Ji-sung Park 40th birthday.

Why all Reds should toast Ji-sung Park

Thursday 25 February 2021 10:43

Humility is a trait that is much respected at Manchester United and not many footballers are more humble than Ji-sung Park.

During his time at Old Trafford, the popular South Korean was worshipped in his homeland and adored by the United staff and faithful alike for his selfless attitude. As he turns 40, you can imagine he would want to shy away from any fanfare but it is important to recognise the character and contribution of one of Sir Alex Ferguson's most under-rated troops.

Younger fans will see his goals on video, the part he played in the most exhilarating of victories in the 2008/09 Champions League semi-final second leg success at Arsenal, a key cool finish in the same competition against Chelsea at Old Trafford. I recognise the picture in our birthday graphic from a spectacular diving header against Liverpool, which I witnessed from the Stretford End and then had to write a report afterwards from a nearby hotel for a leading newspaper's website.

'Park and pride' was the headline I used to accompany that photo of him tapping his chest in celebration as I fought to retain impartiality.

Ji-sung Park was a superb signing from PSV Eindhoven.

I joined United the following season and would, of course, get to speak to the energetic midfielder. He was just as I'd expected - modest and team-oriented. A much longer chat followed after his retirement as he discussed life in general and reflected on seven great years at Old Trafford.

This was in 2018 and he spoke of a desire to help his home country and return to football one day, in some capacity, clearly always looking to give something back and showing the same ethics that so endeared him to everybody in Manchester.

As he celebrates the milestone birthday, it is time to remember his part in those successful years under Sir Alex. It is easy to understand why our former boss was so cut up at leaving his loyal foot-soldier out of the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea for tactical reasons. When I brought it up, it was obviously a painful memory for Ji but he always put the team first and, when Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka's penalty late into the night in Moscow, the trophy was secured for only the third time in our history and that was the primary concern.

If evidence is required of Park's mentality, you could try watching reams and reams of footage of him doing the leg work on the pitch, creating space for others, undertaking his job diligently and effectively, man-marking dangerous opponents or unselfishly setting up team-mates. It is much easier to simply consider his response to this crushing blow in Russia. For the following season was the one when he sparkled at the Emirates in the fixture many younger supporters may always associate most with him.

The opener against Arsenal was actually his maiden Champions League goal for the Reds, pouncing on a slip by Kieran Gibbs, but the first time he really crossed my radar had been at the same stage of the Champions League, scoring for PSV Eindhoven against AC Milan. I remember being on a break in Venice and it not going down too well with some of the locals, even if the Rossoneri would eventually advance to the final after the second leg. At least in 2009, he would get to appear in the final at last, even if it proved to be a tough night in Rome against a brilliant Barcelona side.

Park scored 27 goals in total, but his contribution extended way beyond sticking the ball in the back of the net. At the time, we had plenty of others able to do that, not least Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

Watch one of Park's best games for the club - the 3-1 win at Arsenal in 2009.

Maybe his contribution would have been more appreciated away from Old Trafford in the current age where stats are generated to illustrate a footballer's worth in every key area. I imagine he would have scored highly in distance covered, for instance. The man who became the most successful Asian player was not nicknamed 'Three-lung Park' for nothing.

Little matter, to be honest, as Ji will know just how revered he still is by the Reds fans. It is the sort of attention he would be bashful about receiving but his attitude is the sort that you would hold up for any footballer performing on the biggest stage for the biggest club.

However he gets to mark turning 40, I am sure many a United fan would like to raise a glass to toast such a committed individual. His role in those glory days will never be forgotten.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.