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Feature Interview: Park In-hyeok's comeback season

Flirting with top spot in K League 2 and with an automatic promotion push very much on in 2021, Daejeon Hana Citizen's top goal scorer Park In-hyeok is experiencing something of a comeback season. The 25-year-old has had a whirlwind of a past 18 months due to certain off-the-field issues and was largely absent from the team last year. But this term, with the right manager playing him in the right position, and in a system which suits him, the former Korean youth international is proving to be key in Daejeon's fight to return to the top flight. 

Attacker Park In-hyeok signed for Daejeon Citizen towards the end of the winter transfer window in March 2018 - brought in by then CEO Kim Ho for then manager Ko Jong-so for what was the latter's debut season as a manager. Little was known about him at the time but he has gone on to be something of an enigmatic figure for the Purples. A match-winner on his day who has bags of technique, is strong in the air and can use both feet but has struggled for consistency throughout his three-year spell at Purple Arena.

In 97 Daejeon appearances Park has scored 17 goals and assisted six and perhaps even by his own admissions, his time with the Purples has been mixed. His first K League goal came in a 2-1 away win over Suwon FC in April 2018. A brace in a 2-0 away win over Bucheon came a few months later and even from that early stage it looked as though Daejeon had a real player on their hands. He went on to score seven in total that season and assisted another two as Citizen reached the playoffs. A decent first season in K League after beginning his professional footballing journey in Europe.


Park arrived from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at the age of 22 where he was part of the youth set up. He was actually with the Bundesliga club at the same time as current Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Korean international left back Kim Jin-su but never featured for the first time. Instead, his professional debut came out on loan at FSV Frankfurt in the German second tier. There were other loan spells away from Hoffenheim too, including Koper in Slovenia and Vojvodina in Serbia. In his own words, going to Europe was an opportunity that he couldn't turn down.

"I think every footballer dreams of playing on the grandest stage. For me, going to Germany was an opportunity I couldn't pass up and when I had the chance I took it without any hesitation."

From the way he plays, his schooling in Europe is evident but Park finds it difficult to look back on his spell in Germany without much more than pangs of regret.  

"Actually, because I wasn't successful in Germany, when I think about it now it's even more of a shame. There were a lot of moments that I am regretful about, whether it be from a performance point of view or generally in life, I am trying now to do the things I wasn't able to do then without any regrets. The experience of failing has become a big motivator for me."

Motivators

Another motivator has been the last 18 months, a period of time which has been difficult for Park. He received a 10-match ban after admitting to a drink-driving charge in June 2020. According to reports at the time, Park was asked by someone to move his car but bumped into another vehicle while doing so and was then reported to the police. He didn't appear in Daejeon's first time until that September, three months later. His second game upon returning was during an away fixture with Ansan Greeners, a game in which Park scored Daejeon's opening goal in a 2-1 win. The relief was palpable but that proved to be his only goal of the season, adding to his solitary assist on the opening day. 

"Of course, it motivated me a lot," Park says when asked about the difficulties he has faced. "More than anything, though, I was particularly sorry that I wasn't able be of help to the team. So, each game [that I play] is even more precious to me. I worked as hard as I could during pre-season in winter. The manager worked us hard too but I personally trained hard so that I can put in good performances during the season."

The 2021 season can be see as a comeback year for Park because of how he and the club fared in 2019 and 2020. The 2019 season was a poor one from Daejeon's point of view, finishing second bottom. Park In-hyeok played 33 times in the league and scored just three. And so, after one goal and one assist in nine in 2020, the 2021 will surely qualify Park as a nominee for K League United's Comeback Player for the Year Award. 

Eulji Lewis

Current Daejeon boss Lee Min-sung is known as being quite the taskmaster and has very high expectations in terms of effort and work rate. But Coach Lee, according to Park, knows how to strike the right balance. Park admits, though, that he is the type of player who needs a bit of discipline in order for him perform to his best and this seems to be a contributing factor to his form this term. 

"He is someone who usually tells a lot of jokes and tries to be friendly with the players. But on the training ground and on match days he is very strict. I think that's to make sure that we are concentrating on the game fully or aren't giving off a disorganised appearance. I think that's why I can concentrate more in games.

"I think because last season I don't think I was quite good enough, I have been more determined this season, and to take it one game at a time. Also, everyone at our team is coming together to try and achieve the shared goal of reaching K League 1. I'm doing my best to make sure I am helping the team (to that), it would have been impossible to get the results (we've had) without teammates helping each other."

This season Park definitely is helping the team. He has started 15 of his 20 appearances this term and has six goals to his name as the team's top scorer. He has also laid on two assists, both coming in crucial wins. He bagged his first ever hat-trick earlier this campaign too in a 4-1 win over Bucheon FC 1995 and has helped earned Citizen an extra six points with his goals, the difference between sitting comfortably in the playoffs and within a win of first place, or sitting in fifth. Discipline hasn't been an issue either. In 2018 he was booked nine times, six times in 2019 but so far this term he has been cautioned just three times from 20 appearances. 

Reinventing himself

This term, Park has been deployed as a number nine and an out-and-out striker, usually in a front two. But due to his pace and mobility previous managers have tried him on the wing. In his youth days he played in almost every outfield position eventually becoming a striker. Thanks, he says, to his former high school coach.

"When I first started playing football at primary school I was started out as an attacker but also played as full back and even as a midfielder. From high school onward that's I found my identity as a forward. When I was at Yeungdeungpo Technical High School, the coach that I have lots of memories about is Kim Jae-woong. He turned me into an attacker and really helped me grow as a player."

In every single season since Park joined Daejeon he has worn a different squad number. He arrived late in 2018 and with the Purples having an extremely bloated squad, very few 'good' numbers were left and so he chose 64. A year later it was nine but after a disastrous year, there was seemingly an image change or an attempt to reinvent himself with the number 17 shirt. Park now wears number 20 and thinks that it has brought him good luck.

"At first, I liked to have the same number as my age but I wasn't able to do this at Daejeon. The numbers I chose don't have any particular special meaning. This season, (Lee) Hyun-sik chose 17 so I decided to have 20 instead. I know I need to keep improving but I have been able to perform well while wearing 20 so I think I will choose this number again after this season too. I'll keep trying to do my best so that number 20 is a lucky number for me."

This season

The challenge now for Park In-hyeok is, as an out-and-out striker, is to become more consistent and a regular, reliable goal scorer. This this season he sits fifth for shots made in K League 2 and second per 90 minutes at 3.15 but in terms of accuracy, Park sits in 18th at 35.42%. As a point of reference, teammate Bruno Baio, who scored his first league goal of the season against Gyeongnam in Round 26, sits 12th at 40.63% as the Purples' most accurate marksman. 

Heading into the Round 27 fixture with Bucheon FC 1995, he is without a goal in his last four outings and has scored just once in 10 and so will have to improve his shooting accuracy if he is to break double figures. But, Park remains committed to the cause, despite it looking likely that he will break his own personal goal-scoring best of eight.

"The team’s goal is to win automatic promotion and so I think personal achievements will follow naturally if we are all doing everything we can to make sure we do win promotion. I’ll do my best."

[READ: Personal achievements will follow team's goals': Park In-hyeok]

Future

In terms of his future, Park would of course like to have another crack at playing overseas.

"Of course, I have a desire to play for a club overseas. Whether it be in Japan or in Europe, I'd like to experience it properly. Because I know what it's like to fail from my time in Germany, I feel like I have unfinished business in Europe. Also, I want to experience Japanese football. There have been a lot of Korean players who went to Japan and have been successful. Another reason is that I like attractive football."

Park In-hyeok career milestones

Professional Debut: 7th August 2015, DFB-Pokal - BFC Dynamo 0-2 FSV Frankfurt 
First Professional Start: 14th August 2015, 2. Bundesliga - FSV Frankfurt 1-2 Karlsruher SC
First Professional Goal: 22nd April 2017, Prva Liga (Slovenia) - FC Koper 1-0 NK Rudar Velenje
K League Debut: 11th March 2018, Ansan Greeners 3-2 Daejeon Citizen
First K League Win: 18th March 2018, Daejeon Citizen 1-0 Seoul E-Land
First K League Goal: 29th April 2018, Suwon FC 1-2 Daejeon Citizen 
First K League Assist: 12th May 2018, Daejeon Citizen 3-2 FC Anyang
First K League Brace: 9th June 2019, Bucheon FC 1995 0-2 Daejeon Citizen
First K League Hat-trick: 24th May 2021, Daejeon Hana Citizen 4-1 Bucheon FC 1995.


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