For most non-league players, football is a part-time career filled with long journeys, late finishes and early starts for work the next morning.
The professional game – with its manicured pitches, money and media attention – can seem a distant dream.
Three years ago, Darren Lok was working shifts in an NHS psychiatric hospital in the south of England and playing part-time football for National League South side Eastbourne Borough, two steps below the English Football League.
But now, after being contacted by an agent who read an interview he gave to a football magazine, the Sussex-born forward is a Malaysia international playing for a club competing in the Asian Champions League and could feature for his country in World Cup qualifying.
“I was contacted on the internet by Scott Ollerenshaw, who is now my agent,” says Lok. “He asked if I had ever thought about playing football in Malaysia.
“We met a few months later and he explained it in more detail and told me I would be eligible for a Malaysian passport through my father, and that if I moved I could have the chance to represent Malaysia at international level.
“Every non-league player knows how hard it is to juggle work with football, and to have the chance to focus on my football was really appealing.
“I didn’t realise how big football in Malaysia was, but after giving it plenty of thought I decided it was too big an opportunity to turn down and one that I would regret if I did not take.”
Malaysia are looking to make their mark on the international scene and see players with dual nationality as a way to do that. There is a cap on foreign players in the domestic league, so Lok had to apply for a passport, making him a Malaysian citizen.
After a successful trial he joined Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) – the team currently top of the Malaysia Super League – and signed for JDT II, who play in the second tier Malaysia Premier League.
JDT are the biggest club in Malaysia and one of the biggest in South East Asia. They have facilities and a following that could rival most Premier League teams and have 700,000 followers on social media platform Instagram.
Their growth and appearance in the Asian Champions League for the first time this year is largely down to their owner, Tunku Ismail Idris, who is a member of the royal family.
“He is the reason the club is where it is today,” says Lok, whose progress has been hampered by a series of injuries, which led to him being sent to a doctor – used by Manchester City – in Barcelona.
“The owner is extremely passionate and supportive, and has a great vision for the club moving forward. He is very well connected in the football world and is close friends with Peter Lim [owner of Valencia and co-owner of Salford City].
“Many players have visited the club since I have been here – David Beckham, Robert Pires, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Alessandro Nesta and Hernan Crespo just to name a few.”
For Lok – who has a sponsorship deal to go with his professional status – adapting to life on the pitch was as challenging as the new environment he encountered off it.
“The culture is very different and in terms of the football, the climate and the pitches took a long time to get used to,” he says. “It’s a tropical country where temperatures tend to be 35-40 degrees all year round. The majority of pitches here are cow grass, the ball rolls a lot slower and that took time to adjust to.”
Lok’s first international call-up did not take long to come and he made his debut against Singapore after being involved in just two league games for JDT II, scoring his first goal for the national team against Syria in 2017.
“My first international cap came a lot sooner than I expected,” he says. “It was a big shock – only a few months earlier I’d been playing non-league football in England and now I would be representing Malaysia at international level. It was a great experience.
“It was a crazy few months. It was things like having to do media interviews that I had to get used to – it was all new to me. Also all the games were televised. That’s normal for experienced pros but coming from non-league it was all completely new to me.
“My debut for Malaysia was also the first big crowd I’d played in front of, it was about 20,000. It was surreal having played in front of crowds of 500 people in England.”
Unlike Eastbourne Borough, JDT have a branded plane and team bus to transport them to matches played all over the country. They also have a group of fanatical supporters who travel to every game.
They are also the first Malaysian side to win six consecutive league titles and because of their participation in the Asian Champions League they’ve been included on this year’s Pro Evolution Soccer game.
Literally and metaphorically, it is miles away from what Lok was used to in England.
“If it all works out well I could be there for as long as I can continue to play football,” he says.