The phrase "big game player" tends to be reserved for the leading lights in world football, whether it is Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrea Pirlo or Cristiano Ronaldo. It represents those elite stars that save their best for the big occasions and impose their will on the game.
Even the kindest supporter would not put Ji-Sung Park in the elite talent category – but time and again in big games Sir Alex Ferguson put his faith in the South Korean on the big stage – and Park never let him down. Champions League semi-final and final in 2009, Park was in the thick of the action. Crucial Premier League games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, he was causing problems with his relentless work-rate. Memories of Manchester United’s biggest matches over the past five years typically include a tireless performance from Park.
But that chapter of Park’s career came to an emotional end earlier this month as the midfielder left Old Trafford behind and completed a £2M transfer to QPR, managed by former United striker Mark Hughes. Combined with the South Korean’s retirement from international football in early 2011 after winning his 100th cap for his country, this move sees Park step back from the spotlight a little and return to playing regular first team football, something that Ferguson had been unable to offer him in recent seasons.
His arrival at Loftus Road is a huge coup for a QPR side that only narrowly avoided relegation last season. Bringing a player with Park’s experience – and for such a small fee – will bolster Hughes’ squad immeasurably and he becomes an instant candidate for the captain’s armband, which the club took away from Joey Barton after the midfielder’s reckless dismissal against Manchester City on the final day of last season. Barton has a 12-game ban to serve and Hughes will likely move soon to name his new skipper. In Park, he has the perfect candidate – a man who commands respect for his achievements in the game, was clearly popular at Old Trafford and has experience captaining South Korea.
The tributes flowing from the Manchester United dressing room only strengthen the sense that Park is both a dream signing for QPR and a worthy captain. Former team-mate Rio Ferdinand said: "Ji’s a fantastic player and a real players’ player. He’s been greatly appreciated by the other lads and the fans of our club over the years. He’s been a great servant and never been any trouble. He’s just a real selfless player who has always played for his team-mates and he was part of a very successful period for the club. I’m sad to see him go because he’s a really good lad."
For Ferguson, the decision to sell Park to QPR was a tough one, but ultimately he appreciated the South Korean’s desire for regular minutes. "’He’s been a fantastic servant to the club over the past seven years," the United boss explained. "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."
And so, Manchester United’s loss is QPR’s gain, both on the pitch and in terms of worldwide shirt sales. Park resisted the temptation of a lucrative move back to Asia because he felt he had plenty left to offer in the Premier League – and he will have every opportunity to prove it at Loftus Road. QPR managed just 43 goals in 38 games last season but their retooled attack should be more prolific in the campaign ahead, with Andrew Johnson joining from Fulham and Djibril Cisse set to benefit from a proper pre-season at the club after arriving in January. The additions of goalkeeper Rob Green, centre-back Ryan Nelsen and full-back Fabio da Silva, on loan from United, should pay dividends at the other end too.
The future for Hughes’ QPR is looking brighter by the day – and the addition of Park is the surest sign yet that the rest of the football world is starting to take note. The South Korean will never forget his time at Old Trafford but now turns his attention to this new challenge, and, with his work ethic and experience, Park is set to be not only a great signing but a great captain too.