The curious career of David N’Gog: From going AWOL to retiring at 31

When David N’Gog found himself all alone in front of Manchester United’s goal and coolly slotted the ball home to secure a 2-0 victory for Liverpool in October 2009, he probably didn’t realise that was going to be the peak of his career.

N’Gog was just 20 years old at the time and in his second season at Liverpool after joining from PSG. He was joined in celebration by Pepe Reina, after the goalkeeper had sprinted past the whole outfield to get to the striker first as Anfield rejoiced.

“My best moment in football,” was N’Gog’s description of the goal after the match. Eleven years on, and having just announced his retirement at the age of 31, it remains the obvious highlight of a curious career.

N’Gog came through PSG’s academy and spent two seasons playing sporadically for the first team. Crucially, this was not a time when PSG were the Death Star of European football, but rather a club in crisis, battling against relegation in both 2006-07 and 2007-08.

The France youth international still did enough to catch the eye of Liverpool’s scouts, and Rafa Benitez ultimately settled for the forward in a deal worth around €1million – a move which dashed any hopes of Michael Owen returning to his boyhood club, according to Michael Owen himself.

Three years later, N’Gog left Liverpool for Bolton as something of a punchline, having failed to score more than five goals in a single Premier League campaign, and his best tally in all competitions standing at eight, which he reached in both of his final two campaigns at Anfield.

Looking back, it’s easy to feel a degree of sympathy for N’Gog. There’s an argument to be made that the back-up striker is one of the most difficult roles to fulfil in football. Goalscoring, perhaps more than any other trait in the game, requires supreme sharpness; instead of being given game-time to find his fluency, N’Gog had to go cold on the bench before being turned to to make an impact in the dying stages of games.

Competing for a place in the side with peak-Fernando Torres and, later, a burgeoning Luis Suarez, only added to the sense that N’Gog was out of his depth, and his record of 19 goals in 94 appearances was certainly unfavourable in comparison to two of the most lethal strikers the Premier League has ever seen.

Given the stop-start nature of his time on Merseyside, a goal every 226 minutes, or a goal every two and a half games, perhaps isn’t too bad. If only he was around with, say, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli, rather than Torres and Suarez, he would have appeared somewhat prolific.

Regardless, being straddled by Pepe Reina was his obvious high-point at Anfield.

After leaving Liverpool for Bolton in a £4million move, the downwards trajectory of N’Gog’s career became seemingly impossible to arrest.

His goal tally dipped even further to just four in all competitions as Bolton were relegated in his first season at the club. Fulham tried to offer him a Premier League lifeline but Bolton rejected a £3million bid; the offer reflecting the forward’s status as a player whose career was only going one way.

The Championship did not offer much respite. Eight goals arrived in 2012-13 and a further three in the first half of 2013-14. With six months remaining on his contract, Swansea offered him a surprise return to the Premier League, bringing his time in Lancashire to an end, but that only resulted in three appearances, no goals and a swift exit.

Then things got really weird.

A return to France with Reims was announced in September 2014 and a goal on his debut against Toulouse offered promise. But before he made another appearance, and still less than a month into his stay, N’Gog made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

A story in L’Equipe suggested N’Gog had gone AWOL. According to the report, he had been struggling with a stomach illness, but the club were unsure of his whereabouts after a doctor visited his hotel room only to find he wasn’t there. Reims released a statement reiterating that he was ill, while also urging “respect for people’s private life”.

That was about as interesting as things got for N’Gog at Reims. His two-year contract ended with 10 goals in 44 appearances and that familiar feeling of relegation to the second tier, all while having to watch his former club PSG transform into serial title winners.

The journeyman years had truly begun, as N’Gog played for four clubs in four different countries in the final four years of his career.

A year in Greece with Panionios produced three goals, followed by a six-month stretch as a free agent. N’Gog’s former Bolton boss Owen Coyle offered him a route back into football with a short-term deal at Ross County, which only resulted in one goal and another relegation.

Hungary was next on the agenda as N’Gog joined Budapest Honved and enjoyed relative success, scoring on his debut and ending his only full season at the club with 12 goals in 31 appearances – the only time he reached double figures in a single season.

Ahead of his second campaign in Budapest and a potential return to European football with the Europa League, N’Gog spoke warmly about his new home in an interview with Goal:  “It’s a historic club, you can feel the history, there are many fans in Budapest and all around Hungary.

“It’s a nice club, they are trying to do something good, they play good football, the facilities, the training ground are all brand new, so it’s a good place to be. I am still trying to develop and helping the club to achieve the best.”

Yet come February 2020, he was on the move again, joining Lithuanian outfit Zalgiris and scoring once in two appearances before the league’s postponement.

Upon its return, N’Gog played 90 minutes in a 1-0 defeat to FK Riteriai before surprising his new club by announcing his retirement with immediate effect.

“Of course, his decision was unexpected for everyone – coaches and team leaders,” manager Vilma Venslovaitiene told the club’s official website. “David’s career is impressive, he has played in the most famous clubs in Europe and the world. It’s all coming to an end, and David has decided he wants to end his career now.”

In many ways, it’s a fitting end for David N’Gog – and a career that regularly posed more questions than answers.

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