Hislop honoured to help delight ‘special’ fans

It was the great Pompey resurrection, a rebirth which saw a proud football club awake from its slumber and retake its place among the game’s elite.

It was 2003 and the record books were being rewritten off the back of a campaign which will never be forgotten.

Shaka Hislop could feel history in the making as Harry Redknapp’s men lifted the division one title with a swaggering brand of football that swept away all before them.

A record points return and goal haul spoke of what was witnessed by the Fratton faithful.

Behind it all was the reassuring presence of a man whose form that campaign saw him named as the best keeper in the division.

With a memorable career spread across 15 years behind him, they are days Hislop puts up there with his very best as he reflects on his time in the game.

‘I enjoyed my time at Pompey, they were special times,’ said Hislop, who now carves out a career for himself as a pundit for ESPN.

‘I left West Ham because I wanted a new challenge and needed a new challenge.

‘Harry offered that to me and convinced me to join.

‘It was a step down from the Premier League but Harry had real belief in what could be achieved.

‘The promotion season was beyond anything we dreamed of, though.

‘Harry’s strength was he puts teams together with a real good chemistry.

‘We enjoyed our Championship season a great deal.

‘We got off to a good start, began to believe and carried on off the back of that momentum. In the end we ran away with it.

‘I think Sheffield United and Leicester were challenging at one point towards the end.

‘But we were on top and held on until the very end and went up as champions. That was a testament to the team Harry built.

‘We had special nights when we went up and won the title.

‘You play the game for those special nights and they sit in my memory as vividly as they do the Pompey fans’.

‘You feel like you are writing history for the football club – and you could feel that.

‘There’s a special bunch down on the south coast and it was an honour to be part of those exciting times.’

Hislop was one of the first big-name arrivals through the door in the summer of 2002, as Redknapp went about his job of building a powerful outfit at breakneck speed. But it was the signing of Paul Merson on the eve of the new campaign which really signalled Pompey’s intent as the Milan Mandaric era went into orbit.

Hislop said: ‘We believed in the potential but it really changed when Merse arrived.

‘There was talk about it but we began to wonder if it was ever going to happen.

‘Harry is as well connected in the game as anybody, though, and was pulling on those connections.

‘I remember Merse’s first training session – he was late arriving!

‘Harry had us waiting at 10.30am and we were taking penalties and doing keepy uppy.

‘Then Merse came through and you could feel the lift right there.

‘That was a signing that announced we were serious about promotion.

‘Steve Stone came later that year along with Tim Sherwood and we had players who were Premier League quality.

‘It gave the place a sense of belief and we knew what we could achieve.

‘Merse was a character and having players like him arrive made the difference.

‘He fitted in and was one of the lads. He fitted in from a team perspective.

‘We had his talent but to have him as one of the lads, too, was a huge deal.’

Hislop went on to make 93 appearances for Pompey as the club established themselves as a Premier League force.

A 13th-place finish at the first attempt was cause for celebration but Hislop’s time at Fratton Park came to a sour end as he lost his place to comedy keeper Kostas Chalkias under Velimir Zajec.

Things then went from bad to worse under the stewardship of Alain Perrin.

Hislop said: ‘We had some nervy times, as you do, when we arrived in the Premier League. But we survived that first season and we enjoyed that.

‘The next season was going quite well but Harry’s departure changed things.

‘The Greek goalkeeper came in and unfortunately the last six months were a period I’d prefer to forget.

‘There was a lot of upheaval and I didn’t enjoy Perrin when he came in. I sadly left Fratton Park on a sour note and it didn’t reflect well on the rest of the time I was there. That was a disappointment. But it was Pompey – so there were some wild highs and some wild lows.’

Life after Pompey meant a return to West Ham for Hislop, including a 2006 FA Cup final appearance before Alan Knight convinced him to try his luck in the MLS with FC Dallas.

That came the summer after turning out for Trinidad & Tobago in the World Cup – including keeping England at bay for 83 minutes before his nation fell to a 2-0 loss.

Hislop then settled in the US with his career coming to a close four years ago.

That hasn’t stopped him following the rise and fall of Pompey from afar from his home in Boston, though.

He said: ‘I was delighted to see the club win the FA Cup. What followed was heartbreaking, though.

‘Relegation was inevitable. You can’t survive in the Premier League with financial problems.

‘Look at the bad decisions and the mystery owner. That isn’t the stability needed.

‘Portsmouth is a great place to play football but to have those issues as a backdrop does the fans and the players a real injustice.

‘It’s difficult to play your football, walk out on the training ground on a Monday and have no idea if you will be a player on Tuesday.

‘The club has needed this period of stability. Relegation from the Championship would have been crushing but the club seems to be stable now.

‘Now the ambition is to rebuild. Steve Cotterill has a great history in knowing the Championship. He’s done it before.

‘That’s what Portsmouth Football Club need right now. They don’t need glory signings and bright lights right now. They need stability.

‘The club needs to settle and the staff and fans need to know the club is going to be there for a long time, whether that is in the Championship or the Premier League.

‘Portsmouth Football Club are now back in the starting blocks and that’s a good place for the club to be.’

n Shaka Hislop is part of the team of football analysts on ESPNsoccernet Press Pass, which takes a look at football with a smart global perspective every weeknight and Sunday at 11:30pm on ESPN. Details at: espn.co.uk/tv