Stokes happy to leave behind the 'fake football' in England for LOI's school of hard knocks
It's not fake news that's been bothering young Irish footballer Eoghan Stokes. It's fake football.
The 21-year-old has had a steady diet of that in England for the last few years and it's taken a move home to Ireland, to play with Bohemians after a spell with Leeds United, to make him realise.
Even before tonight's planned game away to league leaders Cork City was called off due to the severe weather conditions, leaving the entire League of Ireland community with a blank weekend, Stokes was a bit down.
He'd started for Bohs in Tuesday's Premier Division game at home to Derry City but a couple of missed chances and a missed penalty from him were part of the drama that saw Derry win 1-0, a low for Stokes who'd been on a high after scoring his first goal in senior football just four days earlier, nabbing a late equaliser away to Limerick.
But ups and down are all part of the learning curve for the Leixlip lad.
He's one of a batch of Irish players who have come back home (some on loan) over the winter, following spells in England, to play League of Ireland football: Sam Byrne and Dan Cleary (formerly Everton and Liverpool, now Dundalk), Dylan Watts (ex-Leicester, now Bohs), Dan McKenna and Aaron Dillon (on loan from Wolves and Blackburn to Bray), Danny Kane (ex-Huddersfield, now Cork), Dylan Barnett (formerly Brighton, now Waterford) and an older player, Sean Kavanagh who is at Shamrock Rovers after an unhappy spell with Fulham.
Bar Kavanagh, who did taste first-team football, most of those players had the same experience: relative success with the U18 and U23 teams at their English clubs, but then hitting a wall, with progress blocked, so a move to Ireland has offered them another route to a career.
"Over there with the U23s you are playing with kids, it's all about development. If you win, happy days, if you lose it's no big deal, you just put it down to development," Bohs man Stokes told the Herald, reflecting on a six-year spell at Leeds which yielded just one first-team appearance.
"Here in the League of Ireland you are scrapping for something every week.
"In first-team football, you have lads who might be counting on the money for a win bonus, fans are desperate for a win or a draw, it's not like that across the water with the U23s, it's fake.
"You get to an age where you realise that this football scene is not for me, so you take a step back, ask what you want to do and make a decision.
You want the football that's real, where there are fans there, people hoping for a point or a win. Fair play to the boys who have come back to Ireland, it's the right move. They need to get experience and playing in the top division here is better than, say, the Conference in England.
"I knew that playing fake football in England wasn't benefiting me in any way. You can score four goals in a game and it means nothing, the lads who are in the first team ahead of you have 200 or 300 games under their belts so they will get picked, managers over there are under such pressure to get results."
Initially schooled at local club Leixlip United, Stokes blossomed in a very good St Kevin's Boys side and players like Stokes, Jack Byrne and Alex O'Hanlon moved to England, with Leeds signing Stokes.
The first team, bar one appearance last year, was a step too far, though players like Stokes were not helped by instability at the club which had nine managers in Stokes' six years.
"I was doing well over there, scoring goals every week, but it was unfortunate that at Leeds there was a constant change of manager, constant rotation of players and that didn't benefit me," he says.
"I decided to get out of Leeds and come home as I wanted to play football, play men's football. I had been playing U23 football in England since I was 16 and it wasn't doing me any good. When you are 17 or 18 and you are in the U23s at your club, it's great but then you hit a wall. You get a taste of first-team football and you want that every week.
"That wasn't happening at Leeds for me, for different reasons, but I had the opportunity to come to Bohs to play every week and that's what I want to do.
"I didn't know much about the league before I came here but I think the standard is very high, with the players coming to play, not just Irish players who are back home to play but English or other foreign players."
Stokes had a spell on trial at Shamrock Rovers before opting for Bohs and then he had the experience of making his Bohs debut in a win over Rovers.
"Keith Long showed that he wanted me and and I was more than happy to come here, hopefully I can repay his faith in the future by scoring goals. Everyone at Bohs have been great to me so I have no regrets," he says.
Well, maybe regrets from the midweek loss to Derry. and that missed penalty, saved by Ger Doherty. "I had chances to score, I had a good opportunity in the first half and then the penalty, but I didn't take them and I have to learn from that. If scoring the equaliser in Limerick, to get us a point was a high then missing the penalty the other night was a low, and overall we are disappointed, we'd have aimed for six points against LImerick and Derry and we got one," he says.
"It's all about learning. I want to learn from things like that, missing a peno at home and hopefully that can improve me and make me a better player."