Once the scapegoat for Malaysia's failings, Darren Lok is finally feeling the love in more ways than one

Once made the scapegoat for Malaysia's disastrous 2016 AFF Championship campaign, Darren Lok has scored some big goals for Harimau Malaya in 2023 -- including a crucial winner against Chinese Taipei in a recent FIFA World Cup qualifier. Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

LOVE IS IN the air for Sabah and Malaysia striker Darren Lok.

The obvious explanation for that is that, in less that a week's time, he will be getting married to his partner of 15 years -- who he sheepishly admits has been "very patient" -- at a destination wedding in the dreamy Indonesian island of Bali.

At a venue he describes as "facing a forest in the middle of nowhere", Lok certainly could be forgiven for wanting to spend the occasion with his closest family and friends away from any prying eyes.

But the public scrutiny -- this external noise which once saw Lok become the scapegoat for a disastrous outing by Malaysia in the biggest tournament in Southeast Asian football -- could also be another reason why he is feeling the love right now.

With nary a hint of bitterness or irony in his voice but simply coming across as a realist, Lok believes he still "isn't everyone's cup of tea".

That may be true, but things have at least changed.

After Sabah sealed their progress from the group stage of the 2023-24 AFC Cup on Thursday with a 4-1 win over Singapore's Hougang United -- a game in which Lok got on the scoresheet from the penalty spot -- a smattering of fans loitered outside Jalan Besar Stadium hoping for a glimpse of the players and perhaps a photo or two.

At an away game for Sabah, in an entirely different country, no less.

Admittedly, it was a small group of no more than 30 but it soon became obvious who were the star draws: long-time Malaysia No. 1 Khairul Fahmi. Sabah's South Korean captain Park Tae-soo.

And a certain Darren Lok.

Perhaps Lok still isn't everyone's cup of tea, but he is definitely the furthest thing from public enemy number one now.

Not when his six goals in the AFC Cup make him the joint-second highest scorer in the AFC Cup or present, or his form last year -- when he was still playing for the now-defunct Petaling Jaya City -- saw him earn a national team recall following a four-year absence.

How can Lok possibly be a villain when he scored the winning goal just ten minutes after coming for Malaysia in last week's 1-0 victory over Chinese Taipei, that kept Harimau Malaya perfect after two matches in the second round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup to leave their supporters dreaming of what could be?

THERE WAS A time when Lok was a villain though. And rather unfairly.

2016 was the year that changed his life -- initially in a good way but it did not take long for things to sour.

Given the 32-year-old has now been plying his trade in the Malaysia Super League for the past seven seasons, it might be easy to forget that the English-born striker had never played professional football prior to moving to his father's birth country.

Once it became known that a fulltime psychiatric support worker with a keen eye for goal in English non-league football was eligible to represent Malaysia, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose.

Lok was airlifted from relative obscurity to a football-crazy nation, signing for the biggest club in the land in Johor Darul Ta'zim at that.

With only a handful of appearances for what was essentially JDT's reserve squad in the second-tier Malaysia Premier League, Lok soon received his maiden national team call-up -- and eventually selection for that year's AFF Championship, the biennial regional competition where Harimau Malaya are almost always expected by their faithful to challenge for top honours regardless of what their actual standing may be.

It was less a case of Lok being thrown into the deep end but more the fact that, in that period, Malaysia simply did not have many players performing at the peak of their powers, with former key men like Safee Sali and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha gradually slowing down as they reached the twilight of their careers.

In the hope that he would bring some much-needed youthful exuberance to the team, Lok started Malaysia's tournament opener -- a 3-2 triumph over Cambodia. Subsequent defeats to Vietnam and Myanmar saw the Malaysians suffer a group-stage exit for the first time in eight years.

Curiously enough, Lok came on as a substitute in those two defeats. The sole game he started in turned out to be Malaysia's only victory at the tournament.

His inexperience did show at times but it arguably should have been forgivable considering how foreign, figuratively and literally, the whole situation was for him.

Yet, it did not take long for prominent figures in the media to make him the poster boy of the failure, and even less time for public sentiment to be swayed.

"I have to admit it was difficult at the time," Lok told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I was new to Malaysia, new to professional football -- to be completely honest. I was new to playing in front of fans, having games televised and everything scrutinised, so that whole period was tough.

"I felt, at the time, the criticism was slightly too much. I'm the toughest (critic) on myself and I'll be the first to admit I didn't do too much. I wasn't great, but I think as a squad, we weren't great.

"I feel I got a lot of the blame for the whole thing."

Now into his thirties, Lok comes across as someone completely at ease with who he is and what he brings to the table, stating that the one thing he can guarantee is that he will "go out there and give 100%".

In hindsight, given that storm has long passed, Lok believes the experience made him a stronger person.

Still, he would not wish it on anyone, especially not on those who were once in his shoes as a young prospect hoping to make a name for themselves.

"Social media is one of the worst parts about football these days," Lok shared. "Everyone's got an opinion and a platform and, of course, they're entitled to that. But my advice for a young footballer would be to focus and believe in yourself and listen to the advice of the most important people like the coaches.

"(The key is) to stay grounded always. (You) can't get carried away when you have a good game, and don't think too much when you have a bad game. That's something that, over the years, I've definitely gotten better at."

THE MAN THAT handed Lok his first Malaysia cap was Ong Kim Swee.

When the vitriol started being directed Lok's way, Ong not only stood by his player but publicly fired back at the critics.

Having been part of the Malaysia national team setup for over a decade in a variety of roles, Ong finally embarked on a new challenge midway through 2021 when he took charge of Sabah -- only his second-ever club job and his first since 2005.

Widely respected among the players, it did not take long for Ong to be joined at Sabah by numerous former charges -- Fahmi, Baddrol Bakhtiar, Irfan Fazail and Gary Robbbat to name but a few.

At the start of this year, Lok followed suit.

"I'll be completely honest -- the thing that brought me here (to Sabah) is the coach," he explained.

"Of course, (there was) the appeal of what he was doing with Sabah, and Sabah -- as a place -- is beautiful. The fans are great and it's a good, big club. But the 'pull' was him.

"I owe the coach a lot. Coach Ong has been there for me since the start of my journey in Malaysia. He gave me my first national (team) call-up, so I'm very grateful for him.

"As soon as he called, it was a no-brainer (to join Sabah)."

It is apparent how strong their bond is, and how much of it is based on mutual respect.

When Ong offered Lok the chance to join him at Sabah in the offseason, the latter sought permission -- from the coach he would soon be reunited with -- that he would have to be absent during a particular period before the campaign concluded due to an important prior engagement.

On Friday, approximately just half a day after taking to the field in a win which saw Sabah secure their AFC Cup progress, Lok flew directly from Singapore to Bali for the final preparations for his wedding.

The rest of the team will return to Malaysia for another crucial game, this time against Perak in the league.

Lok will not be there on Sunday, and he will be missed.

But Ong made a promise that he is not about to break.

In return, Lok clarified -- with a wry grin that soon evolved into a cheeky laugh -- that he will only consume a "sensible" amount of champagne during the celebrations.

All about that mutual respect.

THERE IS LOVE in the form of his upcoming nuptials.

There is love in the affection, albeit belatedly, that he now finds himself on the receiving end of from the public, even if it is not from all quarters just yet.

Perhaps, most importantly, there is a love for the game that has found its way back to Lok.

He is performing and scoring for a team still gunning for what would be a creditable third-place finish in the MSL for a second season running.

He is among the leading scorers in a continental tournament that Sabah could yet find themselves going further than the ASEAN Zone semifinals they have already qualified for.

And he is playing a role for Malaysia in their quest to advance to the next round of Asian qualifiers for the World Cup, which also means he is in with an excellent chance of being on the plane to Qatar in January when Harimau Malaya return to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since they co-hosted it in 2007 -- a tournament Lok labels the pinnacle for any footballer in the continent.

"I'm really enjoying it," Lok revealed. "When things are going well, you don't have to think that much -- everything happens automatically.

"I know with the way Sabah are playing at the moment, the chances are going to be there. I still think there's a lot I can improve on and I'm always trying to get better.

"I'll admit I need to be more clinical sometimes but, when you're having a good period of form, those goals come a lot easier.

"I know that, as a striker, goals dry up. There will be times when you're not scoring. Of course, in football, you've got to make the most of it when things are good because it's a game that goes up and down -- so, enjoy the good times.

"To be here with Sabah achieving what we're achieving, it's been a great season for the club and me personally and I'm enjoying football again.

"We're doing well with the national team as well, so things are looking good."

With an idyllic wedding ceremony in the coming days, followed by a return to Sabah -- where he will be hoping to continue ending the season on a high -- and then, hopefully, the opportunity to do his country even more proud, things certainly are looking good for Lok.

After all he has been through, few will -- and should -- begrudge him finally feeling the love.