It’s thirteen years to the day since Manchester United signed South Korea’s most famous footballer. Maybe even its most famous person, period.
So if you don’t know why Reds still sing the songs created in his honour six years after he left the club and four years after he retired from the game, read on…
Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes ‘a Manchester United player’. It’s the kind of thing United fans spend hours arguing about in the pub. The notion probably only exists in some abstract, vague sense. But know this: even if you can’t sway your hips like George Best, leather a ball with both feet like Bobby Charlton, or puff your chest out like Le Roi, Eric Cantona, the faithful at Old Trafford will always respect and cherish you if they can see a good, honest bit of toil. And when it comes to grit and graft, there were few better than Park.
“You need to make something happen as a footballer at this club,”Paul Scholes once said. But there are many ways to do that – flair and tricks being the most obvious and popularly heralded. Park’s willingness to run, to find space for himself, to create space for others, or his determination to chase and win the ball back, had the same effect. He never stood still – unless asked to - and that’s something both fans, team-mates and Sir Alex Ferguson deeply respected.
The story of Ji as a Red Gallery
Flick through 13 images of Park's United career, on the 13-year anniversary of his transfer.
When people think of those great years between 2006-09 when United won three consecutive titles, they think of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, haring away up the field on blistering counter-attacks that took the breath away from both opponents and audiences. But watch Ronaldo’s famous counter-attacking goal at the Emirates in the Champions League semi-final in 2009, or Rooney’s similar effort at the same stadium in 2011, and who’s at the heart of both moves, playing an essential and selfless supporting role? You guessed it.
And if you want an indication of how important Park’s work was to that United team, watch the video of the latter. The Korean starts the move and then begins a jet-powered burst into the Arsenal half, down the left flank. Rooney goes through a big gaping hole in the middle, which is there because Thomas Vermaelen has to stay left to track Park’s run. The Belgian defender’s colleagues don’t track the no.10, so he has to eventually leave Park to try and stop Rooney, once Nani plays the ball to the striker. But it’s too late. Rooney slots the ball in with his first touch to complete a glorious move. But without Park’s run, Vermaelen covers the eventual scorer’s space at an earlier stage, leaving him with nowhere to go.
SEOUL’S BIG-GOAL MACHINE
Park only scored 27 times for United across 205 appearances, but analyse who he scored his goals against, and a picture emerges. A third were scored against Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Arguably his most famous goal for the club was a decisive winner in a 2-1 victory over the Merseysiders in 2010 at Old Trafford. Darren Fletcher whips a ball in from the right and Ji bravely dives forward to head the ball home in front of the Stretford End, narrowly avoiding a heavy challenge from the significantly weightier Liverpool defender Glen Johnson. Even when he didn’t score, Park always contributed. Fans will recall a typically determined display in the 2008 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, from which United’s defenders took most of the plaudits. But the work done by Tevez, Nani and Park on rare counter-attacks should not be forgotten: they gave their team-mates vital rest and respite.
“THEY’D PROGRAMMED HIM”
In 2010, United met AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League. The Reds had won the first leg 3-2 in Italy but a Rossoneri side featuring Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Andrea Pirlo were eminently capable of mounting a comeback. Sir Alex Ferguson’s gameplan was centred around Park man-marking Pirlo; a job the Korean did with unceasing diligence.
United won easily in the end, 4-0. That kind of scoreline makes it sound simple, but Pirlo himself revealed just how selflessly Park had worked for that victory in his 2013 autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play:
”He [Sir Alex] unleashed Park to shadow me. He rushed about at the speed of an electron. He'd fling himself at me, his hands all over my back, trying to intimidate me. He'd look at the ball and not know what it was for. They'd programmed him to stop me. His devotion to the task was almost touching. Even though he was a famous player, he consented to being used as a guard dog.”
Happy anniversary, Ji!