Beats & Rhymes FC

Demi Stokes interview: Lionesses defender’s breakout beats with the Bulls

Photo: VictoriaHaydn/MCFCphotos

Photo: VictoriaHaydn/MCFCphotos

 

Swiftly restored to the England team and looking ahead to Champions League football with Manchester City, left-back Demi Stokes can flip the pages back to the targets set during her University of South Florida chapter with immense pride, to go with some tuneful reminders of the Sunshine State.

As Mark Sampson named his first England squad back in December 2013, one of those to have their name included at senior level for the first time was Demi. With that said, the South Shields-born player was far from a complete novice, having made it to the FA Cup final with her local team Sunderland in 2009 before she embarked on her college adventure at the University of South Florida.

Taking her football and schooling thousands of miles away was undeniably huge for the former Gateshead Sports College student, enabling her to hone her game among the best up-and-coming competitors in the U.S. However, even in surroundings as desirable as Florida, being so far from home and what has been familiar for so long has its challenges, especially for someone only at the beginning of their adult life.

Establishing a quick connection with those around her helped considerably, but of course she wasn’t immune from being thrown in at the initiation deep end!

“I had to do it my freshman year; I had to sing on the bus with Beats headphones on and the volume turned up. I sang one of Rihanna’s and it was one without too many words – ‘Man Down’, I think it was.”

In her debut season at USF, Demi made an instant impression as she came up with a joint-team-best four goals in her 14 games (11 starts), as well as leading the Bulls for assists (four) and points (12). Named to the 2013 All-American Athletic Conference Second Team, her junior year was her most productive, bringing six goals and five assists (17 points) and the first senior England call in the year’s final month.

A special period in her story so far, Demi explains how a Florida-born defender who was the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior this past season provided part of the backing track to those Tampa days.

“At USF, music was a big ritual in the locker room before every game and Jackie Simpson was the DJ. I like music quite a lot; if I had to choose I’d rather listen to music than watch TV.

“I like reggae quite a bit and also some r&b. Some of my favourite artists are Beyoncé, Rihanna and Years & Years.”

During the January 2014 England camp in La Manga – where she had been named Player of the Tournament with the Under-23s at the 2011 Four Nations competition – Demi made her debut in a 1-1 draw with Norway. She subsequently played a big part in the qualifying campaign for the 2015 FIFA World Cup, with the Lionesses sealing their place at Canada with a 100% record.

Someone who has been a fixture on the opposite side of the backline for numerous years now is Alex Scott, and the Arsenal defender has also long been a key component in the personality and identity of the squad. The one-time Boston Breakers right-back detailed her music background on here in February 2014, so does the long-time Lionesses team DJ still run the rule over the changing room sounds or has an up-and-coming mixmaster taken over on match day?

“It’s just Alex and she’s very good; she manages to please everyone with what she plays. At Man City, I’d say it’s more KB (Karen Bardsley), but I prefer Tash Harding’s!”

A winner of the FA Women’s Premier League Northern Division with Sunderland in 2008/09, Demi made her return to English club football in grand style last January as she turned professional with Manchester City. Signing a three-year deal, she cited the chance to play alongside England teammates like goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, skipper Steph Houghton, defender Lucy Bronze, midfielder Jill Scott and forward Toni Duggan as one of the numerous attractions.

In addition to three brothers, Demi has a sister called Whitney, and it just so happens that the late and lamented superstar who shares that name would be her pick for the tune if she ever got a teammate on board to record a track.

“I would pick Lucy Bronze, because she’s a very good singer. The song would be something by Whitney Houston and Lucy would be my backing singer!”

Turning 24 last month, Demi delivered six game-winning strikes in her career at South Florida, and was a 2014 Second Team All-Conference selection in her senior year. That season also saw the Bulls reach the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the program’s history, with their 3-2 first-round loss at home to Illinois State snapping their seven-game unbeaten streak.

The season had nevertheless been an extremely memorable one for USF coach Denise Schilte-Brown, her staff and her players, and Demi closed out her Bulls days with a 17-goal tally over four years which placed her at sixth in the school’s all-time top scorers. A defender who was in her junior year when Demi was a senior is the player she strongly recalls for the way she tackled a vocal challenge in their time as teammates.

“Jess Clark at USF tried to sing Adele; that was pretty memorable!”

An England international at Under-17, Under-19, Under-20 and Under-23 level, Demi won a gold medal for Great Britain at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia along with Man City teammate Izzy Christiansen. At club level, she also got a taste of the W-League in 2012 when turning out for Vancouver Whitecaps, and it is a Canadian r&b artist who leads the list of performers she is hoping to get tickets for at some point in the future.

“I’d like to see The Weeknd and I’m also trying to see Years & Years. I saw Beyoncé in 2009 and she was really good.

“I’ve seen Rihanna for my birthday.”

Back when she burst onto the music scene in 2005, Rihanna’s material had strong elements of reggae, and although her sound has generally veered a fair way from her Barbadian roots as she has achieved colossal fame in the years since, the track ‘Man Down’ which Demi mentioned earlier was a revisit to her early days. That genre has its own place in Demi’s childhood memories, as she explained when asked about the first tape or CD she ever bought.

“I don’t quite remember what the first one I bought was but I do love UB40 because I remember my mum used to clean to their music when I was a kid.”

So many of the players we see at the top level in the women’s game today had to get their chances to play the game growing up by being on boys’ teams. Demi was captain of the all-boys county team she played on back when she was in secondary school, and even as a relatively young player now she can look back on the time she grew up in and see a resounding change in the perception of women’s football since.

Before she even ventured off to college, Demi had played in front of 23,291 at Pride Park in the 2009 FA Cup final, with her Sunderland side edged out 2-1 by an Arsenal team who had the English game firmly in their grip at the time. When she left, Sunderland boss Mick Mulhern told how any team would miss a player of her quality and since she has returned home Demi has been extremely enthused by the foundations she has to work within.

“It’s been great, I’ve really enjoyed it; you’re just looked after properly and appreciated. When people used to ask what I did I’d mumble about playing football because they wouldn’t really take it seriously, but now they’re really interested.”

 

Photo: VictoriaHaydn/MCFCphotos

Photo: VictoriaHaydn/MCFCphotos

 

Joining up with a Man City team who had finished 5th in their debut FA WSL season, as well as winning the 2014 Continental Cup, Demi was a mainstay in Nick Cushing’s line-up throughout the 2015 campaign. City took the title race to the final game, ultimately taking 2nd place and a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

Despite her status as an England player, it was an unfamiliar scenario Demi stepped into as she took on her first year’s play as a full-time professional. She handled the challenge admirably in a team which played in front of the club and league’s highest ever attendance of 3,180 in the season finale at home to Notts County, and she was pleasantly surprised at the consistent opportunities she received.

“It was obviously a new team for me so I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it would be a learning curve – I had to get to know the league – and I didn’t expect to play as much as I did.

“Every game I played was an honour and so to play every league game (started all 14, along with Jenny Beattie and Izzy Christiansen) was brilliant.”

Back in 2009, Demi helped England to the UEFA Championship with Mo Marley’s Under-19 side in Belarus, and she would be a runner-up in the competition a year later. 2010 also saw her compete in the Under-20 World Cup in Germany, although England weren’t able to make it out of the group in a tournament won by the hosts and featuring the likes of current VfL Wolfsburg forward Alexandra Popp and FC Kansas City’s U.S. attacker Sydney Leroux in top form as youngsters.

Demi would of course go on to break into the senior set-up with the Lionesses and she was part of a defence that conceded just a single goal in their ten qualifying games for last summer’s World Cup. Scoring her first international goal in the 9-0 win over Montenegro in April 2014, she had been deployed so frequently en route to qualification that it certainly came as a surprise to many when she was one of those left out of the final squad for the tournament.

Head coach Mark Sampson quickly brought Demi back into the fold last autumn as the Euro 2017 qualifiers got underway, clearly signalling his continued regard for her role in his side. Last summer’s omission had been a tough one to take, although Demi describes how she didn’t allow it to deter her.

“I was obviously disappointed but it’s part of the game and everything happens for a reason. You can’t dwell on it and just talking about it’s not going to get you anywhere, so you have to get your head down and move on from it.”

Followers of Man City and England have come to instantly associate Demi with the left-back spot, although she has often plied her trade in much more advanced positions in her early career. As she assesses whether it is now her settled position, she also identifies the Brazilian full-back she has taken inspiration from in recent years.

“Yeah, I think I’m a full-back now! I’ve had 18 months there and I’ve just taken it as a learning experience.

“There’s not too many from the women’s game I really looked at in my position, but from the men’s game – even though he’s over on the right – Dani Alves is someone I like to watch and study his game.”

No matter how far away she may have flown from Tampa, USF’s Corbett Soccer Stadium has a permanent place in Demi’s memories and affections. She went on to represent the Bulls 72 times and the signs had been promising from the start, as she struck up an understanding with coach Denise Schilte-Brown, who described it as perhaps the fastest she has ever connected with a player.

Having met her prospective new player when she visited USF, Schilte-Brown flew to England to meet Demi’s family. She had to drive three hours in sleet and snow – not to mention in an unfamiliar car on the opposite side of the road she was accustomed to – before she reached their home in the North East, but was suitably rewarded with a roast beef dinner when she did!

The example Demi set to the younger players through her approach to nutrition, training and getting the right amount of sleep impressed her coach considerably, and along with fellow 2014 seniors Sarah Miller and Sharla Passariello she left a real void when she graduated. She reflects on why she feels the school was such a good fit for her, as well as sharing a little of how she spent the relatively limited free time she got.

“I had offers from other schools and I planned to go and look at them but USF just felt right. I loved the culture and surroundings and after that I told all the other schools I’d made my choice.

“They were quite disappointed and wondered how I could be sure that a school was the one for me when I hadn’t been to see any others but I knew USF was right for me. All the girls were a great bunch and I stay in contact with them now.

“My coaches were also really supportive. Within the season it’s so busy and you have to get your grades right to be able to play, but I really liked having the beaches on my doorstep, and Disney!”

With a degree in general studies and a minor in leadership, Demi graduated in December 2014, closing the book on some great college years in the Sunshine State. Thinking back to the goals she set for herself while at USF, she outlines the clearest lessons she has taken from the game up to this point.

“For me, it would just be to go for it; don’t hesitate if there’s something you want to do. You don’t want to look back and wish you did something.

“I’m quite lucky that the stuff I said I wanted to do when I went to Florida I actually managed to go and do – I said that by the time I graduated I wanted to be in the full team with England.”

Currently sitting on 18 England caps, with a likely tilt at the WSL title and much more to look forward to in the coming months, it is a very bright picture for Demi as she heads on toward new targets for club and country. As we close this one out, she is given the task of answering a question a number of her City counterparts – including Karen Bardsley, Toni Duggan, Natasha Harding and Daphne Corboz – have answered on here in the past.

The interviewee each time on the site is asked to think over the teammates they have had in their career before selecting four they would have in a fantasy 5-a-side alongside themselves. There is no emphasis on it being a ‘best four’, so they are free to choose names based on whatever reasons they decide on, although anyone who gets chosen is surely pretty handy!

Demi introduces her selections, with an aforementioned South Florida colleague getting the honour of the first pick.

“Jackie Simpson – she’s solid, she wins it in the tackle and she’ll just crunch everyone for us. Steph Houghton’s obviously a great defender.

“I’d also have Lucy Bronze because she can bomb up and down a full-size pitch so she’d dominate in 5-a-side. Toni Duggan would bang in the goals.”

As that seemed to be four names chosen without a goalkeeper, would Demi opt for all outfielders or would she go on the bench and put a keeper in as a replacement for herself?!

“KB (Karen Bardsley) – just because she’s good at stopping…which is pretty useful if you’re a keeper, I suppose!”

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