Jess Park serves notice of dynamism and drive to prosper on England audition

As England auditions go, this was compelling from Jess Park. The kind of performance that, 10 years ago, would have yielded a couple of thumbs up from Simon Cowell and been the water cooler moment on a Monday morning.

But this is 2024, and Park was playing to Sarina Wiegman with a screen test comprising two goals and an assist. More than that, Park was the player upon whom City’s fortunes turned: the pocket rocket surging from the middle and exploding behind disorientated red shirts.

In the Cowell-Lionesses multiverse, Wiegman might have considered pushing her golden buzzer there and then and the confetti would have rained down. In the real world, Park’s convincing casting call leaves the England manager with a little more to chew over. The Manchester City player’s competition comes from Ella Toone, Fran Kirby and the Manchester United midfielder Grace Clinton, on loan at Spurs. Lauren James can drop into that position, too.

In any case, City’s 11-game winning run in the WSL — a record that began, fittingly, with the reverse derby fixture in November — has seen Park cement her place as one of the league’s most impressive young players. She has proved especially invigorating for Gareth Taylor’s team.

“With and without the ball, she drives really well, and gives us a lot of energy and a lot of quality,” said Taylor after his side’s 3-1 win on Saturday. “The cherry on the cake we’ve been looking for has been goals and assists, and she gave us that today on a big stage.”

Park was irrepressible and added two goals and an assist to her energy (Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images)

A derby win means that City are well in the race for their first WSL title in eight years. They host Arsenal in their penultimate game of the season and Chelsea, still in all four competitions, travel to Manchester United on the final day. Park’s role in ending Chelsea’s 22-game unbeaten home run last month via her burgeoning partnership with Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw places her as the potential kingmaker in a title race that could go down to the wire.

Those are the bigger, more broader questions. First, we’ll have to wait for United heads to stop spinning.

When City’s third goal flew in, 35 seconds after the break, you wondered how Park looked from their point of view: moving in a blur, probably, soundtracked by something akin to a lightsaber hum. There’s something eerie in the way the United defenders fall away as the midfielder engineers the reverse ball to Shaw, as though repelled by Park’s static. Shaw and Park survey their kingdom in celebration, and in that moment it certainly did feel like it was their world for the rest of us to live in, defenders dropping and falling and flailing on Shaw and Park’s whims.

That kind of muddled thinking means that United are two away from conceding twice as many league goals as they did last season. Park could meander unhindered through the box to the two first-time finishes that put City out of reach.

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Park finds space at the back post to score City’s second (Matt McNulty – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Would things have panned out differently had Park’s opener been disallowed for an offside in the build-up, as it should have been? The Manchester United manager Marc Skinner argued as much. There “would be a big difference in the game if we don’t concede that goal, and it shouldn’t have stood,” he said, acknowledging that his defence “switched off” in the lead-up to the goals having worked all week on “the underlapping runs from City’s full-backs”.

“If the second goal is their first goal and the third (is their second), then you take your medicine,” Skinner said. “That’s on us. That’s on our performance.

“But when the first one goes in, it just swung the momentum that Man City have going into the end of the first half — momentum when they didn’t have any. We could track them to the sides pretty quickly and I thought they played within their shells until that goal came out. Then it changes the game.”

Fairness aside — for what it’s worth, City were probably just starting to gain the upper had in the minutes before Park’s opener — that City had struggled to exert themselves in the opening 30 minutes was why Park’s performance was so impressive.

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Taylor congratulates Park and Laia Aleixandri (Matt McNulty – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Lauren Hemp, one third of the trident with Shaw and the missing Chloe Kelly that has proved so lethal for City over the past couple of years, posted her first notable cross after some 20-odd minutes and, under Taylor, City have always been at their most dangerous when they crowd teams at the back and cross from wide areas. With United stifling City out wide, it was up to Yui Hasegawa, Laura Coombs and Park to find space in the central areas to kickstart all City’s classic moves.

Park’s dynamism was vital and that instinct to pull centrally undid Maya Le Tissier and Hannah Blundell at the back post for City’s second.

“I just thought, keep it down, keep it down,” Park told the BBC during the post-match television coverage. “I saw it go in and the feeling… I can’t compare it with anything.”



The Briefing: Man City 3 Man United 1 – Are City title favourites? Can United feel aggrieved?

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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