Interview: James Bird
Images: Flora Maclean
In the past, Demi Stokes has spoken about how she and one of her best mates would stay up late on MSN talking about becoming professional footballers and playing in the States. That mate was Jordan Nobbs, the now Arsenal midfielder who came through the ranks at Sunderland alongside Demi. Sometimes, the things you talk about late at night with your friends can come true.
Demi’s footballing career goes all the way back, like most of us, to when she was a kid at Primary School. A teacher called Ian Williamson had seen a spark in her, made her captain of the boy’s team, and took her for trials at Sunderland when she was just eight years old. She got in, moved up the ranks, and to this day, Demi will still ask Mr Williamson for advice.
Fast forward 21 years, through FA Cup finals with the Sunderland first team, four terms and seasons spent amongst the palm trees of Florida University and their team the South Florida Bulls, World Cup heartbreak in a carnival atmosphere at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, and we’re sat in the training dome at the Etihad Campus.
The scale and glossiness of the campus is still mind-blowing. Beautifully-kept pitches in every direction. Coaches shouting, guiding, nurturing everywhere. Balls being pinged into feet and chests and into the back of the net. The place is a physical embodiment of football 3.0. Everything in the same condition as when it was taken out of the polystyrene it was delivered in. Hyper football. The type of place you’d dream about playing at when you’re younger and talking about being a professional footballer with your mate on MSN.
Ahead of a big 3pm kick-off against current Barclays FA Women’s Super League champions Chelsea this Sunday as part of Women’s Football Weekend, this is A Day in the Life of Demi Stokes...
When I was younger, one of my mates Gary always used to have those little metal five-a-side football goals. So, when the weather was nice-ish in the summer—this was South Shields, remember—we’d get a shopping trolley from ASDA, stick the goals inside it, and walk down to the beach. Everyone would chip a pound in, so we’d get disposable barbecues, crisps, and like 20 thousand burgers, and we’d be down there until 8, 9 o’clock just playing football.
Being captain of the boy’s team at school, I wasn’t ever really made to think, “Ooh, I’m the only girl and I’m the captain by my teammates”, it was just, “Oh, Demi’s the captain” and that was that. The boys on my team respected me for who I was, and I guess the only negative part came from other teams. Boys laughed at me for being captain or dads saying things from the sideline. The parents are always worse. But come the end of the game, they would come up and apologise, so I didn’t really think anything of it.
I joined Sunderland’s academy team when I was eight years old and started playing for the first team when I was 16. We got to the FA Cup final against Arsenal in 2009, and in 2011 I accepted a four-year scholarship with the University of Florida. The league here wasn’t as it is now, and I think at the time we only trained maybe twice a week with Sunderland, so I just wanted to play more and train more. I didn't particularly like school, but I thought the University degree would be important to get for the future. The game's changed now, obviously, and for kids coming through they've got much better opportunities. But I think at the time it was the best decision for me and I think my plan worked out.
My mornings now are very different. As soon as I get out of bed and stick my tracksuit on to come into work, I have to do my monitoring on my phone. That includes how well I’ve slept, how I’m feeling, do I feel recovered, and that sort of thing, and then that gets sent straight to the staff here to plan around.
Once we’ve arrived and had our breakfast and coffees, we’ll have our analysis to review the previous game and work out what we could have done better as a team and individually. That’s so important now, especially as there’s such a quick turnaround between games you have to learn about what’s going to change in the next one quickly.
To be fair, everyone's different, but sometimes I don't like to watch too much of my own analysis. If I've had a bit of a bad game, then I'll watch it because I need to understand why I've had one. But sometimes, I try not to get too caught up in it: sometimes you just have a bad game, you know? You can become too negative on yourself and hammer yourself a bit more. So I think it’s important to have a balance to it.
After that, I go to the gym to do a pre-warm up called P2P, which are the exercises to get us ready for the day. Your routine is altered depending on your body type. I’m quite stiff, so I do a lot of mobility and movement based things, but if someone’s specifically quick, then they might have to do something that’s more reactive with quicker movements involved. And after half an hour of that, it’s boots on and straight out to training.
We always do rondos. A square box with some on the outside, a number in the middle, and switching it up between two touch and one touch. It gets you thinking quickly for everything that will come in the rest of the day. Because we’re in every day, it’s important to switch things up regularly. Today we were split into groups of three and did a diamond passing drill that turned into a competition to see who could complete three rotations of it. All of us turn into kids again when drills get turned into competitions like that! I had Vicky Losada, Janine Beckie, Jill Scott, and Lauren Hemp on my team, and we won! We did some 8v8 possession, too, and mixed it up with some directional and non-directional bits where you change which way you’re defending. My favourite drill to do is probably the back to back stuff where you stick the goals together with both facing out. You’re in a square around them trying to keep possession, and it always gets really heated and angry, which I love to be involved with.
When I think back to Sunderland all those years ago, so much has changed, and the biggest is the focus on numbers and data. We wear GPS systems so the management can see absolutely everything that you’ve done at any point of a session. If it looks like you’ve just done too much in a drill, they might say sit out the next one. If they think you might need to do a bit more, they might say, “Right, you’ve got four runs to do at the end of the session”. So everything is monitored very specifically to your individual performances across every element of training.
Whereas, when we were younger, we used to do things like, well, it was proper carnage! We’d do beach runs and beach sprints, things like four mile runs where you’d have to run as fast as you could, and then you’d end up sprinting up these steps and doing shuttles on the sand. Mad stuff, but I think that helped our generation a lot, you know, it gives you a foundation.
We’re probably training for about an hour and a half, and then you’re in the gym with a programme that’s tailored specifically to how your body is and tailored to the week you’ve got. If you’ve played recently or have a game coming up, you’ll have less reps and lighter loads. But if you haven’t, then you can afford to be pushed a little bit more. Then you can get an ice bath or another physio treatment, shower, and head to lunch in the canteen.
We have loads of choices of what to eat, and we’ll sit together or with other staff, or even with the academy boys, which is something I really like. We all live in a specific bubble, and we definitely try to speak to the boys and educate them.
I think when we came into the building it was predominantly a man’s building, and now you’ve got young girls, young women, and maybe these boys don’t know how to speak to girls in the right manner because some of them maybe haven’t been taught how to. Some of them might not be confident in that way because they’ve been in this building since the age of nine and that’s all they know, and some of them might go to an all-boys school afterwards for their education, so it’s again about how they speak to different people in the right way. We might say, “Oh, you don’t speak to girls like that” or “Well don't do that; actually, you should do this!” Although we can relate through being involved in the same sport, our lifestyles might still be very different, so I think it’s good for them and good for us too to be in and around to help.
Then, once we’ve done lunch, we’re good to go home. We might go into town and have a coffee for an hour just to chill out and mellow, and then it’s home time which I use to switch off. It’s important to find hobbies and ways to chill out that don’t involve taxing your body or using too much energy. I enjoy cooking, so I make lots of Caribbean food like jerk chicken, curries, rice and peas, and plantain.
I think Women’s Football Weekend is important because everyone loves to watch football, and football is football, whether it’s men’s or women’s or whatever. If the game is on telly and easy to watch, people will watch it. I think there were over a million viewers when we played United, and it speaks volumes about how important it is to actually show the games. Obviously, when it's on TV you wanna put on a good performance, and people will get excited about watching a certain player; it’s important.
My football hero growing up was Rachel Yankey. It’s really important to see people of your colour or people you can relate to in the position you would like to be in. So Rachel was always mine, and I played the same position when I was younger, so as soon as I saw her playing, I was like, "I wanna be like her!"
For me, like so many, it was David Beckham, too. I think I had, in fact I've definitely still got it at my mam's, a picture of David Beckham in a frame that I got for my birthday when he had the skinhead, do you remember? I simply don’t have the heart to give it away or throw it out! As a fullback, I’ve always loved watching Dani Alves and Marcelo too, as well as Ashley Cole. I think he reinvented the position, going forward, gaining yards, being attacking. So I’d say those three are who I loved to watch in terms of my game, who I love to watch, and who I wish I could play like.
With that, I’ve loved how the tactical side of things is thought about now. There’s so much detail that goes into the game that we talk about; the things the coach wants you specifically to do is really detailed. We don’t just turn up and throw on the shirt, it’s very diligent, and having to constantly learn new things improves your game. Innovations like goalkeepers who play out from the back is new to players as well as fans, or centre backs going outside and fullbacks coming inside, and you have to evolve and adapt with that. It’s exciting because you have to change your own game, a new tool you can add. I always call it the toolbox, and the fun is always adding a new tool to it.
We spoke to Demi at Manchester City's Etihad Campus as part of the FA's Women's Football Weekend initiative on the weekend of November 13th and 14th. You can find out more about that, including fixtures, ticket information, and how to watch the games from the comfort of your own home, here.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF DEMI STOKES
Interview: James Bird