THIS time last year, Michael Ngoo travelled to Wembley with Liverpool and watched as his team-mates won the English League Cup.
On Sunday, he will be very much in the thick of things at Hampden as Hearts bid to win the Scottish version for the first time in 50 years.
Ngoo, who is on loan at Tynecastle from Liverpool until the end of the season, was happy enough with that penalty-shoot-out victory over Cardiff City last spring. He took part in the celebrations on the journey from London back to Merseyside, and enjoyed being part of the big occasion. But he is sure it will not compare with the experience of actually playing in a major final.
“I can’t wait for the day to come,” Ngoo said yesterday as he looked ahead to the meeting with St Mirren. “It’s a dream come true to be playing at Hampden in a cup final – my first ever cup final.
“All the Liverpool reserve players went to watch [the League Cup final] and celebrated with the boys afterwards. Of course I wanted to be out there – every player wants to experience that sort of big occasion – but I have to acknowledge the fact that I am young and still learning the game and trying to get experience.
“It’s good to learn off good players and go to big games. You need to soak up everything those players do and apply it when you get your own chance.
“They travelled back because the league was still going on – we celebrated on the way back on the train, we passed the cup around and everyone was taking pictures and singing and there was a bit of champagne.
“It’s not the same as playing. It will be very different on Sunday and I need to step up to the mark. I have a few of my friends coming up. A few of the players wanted to come up, but they can’t because of training but they’ll all be watching on TV.”
Liverpool and Ngoo in fact made it to Wembley twice last season, as they reached the FA Cup final too, losing 2-1 to Chelsea. It was an unwanted experience, but also, he hopes, an instructive one.
“Seeing the senior players feeling down was difficult. You want the best for them and the club. You have to try and think ‘what went wrong?’ and try to develop yourself so that, if that ever happens again, you can react and help the team.
“Liverpool is a huge club and we should be winning more trophies, but it’s a huge achievement to get to any cup final, no matter how big or small you are. The build-up has to be right and everyone needs to be focused physically and mentally.”
Ngoo made his Hearts debut in the League Cup semi-final, scoring one of the penalties in the shoot-out victory against Caley Thistle and instantly endearing himself to the Hearts support with a buccaneering performance. More recently, he has teamed up with John Sutton in attack as caretaker manager Gary Locke has opted for a 4-4-2 formation that was particularly effective in last week’s league win against St Johnstone.
At 6ft 6in he can be ungainly at times, but he can also use his strength to get the better of defenders. He knows he is still a raw talent, but aims to return to Merseyside in the close season and force his way into manager Brendan Rogers’ plans.
“Maybe Brendan might be looking for other things in his team, like height and strength, so hopefully I have done enough to be considered in his plans for next season,” he reasoned.
“I’m glad that I’ve been a challenge for very good defenders in my first ever top-flight run. I’m still young, I’m 20, and if I keep working and practising then I could be a Plan B for Liverpool.
“They have DVDs of all my performances. Even if they don’t get to the game they’ll see the DVD and I am always getting texts from the staff at Liverpool.”
At first glance there may be little in common between Ngoo’s style of play and Kenny Dalglish’s, but the next time you see the Englishman backing into a defender before turning and shooting, you may just be witnessing a trick he learned at the feet of the master. “He was a big influence as academy manager at Liverpool,” Ngoo said of the former striker.
“We had a lot of conversations and he used to come out and train with us from time to time. He was always around and passing on great advice. He was absolute quality in training.
“He would always have a laugh and a joke, but when he starts doing the tricks and skills you could see how good he was.”
Although he was born in London and was a youth player with Southend, Ngoo has been on Liverpool’s books since 2009 and now feels like an adopted Scouser. Even before he joined the club, he was aware of their history, and showed his emotional attachment to them when, after scoring in a reserve game last September, he revealed a T-shirt supporting the campaign for justice for those who died at Hillsborough in 1989.
“As a young kid I followed the team and knew about what happened. It means a lot to fans and friends I know, who adore Liverpool, so I did it for them.”
That childhood enthusiasm for his parent club perhaps explains why he chose them over Manchester United – even though he won a trophy there at youth level while on loan from Southend.
“I played in the Milk Cup and won it with Manchester United in Northern Ireland. I scored in the final and set up the other in a 2-1 win against Sheffield United. It was a good experience. They wanted to sign me, but I ended up choosing Liverpool.”
And, good experience though that was, it is instructive that Ngoo regards Sunday as his first cup final. The Milk Cup can go down as practice. Last year’s League Cup at Wembley was a preview. Now it’s time for the real thing.