Lost Boys: The unlucky one, Gary Loo

Part of the famed National Football Academy (NFA) batch of 1992, Gary Loo Zhan Quan was starting to establish himself in the S.League until an unfortunate anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury struck him. FFT caught up with the 25-year-old, who is now playing in the National Football League (NFL) with Tiong Bahru FC…

It happened five years ago — in August 2012 to be exact — but Gary Loo’s memory of that seemingly innocuous knock remains vivid.

“I remember it was during a training match between the first eleven and the reserves,” the then-Young Lions player told FourFourTwo. “I was challenging for the ball with Sherif El-Masri; the ball was bouncing, both of us ran and put one leg in. Before I knew it, I heard a ‘pop’ sound.

That injury marked the start of the promising lad’s downfall, who was just into his second S.League season and primed for bigger things.

“That’s how I got the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear in my right knee. Straightaway I knew it was going to be a really serious injury because the whole knee began to swell up and I was not able to walk at all.

“Do you know that I’ve never thought that I will get an ACL injury? It’s like so remote to me back then, but looking back, I guess injuries can happen anytime and anywhere.”

That injury marked the start of the promising lad’s downfall, who was just into his second S.League season and primed for bigger things.

Loo’s talent for the sport was evident from a young age as he became the first-ever Chinese captain of Hong Kah Secondary School “C” Division boys and was asked to join the Singapore Sports School at the age of 14.

He turned the suggestion down, but did make it into the NFA Under-15s after impressing on trials.

Loo's talent from a young age was obvious

Making his S.League debut at the age of 19

Progressing through the ranks along with batch mates like Faris Ramli, Stanely Ng and Syazwan Buhari all the way to the under-18s, Loo was disappointed not to make the Young Lions squad initially in 2011 but a move to Tanjong Pagar United more than made up for it.

Regular game time under coach Terry Pathmanathan convinced the national selectors to select him for the eventual 20-strong Singapore Under-23 squad for the year-end Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Indonesia that year, although he was an unused sub throughout the tournament.

A chance with Tanjong pagar came for Loo

“Unlike many of my batch mates, I didn’t get to join Young Lions; instead I went to Tanjong Pagar because they just returned to the league that year and needed people,” explained the midfielder, who made 30 appearances in 2011.

“I was selected regularly and my confidence rose with more minutes on the pitch.”

Loo would eventually join the Young Lions in 2012, but struggled to hold down a first-team spot under Robin Chitrakar before suffering the dreaded ACL injury.

Fate would have it that he had to go through two operations, which prolonged his recovery time.

The long road back

“I went for the first op shortly after, but there were complications and they found an infection in the operated knee,” he revealed. “I had to go for a second op to clear it and that really delayed my recovery.

“It took me about 10 months later to play again, but the knee was not stable and there was always the fear in me that the injury will occur again.”

In 2015, Loo attempted to make a comeback into the S.League by going for trials at Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa, but was unsuccessful in his pursuit.

Loo also had to serve National Service (NS) from October 2012 to October 2014, which disrupted his development as a football player.

“I never played proper football throughout the two years,” he shared. “In 2013, I did go back to train with the Young Lions for a while but there was no contract. Then in 2014, I just played social football.”

In 2015, Loo attempted to make a comeback into the S.League by going for trials at Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa, but was unsuccessful in his pursuit.

As such, the then first-year Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student could only keep himself in shape by playing varsity football.

Loo in AFC Cup action for Balestier

The determined youngster tried his luck again the following year and eventually earned a contract with Balestier Khalsa to play in the 2016 S.League season.

Having not played professional football for three seasons, Loo was understandably rusty but still managed to make regular appearances for the Tigers in the league and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.

“I really struggled with the intensity, especially in the AFC Cup where the opponents close down very fast,” he acknowledged.

“I did put in a lot of hard work by doing extra training on my own and visiting the gym thrice a week, but it was quite clear that I wasn’t as good as before and I felt I wasn’t as good as my teammates.

“I really have to thank coach Marko (Kraljevic) for being brave enough to play me; he’s always very encouraging to us players, telling us to set a goal, to think ahead for our future and to have the hunger to become a better player. That was really inspiring.”