Sheer determination sees Darren Lok achieve Malaysian ambition

Darren Lok in action for Johor Darul Takzim
Darren Lok in action for Johor Darul Takzim

By Derren Howard

Anyone who has seen Darren Lok play will know he isn’t the type to give up easily.

It was little more than a year ago the popular striker left the home comforts of Priory Lane to join the professional ranks of Malaysian football.

It was a bold decision but even he would not have imagined the first six months would have been quite so arduous.

Lok’s father is Malaysian and he signed for the Super League champions Johor Darul Takzim after his now agent contacted him via Twitter. Teams in the Super League can only use four foreign players and Lok, who developed his skills in the youth sections at Eastbourne Borough and then in unforgiving environment of the English non-league, was able to join Johor as a home player.

The move however was far from smooth. The 26-year-old was left waiting for five frustrating months as passport problems prevented him playing competitive football.

Lok, who used to work in Eastbourne as a mental health care worker, remained patient and gave his all in training as he awaited his chance. But at the start of 2017, he injured his lower leg in a training match and further tests revealed a break.

It was an almighty blow and few would have blamed him for packing it in and perhaps return to the UK in the lower leagues or back to non-league.

Lok said, “I have always tried to remain positive when these things happen. The first year has not gone as I would have liked but I’m looking to the future and trying not to dwell on the past.”

Following his lengthy rehabilitation, Lok eased back into action for Johor seconds. After just a 45 minute appearance, he impressed enough that Malaysia’s Portuguese manager Nelo Vingada swiftly called the striker into his international squad. It was vindication for his sheer will and Lok has now represented his country on five occasions, with his first goal arriving in a recent friendly against Syria. He also played against Hong Kong in a recent Asian Cup qualifier.

“It was a great experience,” said Lok. “I made my debut coming on as a substitute against Singapore. I was then called up for the 23 man squad that competed at the AFF Suzuki Cup in Myanmar. The AFF is a big competition in South East Asia, so it was an honour to represent Malaysia, unfortunately we were knocked out in the group stage.

“My other appearances came just recently. Two friendlies against Syria and Myanmar, I scored my first international goal against Syria, it was an amazing feeling, hopefully it is the first of many to come.”

Johor is a city based in the south of the country with a population of 3.5 million and is just a 30 minute drive to Singapore. Johor Darul Takzim are a huge club in South East Asia with regular attendances of 25,000 and they have won the Malaysian league title for the last four seasons. The heat in Johor is oppressive. It ranges between 74°F to 90°F with high humidity, a tad different to a winter’s Tuesday night at Priory Lane with howling wind in front of 400 or so fans. The season in Malaysia runs from January to October with a mid-term break and Lok has managed just four league matches, scoring twice.

“It took a while to adapt.” Lok added. “Johor are a huge club and the facilities compare to that of a Premier League club. The atmosphere is brilliant, football is huge out here. That was also something I had to get used to, playing in front of such big crowds.

“I was surprised how different it was at first. Most teams in Malaysia try to play good passing football and you rarely see long balls. It was also hard adapting to the weather but after a few months you get used to it. I also do not speak the language which has been a challenge but I started lessons so I am hoping that I will pick it up soon.

“I could not be happier. Although it hasn’t been the smoothest of years, I have still managed to love every minute of it. I do find it difficult at times and the thing I miss most about England are my family and friends. But looking to the future, I am hoping to stay in Malaysia and continue playing football here.”

Despite being almost 7,000 miles away from his home town, Lok still keeps a keen eye on Borough’s progress in the National League South and plans to visit the club later this year.

“I look out for their results, hoping that they do well each week,” he said. “They seem to be having a good start under the new manager and I wish them well for the season. I am going to try and get down to Priory Lane when I’m back in November.”

Lok will not receive a warm welcome from the November weather but one thing’s for certain, he will from the fans who remember his commiment and eye for goal in a Borough shirt - he’s one of their own who simply refused to give up on his international dream and now fulfilling his potential in one of the planet’s more unlikely football destinations.