Sussex born & bred: Darren Lok
In the next of our Sussex born & bred series, we spoke to former Eastbourne Borough and current Malaysian international, Darren Lok.
“I’d gone from playing in Eastbourne with the occasional newspaper write-up to Malaysia where everything’s televised, the whole country is watching, it’s huge all-over social media, and that’s taken some getting used to.”
Darren has come a long way since playing at Priory Lane in the National League South. The crowds are in their thousands watching the Hailsham-born striker nowadays, as opposed to the 500 or so at Eastbourne Borough.
“There wasn’t too much to shout about!” That’s what Darren relays to us about his playing days in Sussex but it’s a part of the story that has led him to becoming an international footballer.
“From an early age I was hooked through my grandad who was big into football, and I started playing from 6 or 7 years old for Hailsham.
“I played for Hailsham until 14 or 15 then went to Hastings, played some football there then obviously most of my men’s football was at Eastbourne Borough.
“I used to have a few scouts watching me as a kid, but it never amounted to anything, few trials with Sussex as well but again nothing happened.”
He tells us of what an enjoyable time it was playing his youth football in Sussex, boasting some big names that he played with. It was Eastbourne Borough, however, where he made a name for himself, as a self-proclaimed super-sub.
“I played whilst at school and college, played with Dave Wheeler whilst there, who is now at Wycombe, I know Solly March quite well, so I’ve played with a few lads that have been very successful. I know James Norwood well, I used to play with Steve Cook at Hastings.
“There was a big group from Hastings in the Brighton setup, like Cook, Josh Pelling, Liam Upton, it was a ridiculous team they had when I was there, we were often winning most games 10-0.
“I moved to Eastbourne at under-18 level but wasn’t getting many opportunities to break into the first team. I played a bit of reserve football, but they got rid of the league and we joined a league where we were playing the likes of Millwall reserves, top teams but only every three weeks or something like that.
“I remained under Eastbourne’s books but decided to go to Ringmer FC, Horsham on loan as well, but eventually I was back at Borough and remained there for a good few years.
“Tommy Widdrington gave me the chance in the end, and he was a good manager actually, I really liked him. But I was still a bit of a super sub, I always came off the bench and did pretty well but didn’t start too many.”
Life as a semi-professional footballer can be a tough life to lead. Often semi-pro players will work other jobs and Darren tells us of the intense environment he was in.
“Everyone has the dream of wanting to be a professional footballer, but I also knew I needed to work, and I was working full-time in a psychiatric hospital while at Borough. They were long days!
“It was at Hellingly Hospital, but I can’t say it was a passion of mine, I just sort of fell into it at college. I didn’t particularly enjoy it and I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore!
“It was an intense environment to work in, but very rewarding actually, however, it’s really not an easy day’s work. I’d sometimes be leaving a long shift and going straight to an evening game.
“It’s the same for a lot of semi-pro players, it’s a hard life to live at times because you love football and want to work it around your working life, but it isn’t easy. Some teams at that level can pay quite good money these days so I can see why they do it!
“But for me, it was getting to a point where I thought, well something’s got to give, I’ve got to give up one of them. Semi-pro football can only take you so far and I had to start thinking about potentially what I’m going to do as a career and whether I should take that forward.
“Working in the psychiatric hospital was one of the only jobs I could do because Eastbourne, at the time, were training during the day so it was just a job getting me by.”
What Darren didn’t know, is that he was about to be offered a lifeline. The chance to play professional football and live the life he had always wanted.
“My dad is Malaysian, he moved over to England when he was 20. He’s been in England now though longer than he lived in Malaysia.
“I’d come back and forth from Malaysia on holiday and stuff but never ever considered staying. A guy called Scott Ollerenshaw, messaged me on Twitter and ended up being my agent, saying he heard my dad was Malaysian and would I be interested in playing football there.
“I think I had done an interview with the Malaysian version of football magazine, Four Four Two, they somehow found out about my heritage. That’s how Scott found me, but I still don’t know how they found out!
“I didn’t have a clue about Malaysian football, but he talked a bit about it and how it would work and the figures that can be earned over here.
“At that time, I’m working still, I’ve got a mortgage to pay so the money was an important factor in terms of whether it was worth such a big life change.
“I flew out for a visit, visited the club that I ended up signing for (Johor Darul Ta'zim) and it was unbelievable, I couldn’t believe the facilities that they had. They’d match the Premier League’s and that’s what sold it to me really.
“I just had to sort my Malaysian passport and it was quite an easy move really in the end because I didn’t have kids, just a girlfriend who is now my wife.
“Johor Darul Ta'zim are the biggest club here in Malaysia with a lot of money put into them and as I said, the training ground, the stadium, it was all incredible.”
Scott Ollerenshaw is a former Australian international who decided to try his hand at being a football agent. Darren was part of a crop of players that made that possible.
“He isn’t my agent anymore but there was a boy from England already out here called Junior Eldstål, who’s a good friend of mine now. He wasn’t doing much in England but came to Malaysia and was a huge hit.
“Scott was successful with him and thought how he could do it with other players, so he messaged quite a few people. In the end there was seven of us that all came over, I think I was playing the highest level out of those.
“They’ve all gone on to have good careers out here, playing regularly and whilst it might not be Premier League money, there’s certainly good money to be made.”
Things went very quickly for Darren whilst in Malaysia. His life was changing dramatically, and at times, that became tough to deal with.
“It was just a crazy experience! I waited a while for my passport and when that finally came through, things then went very fast.
“I made my debut and not long after I ended up getting a national team call-up for Malaysia. I’d only played two or three games it all went very, very quickly. I’d gone from playing non-league back home, to playing international football.
“It was pretty surreal, and I didn’t expect it to go that fast. I went to one of the big tournaments in South East Asia, playing in front of 40,000 fans, I’d been used to 500 at Priory Lane! I did have to pinch myself and think, ‘what the hell’s going on here?!’
“Malaysian fans are absolutely fanatic; it’s not 40,000 every week, often it’s 5 or 10,000 but when there’s a big game or a final you’ll easily get 80,000 in for one of those.
“I do think perhaps it did happen all a bit too quick though. I went to the tournament and didn’t do a great deal; I don’t think I was used to how different it was.
“You finish a game where perhaps you haven’t played amazingly and your phone’s going crazy, you’ve got pundits talking about you, so it was very difficult for me at first. My confidence took a battering! I’m used to it now, but it was tough at first.
“There’s quite a few of us boys from England that have come to Malaysia. Not Sussex area that I know of, but a few from non-league so it’s good having them around to help you through bad times. My agent at the time was someone I could speak to; he would stick up for me in the media.”
Darren does feel at home in Malaysia now, and speaks to us of what it means to him to represent his family’s heritage.
“I haven’t actually played for Malaysia in a couple of years because of injury, but there’s talk of me getting recalled soon. It’s a nice thing to be able to say that you’re an international footballer.
“I may not have grown up here, but I have family here and it’s a country that I’m very proud to represent. I scored my only international goal so far against Syria who are actually a very good team.
“It’s one thing I noticed when I left England that there’s so many countries with talented players, but it also makes you realise just how good you have to be to make it in England.
“My dad was very proud. He loves Malaysia and I think he misses it a lot. The fact that I’m here I think makes him feel closer to home. My mum’s obviously proud as well but I think she misses me!”
It started off positively for Darren winning silverware with Johor, but injuries have prevented his progress.
“I won the league two or three times with Johor and I think they’re on course for their sixth title in a row at the moment. There’s no stopping them in Malaysia, they’re miles ahead of any other club.
“I went to Malaysia thinking all the clubs would be like them, but I’ve had some terrible injury luck since I’ve been here and moved on twice. The facilities at other clubs aren’t quite as good. Some don’t have changing rooms; the pitches aren’t always great, so Johor are really ahead of everyone else.
“I’m playing for a club called PJ City right now who are in the capital of Malaysia but since I’ve been here I’ve fractured my legs three times, so I’ve had some bad luck!
“I had an operation after a bad fracture I did in training. I was out for six months, came back, played for about a year, fractured my other leg, out for another five months. Then just this year I was playing for PJ, finally getting the game time I wanted, and fractured my fibula.
“I’ve just come back now after another six months out. So, it hasn’t been a dream move things haven’t gone great, but I know things will get better and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Despite the setbacks, Darren knows it was the right move for him and jokes, “I promise I do actually play football!”
But he always reminds himself of what his life could have still been in England and tells us of his future plans.
“I have to remind myself what my life was back in England, in a job I didn’t enjoy, whereas here I am a professional footballer so I know I shouldn’t moan too much!
“I’ve signed to stay at PJ for another year and the plan is to stay here and play football until I retire now. I’ve had opportunities to go to places like Thailand, football’s quite big over there which would have been a good move.
“Thai football is a bit further ahead than here but certainly my immediate plans are to stay in South East Asia, I’ve not got any plans to come back to England.”
Could he see coaching as a potential avenue?
“I won’t be doing that! Once football’s done, it’s done for me. It’s taken its toll on me mentally and physically and I don’t think I have the passion to do coaching. I’d like to move into property back in England after I retire so I’ll eventually be back!”
Stories like Darren’s are always remarkable ones to hear. He’s proof that the grass can be greener elsewhere from England, in a move that has helped him live his lifelong dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Lastly he offers advice for aspiring footballers and those that might have been in the same boat as him: “I’d definitely advise that you should broaden your horizons. Don’t be so fixed on making it in England, if it’s not working out, there’s so much football elsewhere in the world.
“You dream of being a pro footballer in England, but it doesn’t always work out that way and coming to Malaysia has been the best thing I’ve done.
“Work harder than the person ahead of you and don’t give up. I was close to giving up, but you don’t know what opportunities could surface.”
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