By Ewan Roberts
Few managers have a record as brutally successful as Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to offloading talented, even revered, first-teamers. The Manchester United boss has ruthlessly cut loose fan favourites and superstars amidst short-term surprise and even outrage, but his decisions have consistently proven correct in the long term.
Whether his reasoning is profit, age, ego or diminishing talent, rarely has Sir Alex’s decision to cash-in or cut loose come back to haunt him. On Saturday, Manchester United will be facing the latest victim of the merciless, unsentimental manager in the form of QPR skipper Park Ji-Sung.
Even during the early years of Sir Alex’s reign he showed an aptitude to spot a player on the cusp of a downward spiral, who had passed the peak of their powers, and expertly judged the opportune moment to dispose of them. Norman Whiteside in 1989 was the first of many, sold to Everton just a year before an enforced, premature retirement.
Paul Ince is probably the most notable example. Despite being a key player in Man Utd’s 1994-95 season as they finished second in the league but trophyless, Ince was part of a trio of established players, along with Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis, who departed the club in the off-season.
United received £7.5m from Inter Milan for the midfielder, a huge fee at the time, and his departure opened the door for Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and other youngsters to establish themselves in the first team and lead the club to Premier League and FA Cup success.
While Man Utd were celebrating the double, Ince was enduring an unspectacular season in Italy; the future Blackburn boss would spend just two years in Milan before returning to England a much less influential player, seeing out the twilight of his career with Middlesbrough and Wolves. Ince’s descent into mediocrity coincided with United’s march towards silverware, fully justifying Sir Alex’s decision.
Ince was not an anomaly, and was soon followed out the door by Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe; the former was United’s leading scorer the season before he was sold, but did not get close to replicating his feat in the years that followed. Since then Sir Alex has left a trail of shocking but vindicated exits in his wake, from Alan Smith and Mikael Silvestre to even Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham.
And now QPR captain Park could be the latest name to add to the list. The South Korean was billed as a marquee signing for the west London club, a Champions League and Premier League winner, the sign of a new, brighter era under Mark Hughes.
But Park has endured a poor start to life at Loftus Road and epitomised the woes of a club that have just four points after 12 games. His time at Man Utd was characterised by tenacity, energy and work rate, but, like much of the QPR side this season, he has appeared lackadaisical, lethargic and passionless.
Park was given enormous responsibility by Sir Alex in big games, a non-stop, tactically astute wind-up workhorse, but has been unable to take ownership of games under Hughes; given a freer role ahead of a combo of Alejandro Faurlin, Esteban Granero or Samba Diakite, Park has struggled to assume creative control, lacking intensity and consistency.
That poses the question of whether QPR have bought a player that only excelled within a precise construct. Park was magnificent in executing specific, isolated tactical plans - the man-marking job he performed on Andrea Pirlo in 2010, for example - but ask him to perform a more general and consistent role, to lead a side, to act as the fulcrum, and he is less effective.
Or perhaps, at 31-years-old, Park is struggling to sustain the work rate and energy that typified him; his effectiveness is hugely dependent on his fitness, which is declining fast.
The positive for Rs fans is that Park, aside from his age, does not fit the archetypal mould of player Sir Alex is happy to release. There was little financial merit - he moved for a fee in the region of just £2m - he is a hard-working professional devoid of ego - unlike Ince, who was labelled a “big-time Charlie” and “bottler” by his manager - and nor is he a disruptive influence or prima donna. Someone who does tick many of those boxes, however, is Nani.
Unlike Park - or even Antonio Valencia, currently keeping the Portuguese out of the team - Nani is not a diligent, tactically aware, selfless player. He is an increasingly frustrating show-pony, more inclined to shoot from 40 yards than pass to a team-mate in space. The egotistical winger has started just four games in the league this year and, despite being in his prime, could be cut loose as his contract nears an end.
Ryan Giggs has proven that you do not have to be at the peak of your powers to be an important squad member, but if Sir Alex sees no function for Nani within the squad dynamic and no future for him in the first team – just as Park's aging legs reduced his ability to perform the hard-working tactical roles the United manager required – then his career with the red half of Manchester could be at risk.
Of course, Sir Alex’s record is not flawless – Jaap Stam tops a list of players that were offloaded before their time, along with the likes of Tim Howard and Gerard Pique – and Park could yet prove his worth at Loftus Road, as could Nani at Old Trafford, but history suggests Sir Alex will be vindicated once more.
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