our best showing at a Gold Cup, and we lost on penalties. So he sacks Bertille, and that was the unravelling of that team.”
Four years later the quality still shone through, and the Soca Warriors qualified. Not playing at his best for West Ham, Shaka accepted his lack of form, up to a point. He was not the first choice of coach Leo Beenhakker, with whom he had “an exchange” in the days before the first match, and he was not in the best frame of mind. “I was angry, and I don’t play football angry. Then I made my mind up that I never thought that I would see a T&T team play at a World Cup, so I’m going into this with the position that I’m a fan with a great seat.”
Now relaxed, he awoke on match day and “ate one set of food, was kicking shots at [goalkeeper Clayton] Ince and thought, ‘I’m enjoying my day, yes’. Next thing Kelvin Jack [the first choice keeper] walks past and says ‘I can’t make’. It took a little while to register, then I saw him talking to Beenhakker; I stood up staring at him, staring at Leo and thinking ‘Leave me out at your peril!’ Our eyes met, he called me over and said, ‘You ready for this?’ I was like ‘Yes’. So that was it.”
Shaka was outstanding. It was his best performance for T&T, as he kept a clean sheet and Sweden at bay, an integral part of T&T defying the odds in one of its most memorable sporting performances.
Equally astounding was the team’s next outing versus England, where they held out for 83 minutes and gave as good as they got. There was something special in that dressing room. “Tactically Beenhakker got it right. We had Dwight [Yorke] sitting in between the two centre halves and at times stepping up, and a lot of what we did – how defensive or how attacking we were – was dictated by Dwight. He has an incredible football intellect, and at that World Cup it was on full display.”
Fight for justice
The post-tournament euphoria did not last long. The T&T players were offered approximately TT$5,000 each as their bonus for playing in the world’s biggest tournament. With his forthright attitude and acute sense of justice, Shaka led from the front in the fight for their just reward.
“Before the Bahrain game the senior players got together to decide what we were going to ask for as a deal. I thought if we got 10% of the commercial revenues, then we did well. Others wanted 30%, which I thought was crazy. I was outnumbered and I nearly died when Jack Warner agreed to the 30%.
“After the tournament we kept chasing the spreadsheet of the revenue earned, and when we finally got it we thought either they’re lying or they’ve got the worst marketing department, if those are the kind of numbers they’re claiming they’ve earned. So we said ‘We’ll see you in court.’”
The protracted affair was not settled until 2013. “Not everyone was up for the fight, but I was getting ready to retire so had nothing to lose. When we eventually got the correct information and saw the numbers, we were like ‘What the …?’ We had no idea, no idea. Early in the discussions we suggested paying everyone TT$250,000 each and we’ll walk away, but then when we saw those figures, we were like ‘Nah!’”
Eventually they settled on a figure that they felt was appropriate. “My point is, if you made an agreement with the players, then honour it, and if you can’t then let’s negotiate: but you can’t bully the players into taking a figure that you want.”
Future of Caribbean sport
The country was not able to build on that World Cup appearance, but while most blamed the local governing body, Hislop believes that it extends further. “The CFU (Caribbean Football Union) position is around wielding power rather than developing the game. The fact that Caribbean nations have no regular league or exchange is testament to that. It’s the reason that no one from the Caribbean has come close to qualifying since.”
On the ESPN panel of football pundits, and with an expanding role at the Olympics and Pan Am Games, Shaka is well placed to comment on the overall development of sport in the region. “I think Caribbean sport is potentially the most exciting to cover, just because of who we are culturally and how much fun we have around our sport.
“I also feel that there is an inherent misunderstanding of the media’s role in sport. People feel that the media are just here to throw money at sport and buy rights, and they will use that money to grow the sport, putting the cart before the horse. In reality it’s the total opposite. Companies don’t come in until those sports are viable. Unless you’re NFL, EPL or Wimbledon, people largely pay to be on the media platforms because that allows them to get money from sponsors. We need to improve the quality of the product in every regard and then attract media and sponsors.”
The Shaka Hislop story deserves to be told more often, for new generations to appreciate the aspects & rewards of hard work, the importance of balancing education with sport, a strong sense of right and wrong, and the willingness to fight for what you believe is right. To never lose sight of your core values regardless of the station you attain, to recognise the worth of giving back to the community, to draw on those principles from a strong family base and – if you’ve seen him on ESPN – to have fun along the way.
“I remember saying once that I’m a reluctant role model, and my wife saying ‘You can’t say that’. I accept that I’m a role model, given what I’ve achieved, but that’s not why I do it. It was never part of my motivation. I will do what I can when I can; if people reach out to me I will always support as best I can.”
He is correct, he can definitely talk; but when Shaka speaks, it’s always worth listening.
Shaka talks VAR
The introduction of the Video Assisted Referee (VAR) system into football has been contentious, to say the least! As a member of FIFA’s International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the laws of the game, we wanted Shaka’s view.
“I love it. Let me say that I also think the criticisms are reflective of how resistant to change we are. The game is getting so fast and officiating errors have become so costly, a wrong decision can cost a club millions of dollars. So there was a need for the introduction of technology.
“I didn’t understand why the Bundesliga and others jumped on it as quickly as they did: let some of the smaller leagues use it first, let the MLS use it, figure out the kinks, etc. But then, come the World Cup 2018, it worked really well.
“I think it works well in a shorter tournament. In a longer league format the standard position was if a referee made a wrong decision it would come out in the wash; at some point you are going to be the beneficiary of a mistake, it balances itself out. As the protocols become clearer, not just for the players and fans but for the referees, I think it will get better. I think football deserves the right decision, not just the quick decision.”
Taking quickfire shots at Shaka
Your favourite football team?
Favourite sport outside of football?
Golf. No, I’m not giving you my handicap! I enjoy the camaraderie; the score is just to decide who buys the drinks.
We saw you and Usain Bolt together for a promotion recently, who was stronger?
Who was stronger?
Well, we know who is faster.
That’s only because I pulled my hamstring. Hahaha. Nah, he’s strong.
The one ex-player you would have liked in your dressing room?
The one defender that you would have in front of you?
The best striker that you have faced?
Your favourite save that you made?
West Ham at home to Aston Villa, we drew nil-nil. Lee Hendry came inside the box, shot one, and I was able to parry it: but it then fell for Paul Merson, and he was tapping into what he thought was an empty goal. I somehow got back and tipped it around the post.
Who’s winning this season’s Champions League?
I’ll go for Atletico Madrid.
I’m torn between Atletico and Barcelona, but I’m going to go with Barcelona.
And the next ESPN FC debate?
Me, of course!