The making of Jess Park: From shy teen to Lioness leading Manchester City’s title charge

The making of Jess Park: From shy teen to Lioness leading Manchester City's title charge
Jess Park has been key for Man City in their WSL title challenge - Matt McNulty /Getty Images

It took just 79 seconds for Jess Park to score when coming off the bench for her England debut in 2022, but not everything in a young footballer’s career can happen so quickly.

For more than six years, coaches in the Lionesses pathway system have been privately tipping this diminutive, agile and pacey 5ft 3in midfielder for big things. At 16, she made her senior Manchester City debut in the League Cup; at 17, she made her Champions League debut; at 18, she scored a hat-trick in the FA Cup. Yet she has had to bide her time to truly breakthrough for club and country in the big games.

England Under-23s head coach Emma Coates worked with Park in the youth pathway and says: “I remember watching Jess play when she was at York Centre of Excellence. I was at Leeds Centre of Excellence and every time we played them, they’d go 3-0 up because Jess played, they’d take her off and we’d make it 3-3 and then they’d bring her back on and it would finish 5-3. You could see her talent from such a young age.”

Park had to settle for a spot in Coates’s under-23s squad as recently as November last year but, after scoring three goals in her past two appearances for top-of-the-table Manchester City, the 22-year-old is in line to play at Wembley on Friday when England meet Sweden in their first Women’s European Championship 2025 qualifier.

“There’s certainly an air of confidence about her now,” adds Coates. “I think she’s always had a real inner-confidence and belief but she probably holds herself a bit more confidently. You’re probably seeing that on the pitch and that’s why she’s playing so well. The talent has always been there.”

The key behind that new-found confidence is the time she spent on loan at Everton last season. Park made 16 league starts out of a possible 22 while on Merseyside and she says: “When you go on loan, it’s such a big decision to make. Obviously I want to play at City, I want to play every minute, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, and I think getting that experience on loan has just made me come back more confident. I feel more than ready and capable.”

Since Manchester City lost Netherlands midfielder Jill Roord to a season-ending knee injury in January, Park has stepped up for her club, providing a crucial assist for their match-winning goal away at Women’s Super League title rivals Chelsea in November before producing a standout performance in March’s Manchester derby. Speaking after that 3-1 win at the Etihad, in which Park notched two goals and an assist, Manchester City head coach Gareth Taylor said that such contributions were the “cherry on the cake” that he and his staff had been looking for.

Park has produced more goal-creating actions [1.18] per 90 minutes than any other player in the WSL this season, as well as the highest number of assists [0.59] per 90 minutes. She also has the highest passing completion percentage [87 per cent] of all 25 players with three or more WSL assists this season.

How had she made that leap? Park puts it down to the extra time she spends on finishing practice at the end of training alongside team-mates Lauren Hemp, Mary Fowler and Laura Coombs.

She also points to other attributes she has improved over the past 18 months, saying: “Definitely my game awareness off the ball, my confidence on the ball. It feels amazing at the moment. I’ve been very patient, I went out on loan, got some experience. Now, I’m finally getting an opportunity to show a bit about myself.”

She is gaining confidence in team meetings too, adding: “If I have a point to make, I do want to make it.”

She has undoubtedly come out of her shell since her days as a shy teenager at England youth camps. Few have had a better vantage point to see her growth than Manchester City and England team-mate Alex Greenwood, who says: “I’m lucky I get to work with Jess every day and, way before this selection, I knew she had so much potential. With Jess, it was just about being patient and trusting what she was going to achieve rather than what she was doing at that moment.

“As soon as I signed with City [in 2020], I just clicked with Jess. I loved the way she was and she was so exciting on the ball, she had loads of potential, but loads of things that she needed to improve on, off the pitch probably, like lifestyle sort of things. Not that by any means she was doing anything wrong but just things I used to see that I maybe used to do a little bit and I thought, ‘If I can help her now then the journey is a little bit easier’.”

That guidance from a 30-year-old first-team regular is probably why Park names Greenwood first when asked which players have helped her around camp. The benefits are now being reaped by club and country.