A Paris Saint-Germain academy graduate whose ambitions took him to Liverpool, Bolton and Swansea, David N’Gog has played at the highest level of club football.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse, David shared the highs and lows of an eventful career that has taken him across Europe.
Here he discusses scoring against Manchester United, relegation with Bolton and Ross County, overcoming injury woes and aiming to reignite his career at Budapest Honvéd.
Welcome, David! It would be great if our readers could get to know you a little. So firstly, what is your favourite thing to do in your free time?
Well, I have a lot of things I like to do. Spending time with my family is one of them for sure. I have a child so it’s cool for me to play with him. Sometimes I like to read books or watch some TV shows or movies. I used to go the cinema but it’s a bit difficult to go now with the one kid!
Out of interest, what TV show would you recommend?
It’s difficult to pick but one I’ve just enjoyed recently was Narcos.
Strong choice! You said you liked to read – do you have a favourite book?
I would say one of my favourite writers is Paulo Coelho, and I remember his book “L’Alchimiste” probably the best.
Throughout your career who would you say was your favourite player to play with?
The easiest to play with was probably Steven Gerrard but the one I liked a lot was Gabriel Obertan who I played with while I was in my youth team in France.
Did you have a favourite player growing up?
Yes, Thierry Henry. He won the World Cup with France in ’98 and he played in my position too so he was an inspiration.
And who did you support as a boy?
I spent my whole time in Paris so it is easy for me to say Paris Saint-Germain. Some people from Paris support Marseille but I was a very local guy.
What was it like growing up around Paris?
I was born about 15km away from Paris in a town named Franconville. My parents still live there actually. I was an only child but I had many friends around from school and always being outside playing football, basketball or any sport I could play. And then, around 12 years old I went to Paris Saint-Germain academy so I kind of left home in the weeks, from Monday to Friday, and on the weekends I would go home. I did that until I was 18.
That’s a fair commute for a 12 year-old. How did your parents cope with you being away from a young age?
It was not easy. Being an only child it was difficult, especially for my mum. But I was so determined to do it and it was half expected because I had to change my environment. In Franconville I used to play in the street in my PSG shirt and follow the team so in the end I think it was definitely worth it.
Coming through the ranks at PSG, a lot of people were comparing you to the likes of Nicolas Anelka. What did you make of comparisons and expectation when you were playing for the club?
Well not so many players came from the academy of PSG and I was a striker as well in the next generation after Anelka so it made sense. When I signed my senior contract I was one of five or six academy players to sign. I was not really reading the papers or anything. I knew some people were making comparisons but I just tried to follow my own path and do my best to show what I could do.
You left PSG when you were 19. Was your ambition always to leave the club at a young age?
Not at all. When I started I had no real plan for my career. I knew the English league was a really competitive league and I wanted to play with the very best but I didn’t plan to do it, it just happened. I could have left earlier actually but I wanted to sign my first professional contract with PSG.
You played for France at various youth levels growing up. Was there a point in your career you thought you would get the senior call up?
Yeah, it was always one of my ambitions. Especially when I was playing for all the youth teams including the under-21s. Ultimately it didn’t happen but France is a competitive nation, like England, and there are so many players to pick from.
While we are on the topic of national teams, what can you tell us about Cameroon trying to recruit you in 2012?
It was true. It happened when I was at Liverpool but back then I was still playing for the French Under-21s and my target was to continue in that direction. So I didn’t think about it too much.
So the big move abroad happens and you sign for Liverpool. Do you remember how it felt when you heard they were interested?
I don’t remember much about the day but I know I was with my Father because he was quite involved in my football. It was really nice when he told me about it. When it actually happened and I was speaking with Rafael Benitez I was very excited because it is such a big club with lots of history.
You mentioned that your Dad was influential in your football matters. Did that change as you got older or is he still involved?
I think just as a normal Dad he wanted to help me to get through all the stuff around football. I’m very thankful for my family, especially my Mum and Dad, because they support me in every way. They always pushed me to keep doing school even when things were happening for me in football. But I think because my Dad is from Cameroon where football is such a big thing, he just tried to push me and give me advice a lot of the time. He helped me to just focus on the pitch when I was playing.
It is often said that foreign players take a while to adapt to English football. Did you find that was the case for you at Liverpool?
Yes, when I arrived I found the tempo and the training was hard and I was only 19 I needed to improve physically. It took a bit of time to adapt but that is why I chose to make the move to progress in this area.
And English culture? Be honest!
Well, Paris is not that far from England obviously. The people in Paris are standard and not that welcoming but in England, well maybe because I was in Liverpool, I thought the people were very welcoming. They were family people and hard workers and I liked their mentality. For me I think the worst part was the food! Some of it was a bit strange for me. I did try it because I was curious…but I think some of the roasts and pies were not my favourite!
You were signed by Rafa Benitez, who obviously still manages in the Premier League today. What was he like as a manager?
I think because he was a big part of the reason I came to Liverpool we had a good relationship and he was very helpful tactically and physically for me. He was one of the best, tactically, and as a striker he helped me to move differently. Unfortunately, two years after I signed he left the club so I had to adapt to another coach.
What was Rafa like in the changing room? Was he capable of the hairdryer treatment or was he more reserved in his approach?
He did not really do much shouting. I mean he was shouting of course but always with a purpose and not to insult anyone. He really respected the players and always gave us a freedom on the pitch. He was very focused on tactics, especially with defenders.
You entered a Liverpool team full of superstars and recent major success. Did you ever feel over-pressured to succeed at the club?
To be honest, I was not aware of any of this kind of pressure. When I arrived I did not speak much English, so maybe it helped to understand the minimum! I know it is not the same level as Liverpool, but since I was young at PSG I played in a team with pressure to win and succeed. Because Liverpool was a big city, the pressure in the first team of course was a bit higher but I was used to it so for me it was just best to work and help each other to progress.
Liverpool were struggling in your second season there but you score that goal against Manchester United. At the Kop end too… Can you talk me through it?
We were struggling in the league and it was an even more important game because it was Manchester United. I was starting on the bench and Torres scored the first goal in the second half. I think I came on for the last ten minutes. They had some chances to come back but we went on a counter attack, Lucas passed me the ball and I came one against one with Van Der Sar. When I started to run with the ball the time felt so long but luckily I finished it well! Everybody was celebrating and I remember I turned around and saw even Pepe Reina running to me so it was a great moment.
Was that your favourite career goal?
It is my most important goal, yes. For quality, it is a good goal but it was more for the meaning it had.
You mentioned Fernando Torres. Did you feel like you were in competition with him at Liverpool?
No, not really. He had a lot more experience than me. He had won the World Cup and the European Championship so I was just trying to learn from him and step by step to have more time on the pitch.
You gained your first experience of European football at the club. Did Champions League games feel different to domestic games?
Yes, from the preparations to playing at night, it was different. Sometimes we played a different style of football and had to adapt. For some players it is better to win the Premier League but for me the Champions League is the best competition. It’s difficult to focus on both – I think maybe Liverpool will focus on the Premier League this year because they have a good chance.
Did you have any regrets about your time at Liverpool when you left in 2011?
I wouldn’t say regrets but of course to win the title or FA cup would’ve been good. Maybe to be more consistent so I could play regularly and progress but I was still young and I think I had a good experience with everyone there.
Owen Coyle then brought you to Bolton. How did you enjoy your time there?
It was tricky because when I signed they had just finished a good season the year before and so for me it was a good challenge to play more regularly. It was a family club like Liverpool but of course there was a bit less pressure. We started the season bad and then played with the pressure of relegation. To be honest I was not too familiar with this situation but I learnt a lot about it because you have to question yourself. It is a big concern for any club and for any people who work there. I learnt from this but obviously I wanted a better ending for the club.
Did you get many offers to leave Bolton when they got relegated?
Yeah, I had some offers. But for me I didn’t push to go because I still felt involved in the project and wanted to help the club get back up again.
Your most prolific goal-scoring year came in 2012-13 season playing in the Championship. Did you still view yourself as a Premier League level player?
Of course. I was not happy to step down the level. I was happy to stay at Bolton but only to push them back to the Premier League. My aim was to come back to the best level I could play at.
You moved to Stade de Reims in 2014 after a very brief spell at Swansea. Overall were you happy to move back to France?
England was a good six years, but I didn’t really settle down at one club so for me it was a good thing to go back to France. I was closer to my family and I had a girlfriend at the time who was living in Paris so I made a personal choice. After that she started to live with me and actually she’s now my wife and we have one kid so I think it was worth it!
As a footballer in your mid-20s at that point, how did you work out your priorities between career and personal life?
All players are different obviously. You have to concentrate on your career because it’s short. Sometimes you play for ten years, sometimes a little bit more if you’re lucky. The easiest way is to just think about your career but sometimes you have family so you have to adapt and make time to keep them happy and have a good balance. For me it was a question of age as well because I was in an age when I wanted to settle down so it was the right moment. The challenge is still important but you have to talk it through with the people you live with.
How does Ligue 1 compare with the Premier League?
Well, I think now it is getting better, especially with PSG. In England when you don’t have the ball you press with intensity but when I came to France I had to change my game a little bit. In France it’s more tactical. The other team likes to wait and to be patient so sometimes I was going to press but I was on my own. It felt a bit more defensive but I think in every team you have to adapt.
After Reims you then played in Greece, where you unfortunately suffered a cruciate ligament injury. The public don’t hear much about the mental impact of injuries so can you tell us more about this time?
Yeah, well I played two years with Reims and then I made the decision to go to Greece. I had the injury there and I was out of football for 6-8 months. It was not an easy situation. I was at the end of my contract as well. I had to go back to France and do all my rehab. I don’t know if it was lucky or just coincidence but my son was born in this same period so he really helped me to get through it and not think too much about the negative parts. I went to a good rehabilitation centre, Clairefontaine, where the French national team goes to train. It was tough because you just train on your own and I wasn’t at a club. But I had played non-stop when I was young so I took that time to recover mentally and to think about something different while I worked hard and aimed to come back.
It was Owen Coyle who brought you back into football by signing you for Ross County last January. Did you have a particularly good relationship with him after your Bolton days?
Yes, when I signed for Bolton he was the man that was calling me. As a coach and especially as a man he’s a really good person. He has a good heart and he’s honest and for me that is a big quality especially in football so I had a good relationship with him. He gave me my chance after the injury when it was not easy for me to get back into football without a club. I knew the club was struggling a little so for me it was a good challenge to go to Ross County.
Unfortunately it did not end well for the club that year as they were eventually relegated. How did you reflect on your six months in Scotland?
It was a bit different to [relegation] when I came to Bolton where the team did well the year before. Instead I came [to Ross County] when there was just three or four months to go in the season and the team was not in a good position. But for me the most important thing was to play football again. Of course the results were important but to be healthy and to respond physically and mentally was important and I think it helped me to get back into football. I wanted a better ending but this is what happens sometimes.
What is it like in a dressing room the day you get relegated?
Well I think we knew for two or three months that it could happen but of course when it happened it was really different and very sad. Sad for the supporters, for the staff and all the people who worked for the club. It was a difficult feeling and none of the players were talking.
You made the move to Hungary in August 2018 to sign for Budapest Honvéd. Are you back in training after Christmas yet?
Yes, we are. We had two weeks break for Christmas and we came back last week. For us the championship starts again at the beginning of February. We have one-month preparation before so this is what we do now – running in the snow!
What attracted you to Honvéd when they approached you?
Well, for me I was still getting back into football and I wanted time on the pitch and to play a full season. It was important for me to stay in Europe too because I still have ambition to play in the best leagues possible and think Europe is the best place to do that. Honvéd is a team that fights for the first position so it is good to be at a team that aims for this kind of target.
How are you and your family adapting to Budapest?
For my family to adapt here was not too hard. Budapest is a big city and for myself for example there are good schools and my wife has many things to do here. It’s not too far from friends too, so it was a good mix. It’s cold now so it’s not easy! But it’s a good city; there are a lot of foreign people as well and lots of places to visit.
You seemed to really enjoy your first Honvéd goal on your debut in August. How did that feel?
It was a good debut. I don’t think you could wish to have it better! To get the win and score a goal a week or two after I signed, it was a good day.
After playing football in various countries what have you made of the standard of the league, players and facilities here in Hungary?
I was quite surprised with the standard of the stadium and the facilities because it was really good especially now we’ve moved to a new training centre. The league is maybe a bit similar to Greece with less exposure but there are still some good players. It’s more physical here. It’s not as tactical as some other countries but physically it’s still good and there are some players from abroad too. I think it’s growing and for now I’m enjoying playing for this club.
What are the club’s aims going into the second half of the season?
Well, I think we started the season very well, but now I think we have to go back to staying in the top 3. After we don’t know what will happen but we’re still in the cup as well so maybe we will have a good run in that as well.
And what are your personal aims for the future?
For me as a striker it is important to score goals. I know if I score goals the team has more chance to win as well. I cannot say a number but I just want to score as many goals as possible and we will see what happens next.
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