An ode to Park Ji-Sung, cult Man United hero [Opinion Piece]

Opinion piece by James McGlade – Follow on Twitter @BabboPieta here.

There is a poignancy to the cult hero’s retirement from football at the same time most of his old comrades are shipped out at United.

It’s fair to say that Park Ji-Sung is not the only player who has endured an awful spell at QPR in recent times, but the South Korean couldn’t have foreseen how miserable a tenure he’d have following his switch from Manchester United.

Achieving cult status at Old Trafford didn’t hold much weight when Ferguson and company decided to part ways with a man whose energetic displays had earned him the nickname ‘Three Lungs’ Park. But, if anything, his never-say-die attitude probably worked against him with critics often undervaluing his technical ability, categorizing him as a versatile workhorse.

Polite and humble, Park was routinely exploited as a scapegoat during his time at United. In their 2009 Champions League bout with Barcelona, Park’s inclusion had connotations of pity, allowing a player who didn’t partake in the previous final to compete in this; as opposed to an in-form squad member who merited inclusion.

Another notable example of Park being the fall guy is the Manchester derby of April 2012; Ferguson had conceded that victory was highly unlikely at the Etihad, bottling a punch-for-punch fight, resting star player Antonio Valencia and handing Park his first start in three months. Naturally, he was off the pace but, rather typically, this was confused with possessing sub-standard ability.

He is a victim of the culture of casual racism in England towards footballers from Asia (and India), thinking that they lag behind because their individual countries haven’t necessarily made huge waves (unlike England, says you.)

Shinji Kagawa appears to be a more talented individual than his Asian predecessor at Man United, yet he has often struggled to cement a place in the team during his two seasons at the club, behind the likes of Tom Cleverley in the pecking order.

Former manager Jurgen Klopp said his heart breaks at seeing the reduced role offered to Kagawa, a player he rates as one of the best in the world.

You may recall a standout player for the UAE at the last Olympics, Omar Abdul-Rahman. He also seems to have his nationality held against him. His displays have been praised widely, yet he remains with Al Ain, the larger clubs courting him still sceptical over whether or not he could adapt despite his obvious talent.

There were some really good memories at United; Park was a big game player and could usually be relied upon to produce the goods on the grander stages, scoring more times against Arsenal than any other team during his career. He was also one half of football’s best bromance with Patrice Evra, having been shortened to a duo after the departure of Carlos Tevez.

Then he was out in the cold. Alone in London with Queen’s Park Rangers after Ferguson gave former player Mark Hughes the green light to sign him. It was a blow for Park, having previously said he’d love to retire at Old Trafford. Yet this presented itself as a new challenge and an opportunity to be held in new regard with the respect he deserved, the signs looked good when he was immediately appointed captain upon arrival.

Leadership was nothing new to Park having led his country on numerous occasions, adding to his legend back home. But he found it harder to motivate and lead a squad riddled with mercenaries and consistently disrupted by chaos and controversy. A persistent knee injury and a lack of form contributed to him only making 25 appearances during an abysmal season which would end in relegation.

All clouds possessing a silver lining, the turbulent spell had led Park back to PSV Eindhoven, Philips Stadion being his stomping ground before the transfer to Manchester. He made the move from Asia to Holland after a brilliant World Cup, on home soil, where he, and a few referees, helped South Korea to the semi-finals where they’d come up short against Germany. Appointed as PSV boss following his miraculous work with South Korea, Guus Hiddink brought Park over to Europe where, after a period of settling in, he’d thrive.

Hiddink had a massive impact on Park’s career, even altering the midfielder’s position from defensive shield to an attacking winger, a free-roaming playmaker. When Arjen Robben was lured to Chelsea, Park was given a greater role by the Dutch manager and was heavily involved in one of the best European campaigns a club hailing from Holland can boast of achieving in the last decade. They were only denied a place in the 2005 Champions League final by a Massimo Ambrosini goal in Eindhoven which sent AC Milan through on away goals.

It was a thrilling encounter and Park was among the goalscorers as PSV aimed to overturn a two goal deficit from the Italian leg of the tie. Despite later becoming the first Asian player to hoist the European Cup aloft (in 2008, not being included in the final’s match-day squad), it wouldn’t be too crazy to suggest this was the South Korean’s finest hour in Europe’s primary competition.

These are fast times at PSV, the Dutch club are undergoing a revolution of sorts with an emphasis on youth and homegrown products. Park arrived at the club as a veteran; at only 32, he was the oldest member of a squad with an average age of under 24.

But despite all the change there was a familiar face: Philip Cocu, scorer of two goals in the 2005 semi-final, had been appointed manager of the team as they underwent a transitional period in their history.

Early in the season, they hit the headlines because the raw talent they were placing their trust in thrived. The likes of Zacharia Bakkali got pulses racing, the Belgian becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in Eredivisie history. But his hot streak turned cold and PSV’s form didn’t last.

They still finished fourth in what is a deceptively competitive league; not a bad note to bow out on for Park, who got to end his playing days at what was effectively his personal haven.

Meanwhile, United suffered their worst season in more than two decades, but there’s a feeling that Park would have loved to go down with honour on that sinking ship, rather than float away on a dinghy, watching disaster unfold from a distance.