David Ngog: 'I must make the most of my time at Liverpool'
The shy striker David Ngog is determined to leave a lasting impression at Anfield, but, he tells Ian Herbert, he won't wait for ever
Saturday 11 December 2010
David Ngog, whose surname is pronounced like the shampoo, doesn't entirely understand why fans and headline writers keep going on about Wash 'n' Go and if some of his Liverpool team-mates have made this brand his nickname, as has been suggested, then it's ahem...gone right over his head. "I'd not noticed," he says. "Someone told me about this but I don't really follow it."
Ngog hardly has much call for shampoo, as our portrait reveals, but the player's two-year struggle for recognition and prominence in the shadow of the once floppy-haired Fernando Torres has made him seem like the player soon to be on the go from Anfield. Ngog is probably one of the players Roy Hodgson will have had in mind yesterday when he spoke of how Liverpool's former managing director Christian Purslow was always in his ear, telling him which young players he should move on.
If the 21-year-old, who has started only 35 games for Liverpool in two and a half years, does not get a more substantial role at Anfield, then he will wash up elsewhere, of his own volition. "I am young but I can't waste my time," he says. "The quicker I can succeed the better. Of course if I see that I don't have a chance to play and don't play I will try to think about another option. I am ambitious and I want to be at the top and to play, and to be one of the best. If things don't happen I will have to make decisions." But for now he will wait. "I don't really have a target for when I want to break through. I work hard and I am confident in myself and I hope I will do it when I get the chance."
What Ngog doesn't say is that an extended period out of the spotlight has probably suited him just fine. He and his great friend Gabby Obertan, of Manchester United, are the two great hopes of their year-group in France and when Ngog broke through into the first team so early at Paris St-German – he was training with the first XI from the age of 16 and playing for them at 17 – there was a formidable weight of national expectation to deal with. The suspicion has always been that a desire to escape the spotlight contributed to his decision to leave so early for Anfield: too early, according to Paul Le Guen, his coach at PSG.
Ngog says Le Guen never gave him any compelling grounds to stay in July 2008 – "I think he knows that we had an agreement. He let me leave," the player insists – but Torres' overwhelming dominance at Anfield in the intervening years has since left France wondering whether their great young hope had made a mistake. Ngog is often compared with Nicolas Anelka, another of the relatively few successful products of the PSG youth system who was also on his way out of Paris at the age of 19, but by the time he had reached 21 he had already made his name at Arsenal and moved on to the Bernabeu.
As characters go, these two strikers stand no comparison. Ngog's shy reserve is as far removed from Le Sulk as you could get and his general reluctance to give interviews – this is his first in a British national newspaper – has faintly contributed to a view among some French commentators that he lacks the ruthless traits of a world-class finisher. Ngog simply insists that he has preferred to keep his counsel until he has something to shout about – "With journalists there is a danger, I prefer to prove my value on the pitch" – and the last few months have certainly offered evidence that his period of quiet development at Melwood is bearing fruit.
In his early Parisian days, Ngog was not at all strong in the air but his flying finish past Brad Friedel on Monday – his eighth goal in 12 starts this season – suggested something has changed in that respect, with his positioning and touch also clearly developing. "En grand, grand progres" (making great, great progress) is how the France under-21 coach Erick Mombaerts described him after his display for the under-21s against Denmark in October. "Plus puissant, plus mobile, plus buteur," (more powerful, more mobile, a better goalscorer) he added.
The qualities Mombaerts listed were all part of the complete Torres package, too, and there is no doubt that while quietly waiting for the main chance, Ngog has been quietly watching his club's main striker, too. "I think we have a good working relationship and on the pitch yeah, I try to learn from him because he has good quality as a striker. We can play well together," he says of Torres.
It is precisely what Ngog did back at the Parc des Princes where, while trying to establish himself for PSG, he found himself in the shadow of Pedro Pauleta, Le Guen's own 25-goal-a-season man. It helps that Ngog's air of quiet contemplation is allied to a strong work ethic. This was imbued in him by his father, a Cameroonian immigrant who settled in Paris as a 20-year-old to study automobile engineering and met his soon-to-be French wife, who was up in Paris from the south of France, working as a commercial assistant. (Ngog's reticence includes a reluctance that their names be published.)
Ngog, an only child, was a mere 12 years old when he joined PSG's academy, leaving his parents behind at their modest house in Paris's 95th department in the north of the city while he lodged at the club, Mondays to Fridays. "That was hard for my family, especially my mum," he says. "But you knew that you had to work. You had perhaps a 20 per cent chance of succeeding at PSG – maybe less. It wasn't easy and the coaches weren't easy with us. They were always pushing us." Ngog is one of those players who never seems to stray off the rails and the fastidiousness seems to run in the family considering that his second cousin Jean-Alain Boumsong – his father and the former Newcastle player's mother are cousins – was similar. Boumsong, with whose family the Ngogs often holidayed, is one of the few French players with a degree in mathematics.
The work paid off for the young striker. He impressed at every level in the French set-up, though it was displays at the prestigious international Montaigu Tournament for under-16s in France five years ago – Ngog scored twice in the final against Japan – that alerted the football world to his ability. "Before that PSG didn't used to use young players. They just bought players in and it was difficult to make it in Paris," Ngog recalls. "Afterwards it was different for me."
At Liverpool, he has demonstrated that he can score against any opposition. His goal which sealed the 2-0 win against Manchester United at Anfield last season was his favourite, he says. "I came on and there was pressure but when I scored at the end of the game it was a relief for every fan and I really connected with the crowd." The strike against Arsenal which set the Premier League campaign under way on the opening day of this season sent a message, too, though Monday's opener against Gérard Houllier's side came with the Liverpool team under even more pressure. "This week's was more important in a way, as we have been under a lot of pressure," Ngog says. "Every goal is important in its own way."
The chances to score have become more frequent because of Roy Hodgson's inclination to play two strikers, where Benitez so often went for one. "Of course when you have two strikers, you have two seats," Ngog reflects. "I think we are doing well with this system. I think we are improving in the games with our passing and are more confident. It is good to have different options and this is one."
The idea of the names Torres and Ngog being as much a part of the Liverpool vernacular as Keegan and Toshack or Rush and Dalglish certainly does appeal. "Yeah why not?" And yet Ngog does not give the impression of being star-struck. His most persistent point in a half-hour interview is that he does not want his own imprimatur to be lost, simply because Liverpool happen to have one of the most famous strikers in world football on their books. "When you are in the team you have to adapt with other players as you are just a part of the team but for me I just try to be myself," he says. "But I don't want to think about too much being someone else's strike partner. I have to be my own player. I can play with Fernando or whoever. For me it's just about being on the pitch every week and showing what I can do."
That quiet self-belief seems to have persuaded Ngog that opting to forge an international career with Cameroon is not something he will do for now, despite a request he received before the World Cup from his old PSG manager Le Guen, who left Paris to manage the Indomitable Lions. "My father is a Cameroonian and I could play for that country," he says. "But yeah maybe [I'll wait]. I've not spoken to [Laurent Blanc] so I don't really know [about my prospects of playing for France]." Wait, not go: the epithet seems to apply to every aspect of Ngog's footballing life. The events of the past week reinforce the sense that Hodgson, as much as Blanc, has good reason to be glad of it.
My Other Life
I don't venture out all that much from my flat at Liverpool's Albert Dock, but film is one of my favourite pastimes. Difficult to put my finger on the best film I've seen in the last year but I do like historical films and Ridley Scott's Gladiator is one of my all-time favourites.
Ngog in numbers
78: Appearances for Liverpool since signing from Paris St-Germain in July 2008 for £1.5m, but only 35 of them as starts.
19: Goals for Liverpool and has already equalled last season's total, eight, in this campaign – five in the Europa League, two in the Premier League and one in the Carling Cup.
20: France Under-21 caps. He also scored against England Under-19s in a 2-0 win three years ago.
17: Years old when he broke into the Paris St-Germain first team.
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