There is a sad irony in Park Ji-Sung’s ‘Three Lungs’ moniker, with the midfielder seemingly reduced to something far less as the South Korean huffed his way around the Eastlands pitch for an hour of Manchester United’s crucial 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in April. Park, incongruously selected by Sir Alex Ferguson for the Reds’ season-defining Premier League match, was not only truly dreadful on the night, but patently unfit for the encounter. After seven years and more than 200 games for United it was no way to end a career at the highest level.
But with United accepting Queens Park Rangers’ £2.5 million bid for Park at the weekend – a deal that with performance related add-ons may increase to £5 million – the former PSV Eindhoven midfielder’s ignominious appearance against City on 30 April was his last in Red.
Park’s departure was officially confirmed on Monday after the 31-year-old completed a medical at the ambitious west London outfit and work-permit approval was granted by the home office. Park’s arrival at Loftus Road was accompanied by the usual guff; platitudes from player and manager, along with the bizarre assertion from owner Tony Fernandes that the South Korean’s acquisition marks QPR’s arrival on the international stage.
“This is a real coup for QPR,” chimed manager Mark Hughes at QPR’s press conference on Monday afternoon.
“We are delighted Ji is going to join us because his record speaks for itself. He has been a big player for Manchester United and played a big part in their success in recent years. He is hugely respected there because of what he has achieved, his application to his work and the impact he has on games. He was always picked for the big matches because they could rely on him, and we are going to reap all those qualities.
“I think it is fair to say Ji has been attracted not by where QPR are, but where QPR are going. We were able to show him where we feel the Club is heading and he embraced it. He felt this was a good option for him and after giving seven great years to United he wanted a new challenge. He sees QPR as very much a Club on the up and wants to be part of something that is going to be very special.”
Park arrived at Old Trafford from PSV in summer 2005 for a bargain at £4 million, having impressed with the Dutch club in the Champions League, and at international level with South Korea. In total Park played 205 games for United, scoring 27 goals, although there were just 93 Premier League starts in seven seasons with the club.
Although Park was rarely able to hold down a first team place, he gained a reputation for being a ‘big game player’, as manager Ferguson turned to the South Korean’s tactical discipline in high pressure matches both at home and in the Champions League. Park’s ability to defend from the point of a three-man central midfield, or protect his full-back when deployed wide, won Ferguson’s trust despite the Korean’s limited technical ability and infuriating propensity to fall over with the slightest physical contact.
Indeed, it is in some of United’s biggest games that Park is best remembered; the Champions League second round against AC Milan in 2010 when Park outshone Euro 2012 Andrea Pirlo, for example. He also scored against Arsenal in the semi-final of the same competition, and struck to secure United’s victory over Liverpool in 2010, while finding the net against Chelsea in Europe during the 2010/11 campaign.
So too will Park be remembered as a pioneer: the first Asian to play for United, the first South Korean to appear in the Premier League, four domestic titles – three in succession between 2007 and 2009 – and of course a Champions League winners medal in 2008. Where few Asian players had succeeded in the Premier League, Park thrived and then some.
But there was disappointment too, with the player left out of Ferguson’s 2009 Champions League final matchday party. So too were fans disheartened by Park’s frustratingly limited technical ability; a player selected too often in offensive positions for his defensive discipline and stamina, while more talented players sat on the bench. The ‘coward’s winger’, who offered too little going forward, but ran himself into the ground for the team all the same.
“He’s been a fantastic servant to the club over the past seven years,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“He is the ultimate professional and such a nice lad; he never let us down on the big occasions. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t give him the number of games he wanted. Everyone at Manchester United wishes him well for the future and I am sure he will be a great success at QPR.”
Indeed, Park owes his longevity at Old Trafford to Ferguson’s trust when many supporters point to the midfielder’s limited natural talent. Yet, so too is the 70-year-old United coach culpable for transforming Park from the genuine offensive player that appeared for PSV in three successful seasons, into a player noted more for a his defensive work while in England.
It is the player’s dubious technical merits that have so often led to accusations that the player remained at Old Trafford for commercial and not footballing reasons. While the marketing element has always been overstated, cynics will note that Park has been jettisoned just a month after United acquired a new marquee Asian player in Japanese international Shinji Kagawa.
Still, while the South Korea may never rank among the very finest to have played for the club, he will be remembered with affection; for his never-ending work-rate and selfless understanding of the team ethic. These, after all, are attributes that far more talented players still in Ferguson’s squad so desperately require.
“My time at United will last in my heart for the rest of my life,” Park said on Monday.
“It’s been a great privilege to be part of such a great team, to have won so much and to have played with special teammates and for the greatest manager in the game. I would like to thank everybody at the club who give their best every single day to put every player in the best condition to enjoy their football and achieve success. The fans have been fantastic to me and I will always remember them with great affection.”
Whether Park secures the same affection at Loftus Road in the final two years of his career is a question for the season ahead. Certainly, United fans will afford the player a rousing welcome when he returns to Old Trafford as a QPR player in November.