Hold The Back Page: No show like an Ndo show
With five minutes to go in last Sunday's FAI Cup final and the score standing at 1-1, Sligo Rovers were awarded a free-kick ten yards outside the Drogheda United penalty area. It seemed odds on that Rovers would have a shot at goal which is why Drogheda were taking such pains over getting the alignment of the wall exactly right.
As they did, Joseph Ndo bent forward as though to adjust the position of the ball and in one smooth movement scooped it over the wall with the perfect trajectory to fall on to the foot of the equally quick-thinking Danny North who volleyed it home from 12 yards. The Drogheda defence were far from happy but the effrontery, the improvisation and the intelligence involved made it a magical moment.
It was also the latest in an almost endless series of examples of the quick thinking, sublime skill and swashbuckling style of Joseph Ndo who played the pass through to North with the casual delicacy of a father kicking a ball for his children to chase on a beach.
For the past decade the Rovers midfield general has been operating in Ndo Time, a different zone to that inhabited by everyone else on the pitch. Anyone who encroaches into this zone is usually dismissed by a backheel, a stepover, a Cruyff Turn or a surge which ensures that the Cameroon international has sufficient space to do his thing.
And what a thing it's been. Joseph Ndo has played the finest football ever seen in the League of Ireland. There has been something special about him ever since St Pat's signed him from Chinese club Chengdu Wuniu in 2003. He moved on to Shelbourne where he picked up the league Player of the Year award in 2006 after inspiring the club to the title. Three years later, he was the driving force as Bohemians won a League and Cup double.
Yet it is probably his time with Sligo Rovers which has come to define Joseph Ndo in the League of Ireland. Given that he signed for the club just a month before his 34th birthday, the expectations in Sligo were that Ndo would provide a valuable boost to the club in the short term. Instead he profoundly affected the nature and the history of both the club and the league in a manner absolutely remarkable for one player.
In 76 years of League of Ireland existence before Joseph Ndo arrived, Sligo Rovers had won four major trophies. In the four years since they've won another four major trophies, one league title and three FAI Cups. Ndo might not be a one-man team but those trophies wouldn't have been won without him.
Those successes alone would be enough to guarantee legendary status to the man who was born in the city of Yaounde, population two-and-a-half million, and now, after stops at Neuchatel Xamax, Strasbourg, Saudi Arabia and China, spends his seasons in the village of Riverstown, population 310. Riverstown is the home of so many Sligo players it's become known locally as Roverstown. The culture shock involved is perhaps illustrated by outstanding London-born winger's Kieran Djilali's comment that, "It's very, very different. There's a cow six feet from my house."
Yet Ndo, who has come from further away than anyone, is regarded in Sligo as one of our own. Local legend says he likes to take his shoes off and feel the grass of Riverstown beneath his feet. Everyone hopes he will never leave.
There are players who inspire admiration, there are players who inspire dedication and there are players who inspire adulation. But there is a very rare breed of player who inspires love. That Ndo is one of these owes a great deal to what can only be described as his nobility of character. The cheers had scarcely died away after the final when he revealed that he was auctioning off this year's winner's medal, his 2002 World Cup finals participation medal and his 2002 African Cup of Nations winner's medal to raise money for the medical expenses of Gary O'Neill, the former League of Ireland star who is currently fighting cancer.
This isn't the first time Ndo has made a gesture like this. He gave away a previous cup winner's medal to a man with special needs. He hews to the Corinthian ideal of sportsmanship. Giving a rare interview before the FAI Cup semi-final against Shamrock Rovers his main concern was to beg Sligo Rovers fans not to boo former players now turning out for the opposition. He is the first on the scene to pull away team-mates from potential flashpoints, a player who never shirks a challenge but never puts in a mean one or complains when he's caught himself. There is an occasional flash of exasperation at one of those bizarre refereeing decisions which can happen in the League of Ireland but even Job would lose patience with those lads. The effect Ndo has on Rovers supporters can be summed up by the famous words of Jack Nicholson to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, "You make me want to be a better man".
This year's Cup campaign may have been his finest achievement because, at the age of 37, Joseph Ndo finally found himself battling with time. Ndo's game is based on the subtle manipulation of small spaces and tight margins, on whipping the ball away Matador-style from a tackler at the last second, of delivering the first-time pass at the one moment it can do maximum damage. Yet this year there were times when the flicks didn't come off, when the cape was not whisked clear in time, when the magician looked mortal.
In the Cup quarter-final against Derry City, he endured probably his most frustrating afternoon in a Rovers shirt. On a slippery pitch his touch looked off and nothing seemed to work. Ndo, unwilling to brook compromise by lumping the ball forward or shirking responsibility, played the team into trouble on occasions. The blasphemous rumour that he was a diminished force was considered, if not spoken aloud.
Shamrock Rovers waited in the semi-final. Shamrock Rovers and Richie Ryan. Before Ndo arrived at The Showgrounds, Ryan looked a spent force, a sad shadow of a once-promising youngster. But their two years together in the centre of midfield transformed Ryan and won him a Player of the Year award in 2009. He was Ndo's protégé, the sorcerer's apprentice, a player to rival the great man for precision
and skill in the middle of the park. Now he was with Shamrock Rovers and both player and team headed to The Showgrounds at the top of their form to face a home side struggling to find theirs.
Yet from the beginning Ndo was irresistible. It seemed as though he sought out Ryan in particular, one minute surging past his former team-mate, the next flicking the ball over his head and collecting it on the other side, then harrying his opponent into a mistake, robbing, nutmegging, giving perhaps the most complete exhibition of his Rovers career and inspiring a 3-0 win. No-one else in the league could have played a game like that.
This day last week, in the final moments of perhaps the finest FAI Cup final ever with Sligo holding on to a 3-2 lead, it was Ndo who made up ground as Drogheda tried to build one last attack and blocked the ball out over their end-line. Because he does that kind of stuff too. And at the final whistle the Sligo fans sang as they always do to the tune of Spandau Ballet's Gold, "Joe, always believe in Ndo. He's got the power to score. He's indestructible, always believe in Ndo."
Celebrations done, we were walking away from our seats when the man who always wears a Cameroon scarf to the games shouted, "Look, look at Joe". All the other players had left the pitch but there he was, kicking around with a bunch of little kids, his appetite for flicks and backheels still alive after 90 minutes, after 37 years. The kids looked like they were having the time of their lives. And you know what? Joseph Ndo did too.
His neighbours in Riverstown had draped a banner from the upper stand which read, "Ye have Blessed Oliver Plunkett but we have Joseph Ndo". That's about right.
It might be the Yeats County but it's Ndo country.