SINGAPORE - He captured the hearts of the 3,012-strong crowd at the Jalan Besar Stadium last October, when he scored the winner in Singapore's 2-1 upset over Syria in the Asian Cup qualifiers.
That strike remains one of the best moments in Gabriel Quak's career, together with scoring on his national debut against Laos last June and winning last year's Malaysian Super League (MSL) title with the LionsXII.
Yet, if last year marked significant progress for the 23-year-old winger, this year has fallen far short of his expectations.
Tipped to become a key player for the defending MSL champions, Quak has instead started in only five of their 15 matches so far this season, completing 90 minutes in just one.
Goals have also been hard to come by. He has scored just one this season, compared to his two goals for the Lions in just six international games.
"Personally, I expected to do much better but the pressure got to me at the start of the season," said Quak. "I always believed in a good start, but when I was taken off at half-time in our opening MSL game against Pahang, that hit my confidence hard."
In March, coach Fandi Ahmad hauled him off after just 32 minutes against Perak, and chided him for being "missing" from the team's attacks.
"He hasn't been able to fully concentrate in the games he played. He needs to add focus to his skill and pace," said the LionsXII coach.
"He needs to let the ball work for him by knowing when to pass rather than dribble, and more importantly, he needs to work harder for the team by covering more ground when we don't have possession."
Such criticism stung, but Quak insisted he has no one to blame but himself.
"I don't blame the coach. He had faith in me but I didn't meet his expectations, so it's only right that he takes me off," he said. Things may finally be looking up for Quak. In the just-concluded training trip to Myanmar, his performances in two friendlies earned praise from Fandi.
The former national captain said: "I gave him the full 180 minutes there and he impressed me with his work rate and eye for goal. Now it's time for him to show he can do the same in a competitive game."
Quak was also encouraged by his performances, and now hopes he will get a chance to stake his claim for a spot in the starting line-up. He is also keen to hit the five-goal target set by Fandi at the start of the season.
"It's hard to get a run of form when I'm not playing frequently. I need to play more to get momentum going but I admit my performances so far aren't deserving of a run in the team," he said.
"Hopefully I did enough in Myanmar to justify getting a run and once I get a couple of full matches under my belt, people will see the true Gabriel Quak."
This article was published on May 6 in The Straits Times.
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