THE Scottish Premier League would toughen up most footballers. Nonetheless, when a hulking figure like Michael Ngoo says the SPL has taught him to play men’s football, it underlines the gluttonous nature of our top flight.
Ngoo stands 6ft 5ins tall, with shoulders like jumbo-jet wings and a loping stride that would do justice to a gazelle.
His toughest opponent? Jim Goodwin of St Mirren, who at 6ft carries nothing like the same physical presence as Ngoo. The 21-year-old returns to Liverpool next week when his five-month loan at Hearts concludes. He takes with him a wealth of experience, not to mention a few scars and bruises.
“It’s been a fantastic experience. There have been highs and lows, but I’ve learned a lot of things to take with me in my career,” the striker told the Evening News. “I’ve been taught how to play men’s football, a lot of physical work and I’ve worked with the gaffer. Mentally, I’ve learned how to prepare for games. I’m very thankful to Hearts for the opportunity and to the fans for being loyal to me.
“The football up here has helped me mature as a player, especially when we go a goal up. You learn about not being vulnerable to conceding, when to drop in behind the ball and when to press the ball. I’ve learned a lot of things from playing what I call men’s football. The SPL has a lot of good players and they can punish you if you switch off.”
One of those is the aforementioned St Mirren captain, who got the better of Ngoo in March in the Paisley club’s dramatic League Cup final victory. “Jim Goodwin was a tough opponent with his experience, I’d say he was the hardest guy I came up against. It was good playing against him,” said Ngoo.
Not surprisingly, the Englishman wants to sign off in style with a goal against Aberdeen. He has five to his name from 15 appearances for Hearts to date. Tomorrow’s trip to Pittodrie concludes a season most Tynecastle regulars would rather forget, even if Ngoo has learned a plethora of tricks and tips to add to his attributes.
“That’s at the back of my mind. I’m going to try everything to score a goal tomorrow,” he continued. “Getting to the League Cup final and walking out at Hampden was fantastic. That was the main highlight for me from my time here.”
Now he will return to Anfield with the aim of improving further during the final year of his contract. His performance level in Scotland was decent although not at the standard of a player ready to compete in England’s Premier League. That point is not lost on Ngoo.
“I’ll go back to Liverpool now and train. I’m young and I’m still improving. Playing first-team football at Hearts is a lot different than when I was playing for Southend (from whom he joined Liverpool in 2009). Southend is a big club and so is Hearts.
“I’ve been involved in the first team a lot here. I will come back to Edinburgh because I’ve enjoyed my time here. Everyone’s been grateful and decent with me.
“If I got the chance to come back and play in Scotland again I’d definitely consider it.”
He’s certainly built for it and one can only imagine what an imposing presence Ngoo will be when his lanky limbs fill out. As well as being tested physically in the SPL, he has also experienced the often unsettling nature of senior football due to Hearts’ off-the-field problems.
Concentrating on matters on the field of play has been one of his biggest challenges north of the Border. “I kind of block it out and focus on the football, even though it’s difficult,” he explained.
“Players don’t like to hear bad things happening to the team they’re playing for because it brings their spirits down. That’s why I tried to block things out and focus on the games to put in a performance for the fans.”
That mental strength was required last weekend in the Edinburgh derby, as Hibs fans taunted the striker during their 2-1 win at Tynecastle.
“I’m not really fazed about that. They’re just happy because they got a lucky win by scoring in the last minute. Personally, I think Hearts are a better team than them.”
As Ngoo prepares to appear for the final time as a Hearts player tomorrow, manager Gary Locke is already pursuing replacements for his forward line. He wants to recruit some experience ahead of the 2013/14 campaign, which will be his first full season in charge.
John Sutton has been Ngoo’s attacking partner for much of the last five months the pair developed a useful relationship together. Locke is hopeful that another two new faces will be in place for pre-season training and guarantee him more options up front.
Ngoo, though, leaves with a fair and balanced endorsement from his manager ringing in his ears.
“Michael came into the team and initially did very well,” recalled Locke, who was first-team coach when John McGlynn helped bring Ngoo to Tynecastle in late January.
“I think people forget he’s only 21 years of age. We’ve had a couple of indifferent performances from him but you will always get that with young kids. We’ve seen that all through the season here with the teenagers who have played in the first team. In some games we’ve been great, and in other games we haven’t.
“I’d say Michael’s contribution has been good and he’s been a fantastic lad to work with. He’s going back down to Liverpool in the summer and we wish him all the best.”
There aren’t many footballers with the unique attributes of Michael Ngoo, so he is unlikely to be forgotten in Gorgie. One thing is certain, he won’t forget Hearts.