23/02/2017: Book Review: Bobby Stokes
Last year a series of events were held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Saints' 1976 FA Cup triumph. The surviving members of the squad took part in an open top bus parade, which culminated at St Mary's on May 1st, the day Manchester City were seen off thanks to some Sadio Mane magic. A few of the key figures were also subject to new book releases. Manager Lawrie McMenemy released his memoirs and Bobby Stokes was also profiled by football writer Mark Sanderson. Due to time constraints I was unable to provide reviews for these around the time of release, but as we're now facing the prospect of winning our second major trophy against the same opponents, I thought what better time to look back on that historic period. McMenemy's autobiography will be dissected later, but first we'll look at Bobby Stokes 'The man from Portsmouth who scored Southampton's most famous goal'.
The author stresses from the outset that rather than being a blow by blow account of Stokes' career, he was seeking to capture his memory by talking to those who knew him best. Sanderson travels to Paulsgrove to get a feel of his early life. Stokes was of course a Portsmouth fan growing up, but any childhood dreams he had of starring at Fratton Park as a youngster would go unfulfilled. He missed his chance as a teen when Pompey shutdown their youth setup, and failed to agree terms to a switch across the M27 in 1975. By the time he did eventually make the move in 1977 he was knackered after a spell in the States in the summer, and fell afoul of the boo boys. His destiny lay elsewhere.
What's striking about Stokes' story is how far removed he seems from the archetypal modern footballer. His athletic prowess as a school boy was acknowledged as was his determination, but the underlying theme from those who played with him was that he lacked the self-belief which you would assume was a pre-requisite to making it to the top. Although clearly proud of his Wembley moment, he seemed mildly embarrassed whenever he was afforded any serious praise for his efforts that day.
Stokes seemed like the most unlikely of heroes. He'd been on the transfer list in the build-up to the final and played much of his time at The Dell in a supporting role, providing the running for more perfunctory stars like Mick Channon and Peter Osgood. Sadly for Stokes his United strike did not act as a catalyst for greater things. Within months he was back in a bit-part position. A year after Wembley his time at The Dell had come to an end. After playing for Portsmouth, Stokes rubbed shoulders with Johan Cruyff in the NASL with Washington Diplomats, before quietly winding down his career in non-league with Waterlooville, Cheltenham and Chichester, never going close to hitting the heights he did under the Twin Towers.
Stokes quickly fell back into ordinary life after hanging up his boots. He was landlord at the Manor House pub back in Paulsgrove and then worked at his cousin's Harbour View Café in the years preceding his death. While appearing reasonably content with life during this time, you sense that deep down he yearned for slightly more, but didn't have the self-esteem to challenge himself further. He finally plucked up the courage to ask for a testimonial year late in his life, but sadly would not survive to reap the benefits.
Should Saints pull off another Wembley upset this weekend it's difficult to imagine any potential goal scoring hero quietly fading into relative obscurity as Stokes did. At a time when coverage is so extensive and access to information is so readily available, it's unlikely that even the minutest of details won't be recorded and relayed at every opportunity. Stokes' achievements perhaps weren't afforded as much attention in the years following as they should have been. The man who delivered Saints' first and so far only major trophy deserves the acknowledgment he often denied himself during his life. In talking to so many of those close to Stokes during every stage of his 44 years, Sanderson perfectly captures his subject's personality, not to mention his footballing success. The book is a fitting tribute and a must read for Saints fans of all generations.