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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019

'You'd see people around you doing very well. You're like: Why are they getting the rewards and I'm not?'

Eoghan Stokes on a frustrating end to his spell in Leeds, going on trial at Boavista, his dalliance with modelling and a new challenge at Derry.

Eoghan Stokes has represented Ireland at underage level.
Eoghan Stokes has represented Ireland at underage level.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

EOGHAN STOKES IS not really your typical Irish footballer.

He has spent time on trial at Portugal, his father played minor GAA for Dublin and could have gone further were not for a debilitating cruciate injury, and in his time off from football, he has dabbled in modelling.

At 23, Stokes is still very young in sporting terms, but he has experienced plenty in the game thus far.

There is a still long way to go, even if careers in football tend to be relatively short, and Stokes talks like a man with a point to prove, eager to make up for lost time.

He spent six years at Leeds as a youngster, and there is a sense of regret at not departing sooner, despite being grateful for the chance to move to such an illustrious club in the first place.

He spent last season at Bohs, before moving to north to represent Derry ahead of the 2019 campaign.

It began well, scoring in his first league game against UCD in a 3-0 win. Stokes has scored twice more since then, though it has been a frustratingly stop-start campaign, with an injury interrupting his season and meaning he has been restricted to a few substitute appearances of late.

I can obviously give a lot more,” he tells The42. “I feel like I’ve been out for six weeks. I got injured against Sligo and I hurt my ankle — I was out for about three weeks. I came back, played against Rovers. It was my first game back. We’d no game after that, so instead of being out for about five weeks, I feel I’ve been out for about five years. I just want to get back in, get back playing in the starting XI and have a really good finish to the season.”

Tonight, Stokes and co have a tough home tie with league leaders Dundalk. They go into the game on the back of some decent form, notably securing an emphatic 4-1 victory over Cork City last week, while earning a point apiece in recent games against Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers — two of their rivals for a European spot.

All of which means Derry currently sit fourth, five points off Bohs in third. It’s not bad going, particularly given the number of changes the Candystripes made prior to the start of the season.

Declan Devine replaced Kenny Shiels as manager, while Stokes was one of several new faces, with pre-season recruits also including Peter Cherrie, Josh Kerr, Ally Gilchrist, Greg Sloggett, Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe and David Parkhouse. Meanwhile, Ciaran Harkin, Barry McNamee and Patrick McClean returned for second spells at the club, while in the current transfer window, striker Conor Davis has been signed from UCD. 

So given that they finished eighth last year and have the guts of a new team this time around, some observers may be surprised by the extent of their progress. Stokes optimistically suggests they have their eye on “catching Rovers” in second, though their main target is European football next season, which will require a third-place finish at least.

Peter Cherrie Stokes currently shares a house with Derry team-mates Peter Cherrie, above, and Ally Gilchrist. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The contrast with Dundalk, therefore, could hardly be much starker. While most of the Derry team didn’t know each other prior to this season, the Lilywhites have a number of vastly experienced individuals in their squad who have been playing together for years.

Nonetheless, Stokes is enjoying his new surroundings, living in a house up in Derry with two Scottish team-mates, Cherrie and Gilchrist.

The Kildare native has come a long way since playing schoolboy football, initially for Leixlip United and then St Kevin’s Boys from the ages of 10-16.

He played Gaelic football too for Leixlip and St Marys, though despite his GAA background, Stokes’ father did not pressurise him to choose one sport over another.

I sort of got to the age where I was doing stuff every day,” he recalls. “[My father] said ‘you’re going to have to make up your mind’. He was sort of saying ‘if you’re playing for Leixlip, you’re not going to play for the Dubs, are you? So there’s no real point.’ So I stuck with the football and I’ve done alright so far.”

It was a talented Kevin’s team, with former Bohs player Alan Caffrey, their head of youth development, overseeing proceedings. Stokes was one of several youngsters to make the move over to England, while many of his team-mates are now, like him, back playing in the League of Ireland with sides such as Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.

“We had a really strong team when I was coming through. Out of those six years, I think we won the league every year,” he says.

“There were always scouts watching our matches, sniffing about. I had offers to go to other places in England. I went over on trial with Leeds and the sporting director took a bit of a liking to me. It made the decision easy enough for me to sign.

“The players that are there now are players I mainly would have trained with — Pablo Hernandez and the boys that I’ve played with since I was 16 are still there, like Kalvin Phillips. And players that have gone — Lewis Cook and Sam Byram [who moved to Bournemouth and West Ham respectively]. They’re the type of players you’d be training with every day and you’d be like: ‘Jesus, very good standard.’”

AFC Bournemouth v Arsenal - Premier League - Vitality Stadium Stokes played alongside future Bournemouth and England player Lewis Cook for Leeds' underage sides. Source: EMPICS Sport

While initially enjoying the experience, Stokes increasingly became frustrated at the lack of first-team opportunities being afforded to him at Leeds. The constant upheaval didn’t help matters. Between 2012, the year Stokes signed and 2018, when he left, no fewer than 14 managers came and went. The stat provides a stark insight into the intense pressure Championship bosses invariably tend to be under and why they would be so reluctant to give youngsters a chance more often than not, with the Irish underage international one of those who evidently suffered from this lack of stability.

“You hit a wall,” he says. “There’s only so much 23s football you can play. When I first went over, I was 16 and I was thrown in with the 23s straight away. You get to 20 and you’re like: ‘Jesus, I can’t keep playing 23s and just training with the first team.’ It’s training with the first team, but at the end of the day, you need games.

Any team you go and talk to, when you’re 20, are saying: ‘What sort of experience have you got?’ ‘He’s not getting any experience because he’s hitting a brick, but he can’t get a loan because League One and League Two clubs are saying he hasn’t got enough games.’ It’s a catch-22, teams don’t take you on loan because they only see you as an U23 academy player, but how are you meant to get experience over there? So I sort of had that dilemma: ‘What do I do to get the games?’

“It is tough when you’re sitting in digs by yourself and your head’s melted, because at the end of the day, you’re over there to be a footballer. You’d see people around you that are doing very well. You’re like: ‘Why are they getting the rewards and I’m not? You’re sitting in the gaff thinking about it. All those thoughts do get a bit… You over-think them, because you’re doing nothing else during the day.”

Bristol City v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Ashton Gate Thomas Christiansen handed Stokes his one and only first-team opportunity at Leeds. Source: EMPICS Sport

Stokes did eventually get a first-team opportunity. Towards the beginning of Thomas Christiansen’s reign, he was handed a surprise start in the August 2017 EFL Cup match with Newport, playing 66 minutes of a 5-1 win. It proved to be his one and only game for Leeds at senior level. On reflection, he feels the timing was odd.

“I didn’t feel like I was even close [to making a breakthrough] that time,” he remembers. “I was training with [the first team] all the time, but there was a new gaffer and he was sort of taking control and [incorporating] his signings, so I sort of thought: ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen here now. And then out of the blue, he was like: ‘You’re starting in the League Cup.’ I was like: ‘What? That’s come out of nowhere.’

Whereas the year before, I’d been doing really well. I remember I was scoring loads of goals for the 23s. And then the gaffer at the time, every week he was getting asked by the press: ‘Why is he not with the first team?’ [He'd say] ‘He’s one for the future,’ that sort of stuff. I don’t know what was going on there. But it was one of them where I thought I was closer the year before.

“Then I got injured at the end of that season. I was going to come home that time. It was like that every year. Once Christmas came, I couldn’t get a loan move in January. I was like: ‘I need to get out of here.’ I was trying to come back here and Leeds were like: ‘No, we want you to sign another deal.’ So I signed another deal and I was like: ‘Right, I’ll give myself six months to get in [to the first team].’ It was like that for the last three years. It was madness.”

Stokes’ Leeds departure prompted interest from Shamrock Rovers and some lower-tier English clubs, though the young attacker eventually settled on Bohs.

“I came back, met the two clubs, met Keith Long and I just chose Bohs,” he explains, with the manager subsequently praising the player for making a “football decision”

“I became a free agent [after leaving Leeds], because I got paid out. That week, I was meant to go to League Two clubs, but it would have been February when I signed and by the time I got in and got established, it could have been end of March and by that time, the league’s over [and it would have been] a six-month deal. I was like: ‘I just want to go and play football anywhere. So I came back here and played football — I just wanted a year somewhere. So it made sense to come home instead of only being somewhere for a few months.”

Eoghan Stokes celebrates Stokes joined Bohs after leaving Leeds. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Following five goals in 31 appearances at Bohs, Stokes made the move to Derry in February, though it might have worked out differently, with a somewhat left-field option presenting itself. Last January, the youngster went on trial to Portuguese club Boavista and while he made enough of an impression for the invite to be extended, Stokes ultimately decided to turn down the opportunity, fearing he would fall into a situation reminiscent of his ill-fated time at Leeds.

“It would be something I’d be interested in pursuing in the future — playing abroad,” he says. “At the time, it didn’t really make sense to go. I don’t know what the circumstances were really, but the way it was like, you’d sign for the B team — it would be sort of like going back into a 23s-type situation, which didn’t really suit me at the time. I tried so hard to get out of that [at Leeds]. Then a year later, I’d be going back into it, which didn’t really make sense.”

The brief stint in Portugal was not Stokes’ only unfamiliar venture during the off-season. He also did some work for the Assets Model Agency.

“Every interview and everyone I meet in the league seems to ask me about that,” he laughs. “I did it for like two months. I was on Instagram and some fella messaged me saying: ‘Do you want to come in and do this thing?’

It was in the off-season, when you’re doing nothing. I know someone that did it and they were like: ‘Yeah do it, you get some good dough out of it.’ At Bohs, we were only getting paid [40 weeks a year]. I said: ‘Yeah, we’ll go in and do a meeting with them and see what they say, because I wouldn’t mind a few extra quid.’ I went in and they were like: ‘Sound, we’ll get you sorted out.’

“I think I got four or five jobs. They kept ringing me up saying: ‘Can you come down to Dublin on Tuesday?’ I was like: ‘I’m up in Derry, I can’t do that.’ They were like: ‘Right, we’re going to have to take you off the site. Give us a text when you’re back in Dublin in October.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, grand.’ It is what it is. It was only something I tried out, because they messaged me on Instagram and it was one of them where I was doing nothing else, sitting around the gaff, wrecking my mam’s head.”

So for now at least, the modelling will have to wait, as Stoke’s focuses on helping fire a resurgent Derry towards Europe.

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Paul Fennessy

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