Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Shaka interview

(originally appeared in EX Magazine)
Shaka Hislop, at the ripe old age of 37, took a decision last summer that required the kind of bravery one would expect from a man who makes his living as a goalkeeper.
Coming off a tremendous – and unexpected – performance for Trinidad & Tobago during the group stages of the FIFA World Cup in Germany, Shaka left the comfortable environs of English football and dipped his toes in the waters of America’s Major League Soccer.
Loyal West Ham servant Shaka signed a multiyear deal with FC Dallas on July 5, joining a club that plays in state-of-the-art Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. However, things did not go quite as Shaka would have hoped. Joining the club in midseason, Shaka was bedded in by coach Colin Clarke instead of being given a chance to claim the No. 1 goalkeeping jersey straight away.
Shaka started just four matches, winning two and losing two while surrendering 10 goals and making just 13 saves. Shaka was left on the bench for FC Dallas’ two-leg playoff loss to the Colorado Rapids in the round-of-eight. That postseason elimination cost Clarke his job.
“It was always going to be a difficult circumstance coming in at the middle of the season,” Shaka said in a half-hour telephone interview from his home in the Dallas suburb of McKinney on November 10. The playful sounds of his four young daughters made for an interesting and warm audio backdrop to the phone call.
“I had a long season with West Ham, then played a lot of football for Trinidad & Tobago at the World Cup. I hadn’t had a proper break for 15 months. It didn’t go as well as I would have liked, but I’m looking forward to a proper offseason.”
Clarke’s firing has caused Shaka to take a wait-and-see approach ahead of the 2007 MLS season.
“It is a bit strange, because I came here on the recommendation of Colin Clarke,” Shaka said. “I also came because of goalkeeping coach Alan Knight, who I played for at Portsmouth. Like everyone else at the club, I will be monitoring the coaching situation.
“But I am also optimistic, as it’s a good chance to rest physically and recapture my form for next season.”
Despite his lack of playing time, Shaka is confident he made the right decision to join MLS for two reasons – the quality of the American top flight and the top-notch facilities.
“When I left (Washington, D.C.-based) Howard University in 1992, there was no top American league,” Shaka said.
“The standard has improved immensely since then. You can see that by the USA regularly qualifying for the World Cup, and also by the number of American players contributing to clubs throughout Europe.”
Pizza Hut Park, which has hosted the last two MLS Cup finals, has made quite an impression on Shaka.
“It’s a fantastic place to play,” he said. “The club has a great set-up and dedicated fans, and that bodes well for the future of the sport in America.”
But no matter how much Shaka has come to appreciate his new surroundings, he will never forget regularly being named in the starting 11 at Upton Park and the unique matchday experience on display at East London’s temple of football.
The Hackney-born, 6-foot-4, 214-pound Shaka made 25 appearances (including Cup matches) for Hammers during the 2005-06 season. It was his second stint with the Irons, whom he played for from 1998-2002. He will always treasure either period of his professional career.
“There is a wall of noise at the ground, and I think the West Ham supporters sometimes get an unfair label as being a harsh crowd,” said Shaka.
“The club has a specific tradition of playing good football, and the supporters won’t settle for anything less. They won’t condone long ball tactics, even if it means sacrificing results. As a player if you can accept that, you will get on well with the West Ham crowd.”
Shaka then made an observation that would surely guarantee him free beers for life in any East End or Essex pub.
“I prefer playing in front of a team that is committed to playing the West Ham way, which makes a pledge to be exciting and play the ball on the floor,” he said. “Even if it means you are beaten four-nil on occasion, well, that comes with the territory.”
Shaka was asked for his reflections on the two most-fabled matches of his West Ham career: last spring’s FA Cup final loss to Liverpool, 3-1 on penalties after a 3-3 draw AET in Cardiff, and the 1-nil win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January 2001.
First off, before Steven Gerard’s wonder goal, did he think Hammers had the FA Cup final in the bag?
“Oh, as the game goes on you start counting down the minutes,” Shaka said with a slight laugh. “When we were winning 3-2, you could sense Liverpool were starting to tire. Both teams had started to cramp up. The players had given their all and had run out of steam.”
Shaka then got a bit more philosophical.
“In the end, you resign yourself that it wasn’t meant to be,” he said. “Especially when we hit the post (through a Nigel Reo-Coker header) in extra time. I didn’t want to watch Liverpool accept the trophy, but I ended up looking on anyway. As strange as it sounds, watching them – not us – lift the Cup will be an image that stays with me for the rest of my life. It was surreal at the time.”
Delving back to that famous win over Man United, Shaka laughed aloud when he was reminded that Stuart Pearce took the goal kicks that day.
“Ha-ha, that was a phenomenal afternoon,” Shaka said. “I had an injury – a cyst on the back of my knee – and I was told to have two complete weeks of rest. But Harry Redknapp, who always showed a lot of faith in me, came to me on the Thursday morning and asked me to play just one more match before taking the rest period. It proved to be an inspired request. That is a day I will remember for a long time, for sure.”
Shaka played for two quite different managers during his two tours of duty at the Boleyn Ground, and he was more than happy to shed light on the delineation between the two.
“Harry Redknapp was one of the old heads, a sort of sergeant who was good at putting teams together and then letting them play,” Shaka said. “He showed those same qualities at Portsmouth, when he assembled a team that knew how to play winning football.”
The subject then switched to Alan Pardew.
“When I came back to Upton Park for my second go-round, everything had changed,” Shaka said. “Alan was much more scientific in his approach. He is very methodical and strategic. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at West Ham under both managers, and I learned a lot from them.”
One high point of Shaka’s stints with the club was the chance to work with goalkeeping coach Ludek Miklosko. This is one instance where the protégé won’t forget the influence of the teacher.
“With Ludo as my coach, I certainly grew and matured,” Shaka said. “He was responsible for getting the best out of me. When I came back to West Ham in 2005, I was not at my physical peak. I was 36 going on 37. Ludo managed to keep me playing at a high level.”
I reminded Shaka of a performance he gave when he definitely was at the top of his game. In the only Hammers away match I have been to in person (I have seen the club play five times at home), he secured a nil-nil draw at Derby’s Pride Park with a series of top-notch saves in September 2001. I sat in the first row behind one of the goals, and was privy to a spectacular performance by the Trinidadian shot-stopper.
What stood out the most was his extreme calm, even as Derby approached the final third with the ball in a threatening position. To Shaka, such an even keel seems par for the course.
“As you get older, there are a lot of things you can’t do anymore,” he said. “You have to adjust and stay calm without getting flustered. You send a message to the crowd and the opposition with your body language.
“You try to play on a striker’s mind. In a one-on-one situation or on a penalty, the pressure is on the attacker to score. If you make the save, it’s a bonus. If you go into a game with that mindset, you will survive the pressure of being a goalkeeper.”
Never was that mantra more in effect than before Trinidad & Tobago’s World Cup match v. Sweden in Germany this summer. The younger Kelvin Jack was slated to start in goal for T&T, but an injury to his calf meant Shaka, who qualifies for the Caribbean country through his parents, was given a chance to shine on the world’s biggest stage.
“I felt Kelvin would be able to play through the injury,” said Shaka. “It was touch and go for most of the week, but then I got the call.”
And did he ever make the most of it! An acrobatic performance by Shaka and the rest of his fit and committed teammates saw T&T draw nil-nil with highly-rated Sweden.
Needless to say, Shaka was delighted with the result.
“It’s odd that our biggest footballing result as a nation is nil-nil, but it took a bit of the sting away from losing to the USA 1-nil in 1989, when we were one step away from qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.”
The fairy-tale nearly continued when Hislop and T&T held England scoreless for 80-plus minutes in the second group match in Germany, but England eventually prevailed 2-nil. Shaka was not pleased.
“Peter Crouch scored a controversial goal for England in the 83rd minute, and Steven Gerard popped up in injury time to get a second,” Shaka said. “We definitely gave the England team a couple of scares, and I thought we were a bit unlucky.”
At this point, you can hear the desolate nature of Shaka’s voice when it comes to T&T. Despite him being, along with Dwight Yorke, the nation’s most famous footballer, he is still a fan at heart.
“I remember being at Howard University in 1989 when the USA kept us from going to the World Cup,” Shaka said. “I was just a fan at that point, but I felt so much heartbreak as a Trinidadian. To be able to make up for that in Germany in some sort of fashion was especially pleasing.”
While at Howard, Shaka earned a degree in mechanical engineering – no small feat. He also, as a freshman (first-year student), led the Bisons to a College Cup final appearance against perennial power Indiana. Howard lost 1-nil, but the dye for Shaka’s future in football was certainly cast.
Prior to MLS, most American soccer players aspired to play at universities. Shaka was asked if his academic qualifications (after all, so much has been made of ex-Crystal Palace and Charlton manager – as well as former Hammers player – Iain Dowie’s university degree being the exception to the norm) created a gulf in English dressing rooms.
Once again, Shaka let out a long and genuine laugh.
“I started out at Reading, a club where there were no airs and graces,” he said. “I was very fortunate in that respect. They were a good bunch of players and a good set of people.”
While we fans will always claim Shaka as a Hammer, truth be told he played as many productive seasons in the black-and-white of Newcatle as well as the blue-and-gold of Portsmouth. He has fond memories of both places.
“Playing at St. James’ Park, the one thing that struck me was that the noise was always louder when Newcastle conceded than when we scored,” Shaka said.
“The crowd would immediately turn up the pressure on the opposition, and the only club that could cope with that was Eric Cantona and Manchester United, and they were used to big crowds and big noise. We won 17 out of 19 of our home games one season. That was a testament to the supporters.”
While at Portsmouth – the land of chimes and “Play Up, Pompey!” – Shaka became a convert to the South Coast cause.
“With all due respect to West Ham, Portsmouth have some of the greatest fans in England,” he said. “My time at Fratton Park was one of the high points of my career. It was an amazing old stadium. We achieved so much for a club that had fallen off the radar. We gave them a taste of top-level football again.”
Shaka still keeps in touch with former Hammers goalkeepers Craig Forrest and Stephen Bywater, as well as ex-England winger Trevor Sinclair, who now plays for Manchester City. In that way, he maintains close ties with one-time friends and colleagues. And, fortuitously, satellite technology has allowed Shaka to follow the Hammers’ fortunes while Stateside.
“I watched the Blackburn game, which was a result the club desperately needed,” Shaka said. “And, now playing in a team made up of mostly Americans, I must say that (right back) Jonathan Spector had a great game for West Ham that day. When I was still training with the club before my move to FC Dallas, Jonathan was injured. But he has asserted himself in the first team.”
Okay, that’s all well and good, but we must ask Shaka a truly important question – which makes for better television, the British version of “The Office” with Ricky Gervais or the equally-hilarious American version starring Steve Carell?
Once again, Shaka lets out a deep, booming laugh.
“I haven’t watched any adult TV in the USA yet,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll get around to it. I loved “The Office” when I was in England.
“In the meantime, do you want to ask me about the purple dinosaur ‘Barney’? Keep in mind, my daughters are still very innocent. That’s all I’ve been watching of late!”