For Michael Ngoo it was a snap decision, one which would allow him to change his life, to help drag him out of the depression that had surrounded him since suffering a serious injury two and a half years previously playing for Kilmarnock against Celtic. The offer would not have been desirable to many, but for Ngoo it was a chance to escape.
The former Liverpool striker packed his bags and headed to Albania to join KF Tirana in the second division, becoming the first Englishman to play in the country. Three years later his career is back on track, he has a championship medal in his back pocket and offers from around Europe.
“Psychologically, I wasn’t good,” Ngoo explains. “It was difficult, for sure. There was a lot going on in my mind and I was low at this period of time. A lot of footballers go through depression and I was very depressed at that time being in England. The offer came and I just wanted a change of environment, so I just said ‘OK’. I didn’t know much about Albania, about the football, I just needed to find my feet as I was coming back from difficult times.”
It was Virgil van Dijk who inflicted the ankle injury on Ngoo that ruled him out for the season as he required surgery to screw bones back together and he was left him with a huge gash in his leg. It would take Ngoo four years to get over the physical and psychological issues caused by a challenge which effectively him kept away from the pitch for 24 months. There was a one-game spell at Bromley and six months with Oldham, who he left after 13 appearances but no goals, once he was fit enough to play again.
“Scoring goals is in the mind but I had physical problems, I had muscle problems; my quads and my calves on my left side had wasted away, so I had a lot of building back up to do and that is not an overnight thing, it can take months to build those muscles back up,” Ngoo explains. “So my running style was different and I had to adapt to my new body, so it took me until towards the end of last season for me to start feeling good. Even the first season I played for Tirana, I was still not in good shape, the year I was getting there but in my mind I was afraid but after this season I feel good, I feel fresh and ready to take another step up, to challenge myself, I am mentally good.”
The first year in the Albanian capital resulted in promotion, the second a challenge at the top of the first division and the third culminated with the club’s 25th title. Ngoo quickly became a fan’s favourite for his workrate, assists and goals. During lockdown, Ngoo’s popularity grew further by entertaining fans with Instagram videos and interacting with them on social media to keep spirits up.
“If I didn’t give it 100% on the pitch, I doubt the fans would have shown me respect, the way that they do. In Albania, Tirana is an historical club, they’ve won the most championships. The fans appreciated my efforts and showed me a lot of love, welcoming me. They knew I wasn’t going to stay for long but in the end I stayed for three seasons, which wasn’t part of the plan.”
A falling out with the head coach resulted in a stagnant spell for Ngoo, who was pushed out of the squad. Ngoo stood up for himself and his teammates, but the response was a robust one from the manager, who was soon out of the job. The replacement, Nigerian Ndubuisi Egbo, became the first African to win a European league as coach.
A Londoner, Ngoo is still a close friend of Raheem Sterling, attending Manchester City matches in the player’s box when he can. The 27-year-old has watched on in awe as his childhood friend has become a prominent figure in the battle for equality in the UK and on a personal level has helped Ngoo through difficult times.
“They have been with me through my journey and they understand my situation when people on the outside do not,” he says. “They have supported me and I am happy that he is doing fantastically well, he deserves everything that comes to him because as he is one in a million. He is a great role model for young players coming up, I would tell young players to mimic his lifestyle, the way he operates and apply it to themselves.”
Still only 27, Ngoo has spent his career trying to prove the potential he showed as a teenager, which saw Liverpool pay £250,000 to sign the 16-year-old from Southend. The striker has decided to turn down the chance to stay at Tirana and is likely to stay abroad but will miss out on the chance to play in the Champions League with his former employers.
“I am a bit disappointed that I won’t get to participate with them – they wanted me to come back,” he says. “I feel it is the right time in my life to take another step and do it for the better for myself and to make people see that I have taken a few steps backwards but now I am at a stage where I can showcase my talents in more solid leagues.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.