Where Are They Now? Tony Stokes
“You ask any football person, and they’ll reply: ‘It’s in your blood’. A lot of people have told me that you spend a long time retired!
“They’ve all been telling me to keep going as long as I possibly can, basically as long as my body will let me.
“I’m just taking it a game at a time, and I’m still enjoying it like I did the very first day I ever played football. I’m still going strong.”
Much like his old friend and Academy of Football teammate Mark Noble, Tony Stokes still has a footballing story or two to write before he hangs up his boots.
Now 34, the Bow-born forward – who came up through the Academy’s ranks alongside the likes of Noble and Kyel Reid – these days pulls on the shirt of Isthmian League North side Hullbridge Sports.
Bottom of the table with four points after 14 games at time of writing, Hullbridge face a fight in the season ahead – but the cheery Stokes, sporting the captain’s armband, is up for the challenge.
“It’s completely different to my West Ham days! I’m working from eight til five every day and also playing semi-pro football at the same time, as well as having a family with two kids – so it’s a bit of a graft!” he laughed.
“I do all the purchasing for an Asbestos Removal company – PPE and that sort of stuff – Monday to Friday to pay the bills, and then we train Tuesdays to Thursdays, with matches on the Saturday and sometimes the Tuesday as well!
“I joined the club six or seven weeks ago and I’ve been made club captain, so it was a nice touch because, back in my West Ham days, I was captain for the Reserves. I was captain in my Concord Rangers days as well, so it’s nice to keep that going!
“We’ve had a change of manager and we’ve had to bring in 12 or 13 new players who are just learning to gel with each other. At this moment in time, we’re in the relegation zone, but we’ve still got over 20 games to go and our aim will be to stay up.”
Scouted playing for Hackney district, Stokes joined the Academy of Football at nine years of age and worked his way through the ranks until he signed his first professional contract with West Ham under Alan Pardew in 2005.
A first-team debut – a night Stokes will never forget – soon followed, as the then-18-year-old played the final ten minutes of a 4-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup second round at Hillsborough.
“I can remember everything,” Stokes declares with pride. “Those sorts of memories will never leave me.
“I remember travelling with the squad, staying the night before. I found out the night before I’d be on the bench. I remember seeing my shirt with my name on the back – which I’d never had before – and then going out to warm up with all the players. It was just surreal.
“Playing at a stadium like that, with the history behind it… I can always remember going to warm up down the side of the pitch. Before that, I’d only ever played for the Reserves, where you’d get a few hundred at your games.
“At Hillsborough, you had about 15,000 people, and as I was warming up in front of the Sheffield Wednesday fans, I could hear them shouting at me! I was looking and thinking to myself ‘this is unbelievable.’ It took a week or so for it to sink in what had actually happened.”
The forward’s name may have a ring of familiarity to Wednesday's first-team opposition, Brighton & Hove Albion, for whom he featured six times on loan in August and September 2006.
The 34-year-old reflects: “Looking into the game now, I think ten or 15 years ago, it was a lot harder for a young lad to break onto the scene than it is nowadays, with all the different competitions and more substitutes available. We had to go out on loan to get our faces in the shop window like that.
“[In August 2006], I went to Brighton, who were in League One at the time. Mark McGhee was the manager, and I loved it there. I was there for a month and a half, but I dislocated my shoulder playing so I had to have an operation which ruled me out for the rest of that season.
“Then, I went to Ujpest in Hungary, which was very challenging to begin with, as you can imagine with the language barrier… but you get to meet people, and they made me feel proper welcome there.”
After struggling to establish himself over the likes of Noble, Jack Collison and Scott Parker, Stokes’ spell at West Ham concluded in 2009 as he signed for Ujpest permanently, before returning home to embark on a non-league career which has included spells at Concord Rangers, Canvey Island, Grays Athletic and, now, Hullbridge.
Now also a youth coach himself, Stokes looks back on his varied career with pride.
“I’ve got my own Under-8s now, who my son plays for, and I always say to him, as long as he enjoys football, that’s all that matters.
“Ten or 15 years ago, all the youngsters went straight into Academies, but there is a lot more opportunity now getting found in non-league and getting moved into the pro game.
“My time at West Ham was amazing. I’d love to have played more games, done this or done that, but looking back, it just wasn’t meant to be. It didn’t work out the way I planned for it to work out, but then on the flip side, you’ve just got to look at all the positives and achievements you did have.
“I got to play with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Scott Parker, Dean Ashton, Bobby Zamora…. Nobes and I were in the same team from the age of nine all the way up to the first team.
“Being in the squad for the trip to the 2006 FA Cup final, getting to fly with the team then, getting my shirt from that day…
“I was at West Ham from the age of nine until I was about 22 – that’s a long stint at one Club – and going through it all, I’ve got so many great memories.
“I’ll always look at West Ham’s results and it’s unbelievable to see where they are, what they’re doing and what they’re achieving. I hope they carry it on.”
If you’re a former player who’d like to reconnect with the Club, please email [email protected]