Ji Sung Park: The Season of Truth

nigel smithCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2009

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Ji-Sung Park of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester United at Turf Moor on August 19, 2009 in Burnley, England.  (Photoby Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Congratulations are due to Ji Sung Park, who has scooped a new four-year contract at Old Trafford.

Park had nine months left on the deal he signed when joining from PSV Eindhoven in 2005, forcing United to act quickly or risk losing the player for nothing at the season’s end.

"We are always pleased to secure the future of our star players and Ji-Sung has proved himself to be a fantastic professional and an important, versatile player in our squad,” Sir Alex said. "We're delighted he's signed a new contract."

Park was equally giddy.

He said: "I am so pleased to have this new contract as I'm really enjoying my time here. We have achieved great success over the last four years and won many trophies. It is a great experience for me to play at this magnificent football club along with other world famous players.

"I appreciate all that Sir Alex and the staff have done for me, but I have to mention the fans too, as they are incredible."

Meanwhile, Park's agent, in an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap News, declared that his charge had earned himself a whopping 40 percent increase in wages on the previous deal.

According to the newspaper, the midfielder is “now the best paid Korean soccer player and second among all Korean athletes. San Diego Padres pitcher Chan-ho Park receives $15.33 million in annual salary.”

The United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph raised its glass in tribute by way of  an article on the Korean’s contribution to the United cause.

“Park has emerged as a key figure at Old Trafford over the past 18 months after overcoming a career-threatening cruciate ligament injury,” the article read.

The Telegraph's journalist, somewhat mischievously perhaps, couldn’t resist the opportunity of offering an alternative explanation of what makes Park’s retention such a non-brainer for the Old Trafford bean-counters.

“His presence at Old Trafford only serves to enhance United's immense popularity in South Korea and the Far East.”

Ah, the famous Far East gold rush! Asia—football’s new El Dorado! This canard has been doing the rounds in the British media kingdom ever since football’s top brass woke up to the region’s staggering enthusiasm for Premiership soccer. It is often cited as an important reason why the South Korean’s continues in United’s first 11. 

Park remains for many an object of suspicion because he lacks the gifts of a genuine United player. He is an unreliable scorer, having burst the net on just 12 occasions in 127 appearances since his £4.5 million transfer. He lacks real pace. The range of Park’s talents appears narrow indeed.

Take away energy, a prodigious work ethic, and a professional commitment to the life of a footballer and what is Park for?

Yet, it is surely foolish to believe that a manager as successful as Sir Alex keeps a player with such limitations in his squad at the behest of the club’s marketing men. If that were the case, the Chinese forward Dong Fangzhou would still be troubling United’s reserve team spectators with his shooting!

Perhaps, the clue to Park’s survival lies in the tactical variety favoured by his manager. When Ronaldo bestrode Old Trafford, ‘three-lung’ Park was a useful team servant, allowing the team to regroup around a central three, so that Ronaldo could forget defensive responsibilities and devastate the opposition as part of an attacking trident.

The system worked well, most notably in the Champions League semifinal crushing of Arsenal.

Even in the post-Ronaldo era, Park’s presence can offer the manager the opportunity of nominally organising around 4-4-2 and then releasing Nani, Giggs, Valencia or eventually Tosic as a forward option when United are in counter-attacking mode.

It was no accident that Park was picked for last Sunday’s derby against City. Mark Hughes midfield trio of De Jong, Barry, and Ireland has revealed power, skill, and endeavour in equal measure and was, on paper at least, a stern test for the Red engine room of Fletcher and Anderson.

What must have surprised the manager was the poverty of Park’s performance. The Korean made little impact on the proceedings and was eventually replaced by the more adventurous Valencia.

Fortunately for Ferguson, City’s first-half midfield dominance became a startling disappearance in the second half as United set up camp in the Blue half and unnerved a fragile City rearguard.

Park’s trophy cabinet entitles him to the benefit of doubt after a poor display. It is also true that should the manager persist with 4-4-2, he will need Park, or his successor, to offer more than a willingness to cover every blade of grass. The ability to beat a defender, to cross accurately and to claim a share of the 40 goals demanded by Ferguson from midfield are non-negotiable pre-requisites for a first team place.

Park looked capable of such feats when he was under Guus Hiddink’s tutelage and helped PSV into the Champions League semi-final.

He has shown up less well since his move to Manchester, justifying his old manager’s fears that he would struggle to make the Premiership grade.

“Park will be a waste of time at Manchester,” Hiddink declared in 2005 when Park’s transfer to Old Trafford was imminent. “He will spend most of his time on the bench. It was not a wise decision for him to go. Park should have stayed with PSV for another year.”

Three titles and a Champions League winner’s medal might be an ample rebuttal of Dutch cynicism but as the ink dries on Park’s new United contract, the midfielder still has much to prove in this season of truth.


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