Manchester United cult heroes: Park Ji-Sung

  • 20 January 2016
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Inspired by Betway's recent article on FA Cup cult heroes, it appeared a perfect time to take a stroll down memory lane and pick out our own plucky Manchester United underdog that managed to etch themselves into a rich Old Trafford tapestry of talents.

Park Ji Sung

With that brief in mind, there was one name in particular which sprang out, though it is more commonly a quiet whisper synonymous with Manchester United's modern-day success: Park Ji-Sung.

The footballer who spawned a thousand unfortunate terrace chants about dogs as a South Korean delicacy; Park is justly classed as an all-time great and icon of East Asian football but, back at former club Man Utd, he is still remembered fondly as a cult hero in those hallowed Old Trafford halls – which is not to do one of their most loyal servants an injustice.

There must be some satisfaction for now retired Park in sitting back and watching just how instrumental he actually was in the Red Devils' dominance during his dedicated years at Carrington.

Between his arrival from Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven for £4m (give or take) in the summer of 2005 and his parting with the club seven seasons later in 2012, United charged to five Premier League titles, one Champions League trophy and three League Cups.

That considerable bundle of silverware highlights Park in sporting history books as the first East Asian to lift an English top-flight title and the first to feature in a Champions League final, which goes some way to explaining why the now global ambassador has a road named after him in his home nation.

But, achievements (although we will return to those later) aside, what really made Park, widely regarded by opposition fans as unremarkable, the definition of a cult hero at Man Utd?

In a time frame in which big egos and superstars such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney hogged all the on-pitch and tabloid headline attention, Park was a popular if quiet dressing room character; the antithesis of a present day footballer as he forged friendships with fellow foreign imports Patrice Evra and Carlos Tevez (the 'three amigos'), which garnered its own cult following as the trio all spoke different languages.

The following quote, as the ex-South Korea skipper prepared to hang up his boots for the final time, perfectly sums up the reluctant star's attitude to on and off-field matters:

"I have achieved more than I have thought I would. I'm truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back."

Pay it back? Park certainly has, with his considerable charitable efforts to support young Asian footballers, inspire the next generation to pick up a football, and continue an international legacy which included triumphantly taking the Taegeuk Warriors to three World Cup Finals, including a semi-final on home soil.

While, reminders of the versatile player's genuine affection for Man Utd and the game in general, such as a wedding cake decorated as a football pitch and invitations resembling Old Trafford - touchingly entitled 'The Wedding of Dreams', certainly help to grease the wheels of appreciation long after the last ball was kicked.

Like so many, South Korea's apparent answer to David Beckham emerged from a modest background, playing for a university team before transferring to J-League side Kyoto Purple Sanga, where he finally drew attention from Europe and was called upon by ex-national boss Guus Hiddink to join PSV.
Eindhoven proved to be a steep learning curve both culturally and professionally, with Park's father recalling: "When Ji-Sung couldn't do well people threw their drinks at him, insulted him. He thought that was strange."

Though, eventually Park's perseverance paid off and became an increasing hallmark of his game, helping to win over sceptical Dutch fans and hinting at the future with a crucial but ultimately fruitless Champions League semi-final strike to announce himself against AC Milan (who he would trouble further along the road).

Always industrious, but a little more playmaker than water-carrier when at PSV, Park's persistence caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson, and the South Korean never looked back.

Affectionately dubbed “three lungs” by the expectant Old Trafford faithful, Park consistently impressed across the best part of a decade, covering miles of Mancunian turf.

Hiddink has since outlined his former disciples skills as being: "Dirty work for the bigger stars. I appreciate those people, always. His skills? He is tireless, can go for 90 minutes."

Dogged, determined and an endless runner, the oft-underrated midfielder was much more than a workhorse and grafter, however. During his time in the Northwest, his movement, runs and tactical intelligence were almost unrivalled.

Park arguably became Ferguson’s dog of war, trusted in the biggest battles, if not always to help breakdown smaller and more stubborn fries, though his nose for crucial goals and ability to pick a pass were never quite as lauded as they should have been.

“The great thing about Park Ji-Sung is he’s one of the best professionals we’ve had here,” Ferguson once said.

“He was truly fantastic, and particularly in big games. I loved playing him in the big games. His record against Arsenal for instance, was fantastic.”

Oh yes, Arsenal fans must surely still have nightmares about one of their main tormentors. Kryptonite to the then soft-centred Gunners, Park was the terrier Ferguson unleashed whenever the Londoners came to town.
Match moments-wise, these Gunners games are perhaps the ones which earn Park his cult status the most. A total of 16 appearances against them, five strikes and being on the winning side on nine occasions make Arsene Wenger Park's favourite coach to face.

The adaptable all-rounder grabbed his first Premier League goal for the Red Devils when their rivalry was at its peak, and famously later followed that up with a strike in another decisive league game in 2010, heading home with aplomb just inside Arsenal's area. While, in 2011/12, he popped up yet again to help orchestrate a win which ultimately helped United take the title.

Though, it was Park's fortunes in Europe that best sum-up his stint in Manchester perhaps: a crucial cog but at times criminally undervalued.
Who can forget the moment, as Park again found the net against the north Londoners in a 2008/09 Champions League semi-final second leg? Ronaldo and co took the plaudits from that thumping, but it was Park who opened the floodgates against his familiar foes.

Another big name that allowed Park to get under their skin in Europe was AC Milan and, in particular Andrea Pirlo. As the Red Devils dumped the Rossoneri out in 2009-10, the passmaster later recalled: “He (Ferguson) 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,” added the Italian rather bitterly.

"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."

For any fan of Park, those last few lines ring unfortunately true. Ferguson certainly crafted the attacking midfielder into an instrument of his will, and it was often the former winger who paid the price.

Memorably 'rewarded' by not being included in the 2008 Champions League-winning match day squad, after helping United push through quarter-finals and semi-finals with inspirational outings against Roma and Barcelona, Park saw the action from the sidelines in a suit.

In typical Park fashion, the South Korean's response was team-orientated, as he said: “The team won so I am happy. Personally it is frustrating not to play in such a big game. But there will be other opportunities."

This self-less attitude to what was dubbed in Asian press as the "Moscow nightmare" went on to define his career and cult hero status, and there were plenty more opportunities, as Park took on the might of Barca in two further finals, though was never on the winning side.

Still, as a signing which was originally attacked for pandering to the East Asian market (here's looking at you Dong Fangzhuo), over 200 games for Manchester United and an extensive medal collection is not a bad way to respond to the critics. What more could make a cult hero?

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