Having learned how to walk again, Ho Wai Loon hits restart button on career
The Singapore full-back is hoping that a return to Balestier Khalsa - the club where his journey started - will help him find joy again.
It was just their second session after Singapore Premier League clubs were given the green light to resume full training in September last year.
The Lion City Sailors, including utility player Ho Wai Loon, were pushing themselves hard on the pitch as they prepared themselves for a possible title challenge.
In an attempt to win the ball, Wai Loon made what looked like an innocuous challenge as he slid to the ground. As soon as he did so, his right foot got caught in the ground and he heard a crackling noise that sounded like the snapping of tree branches.
The 27-year-old knew instantly that something bad happened.
“Immediately, I knew it was a bad injury and that I would be out for a long time,” recalls Wai Loon, who shares that he had been enjoying himself in training up till then.
A medical checkup in the same evening confirmed his worst fears. He had sustained a Weber B fracture on his right ankle and the extent of the injury was so severe that he had to undergo surgery the following day. He was also ruled out of action for the next eight months.
As a player who leaves nothing on the pitch even during training, it was ironic – and cruel – that his commitment and enthusiasm was what caused him to sustain that serious injury.
Instead of being out on the pitch with his teammates when the league resumed in October, he could only watch them on television. He was also reliant on crutches for over a month, before commencing the rehabilitation process in a cast.
It was tough to take for the usually bubbly and upbeat Wai Loon.
“I couldn’t do anything for that month after the operation and all my effort in getting myself ready for the league’s restart just went to waste like that,” he laments.
“I felt quite down, to be honest, because I felt I could have contributed to the team.”
At one of the lowest points in his life, he delved into past experience to find the strength to get back up on his feet again. It was the second time he had sustained a serious injury – he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) back in July 2015, which ruled him out for more than a year.
“I know how it is to come back from a really bad injury – it’s not easy to go through rehab all over again, but what pushed me on is that I really want to recover and play again,” says Wai Loon, although it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. He had to learn how to walk again, after a metal screw was inserted in his ankle as part of the operation to repair the fracture.
“My knee and ankle were quite fragile. I had to regain strength and stability while building a posture that uses the leg muscles more in order to move about,” he recalls.
Thankfully, things gradually got easier for Wai Loon. Together with Amiruldin Asraf, Sahil Suhaimi, Huzaifah Aziz and Ignatius Ang, all of whom were injured too, Wai Loon spent time doing his rehabilitation at the Football Association of Singapore’s gym.
The quintet pushed and motivated each other through the rehabilitation process, which can be physically and mentally draining for professional athletes. His family members also helped a great deal.
“I’m still staying with my parents and they helped me a lot in terms of my movement around the house. Although they did say things like ‘why you kick soccer until like that?’, they never discouraged me – they just told me to come back stronger and be careful next time,” says Wai Loon.
He also met his friends for meals to avoid having any negative thoughts on his condition. On days he was cooped up at home, he turned to his Call of Duty – his favourite first-person shooter videogame. Those distractions helped to take his mind off his condition and became an important aspect in his recovery process.
Still, his journey to recovery wasn’t all smooth-sailing.
When he commenced ball work after five months, he found it very uncomfortable because of the metal screw in his ankle. It hurt every time he made a pass of the ball and he couldn’t kick as hard as before.
He spoke to fellow players Shahdan Sulaiman and Justin Hui who had similar experiences and they recommended him to take out the screw. That ruled him out for another three weeks and it felt like he had taken two steps back after one step forward.
“It was frustrating because I had to sit out again. But I had to trust the process,” Wai Loon states begrudgingly.
It was only in late April this year – seven months on – that Wai Loon finally returned to action, when he played in a friendly game. But with the Sailors having a settled first eleven for most matches, opportunities were hard to come by for Wai Loon, despite having the versatility to play in either defence or midfield.
So, when the mid-season transfer window swung open, Wai Loon grabbed the opportunity to move on loan to Balestier Khalsa, the club that gave Wai Loon his first taste of professional football in 2014.
“It was not an easy decision to make. With a new coach (Kim Do-hoon) coming in (for the Sailors), it could be a clean slate and I may get a fresh chance to get into the team,” he explains.
“But Balestier is another good opening for me. The most important thing for my career right now is playing time, so I thought it might be good to go to a new environment and prove my abilities again.”
A key factor in his choice was also the opportunity to reunite with Marko Kraljevic, the coach that gave him his big break seven years ago. Wai Loon says that Marko is still the same coach he knows, always asking players to push their limits and set their sights on playing at a higher level.
“It’s nice to be working with him again and I believe I will be able to enjoy my football again at this club,” Wai Loon explains with conviction.
The Croatian tactician shares the same sentiments. Recalling Wai Loon’s debut, when the then-rookie was thrown into the mix in the 2014 Singapore Cup final to replace the injured Syed Thaha, Marko proudly said: “I’ll never forget how well he played in that game – he only played a few games at the professional level, but he had an excellent outing to help us win.”
Marko believes Wai Loon is still the same person he knew from all those years back, only more experienced.
“He’s been unlucky with some injuries and it’s nice to have him back at Balestier. We have many young players here and he’s definitely going to help them with his years of experience,” says Marko, who also describes Wai Loon as someone always carrying a smile on his face.
Indeed, even as life dealt Wai Loon a bad hand, he has never once sulked. While he wasn’t able to contribute on the pitch, he certainly did so off it – by continuing to be a positive influence around the dressing room.
“Of course, I will think about why I was so ‘suay’ (unlucky) with injuries. But I also believe everything happens for a reason,” he says.
“I cannot go back to change the past… Whatever happened has happened. I just try to come to training everyday with my best attitude regardless of whatever issues I have and be a positive person with the people around me.”
Retirement was never on his mind even after two major injury setbacks. After all, his love for the game had already seen him overcome the obstacles in his path at the start of his career, when he was rejected by clubs at 16 because of his height.
The 1.69m-tall utility player turns 28 in August. He still hasn’t given up on his hopes of turning out for the Singapore national team again – he has two caps from 2018 – and hopes a return to the club where his career started will allow him to rediscover his best form.
More importantly, he yearns for the joy and satisfaction that comes after battling hard for 90 minutes and beyond on the football pitch.
“I can’t just wait to get that feeling back – walking off the pitch with a fully-soiled jersey knowing that I put everything out there on the pitch to help my team win a game,” he says.
“I still have a lot of things that I want to achieve in my career. I want to be playing week in week out… I want to get back into the national team as I believe I still have something to offer to the team.
“With some hard work and better luck, I’m confident I can achieve that again.”