BY MARK GODFREY
If you’re considering buying this book in the hope that it’s going to be one tale of high-jinx and debauchery after another then you’ll be disappointed. Although, given that Bobby Stokes played the majority of his career in the 1970s – the maverick footballer’s golden era – you could be forgiven for thinking he was a lesser-acknowledged version of his contemporaries George Best and Frank Worthington.
Mark Sanderson’s book is far subtler than that, and even if there are a squad of skeletons in Stokes’ cupboard, the tone and direction of the book tends to only hint at them or avoids them completely. However, given the picture painted by the author, the subject was a much different character to a lot of the decade’s luminaries.
Bobby Stokes had the unusual, and maybe even unique privilege (barring Lord Nelson perhaps) of being liked and respected in the neighbouring south coast cities of Portsmouth – his birthplace and where he tended to call home throughout his life – and Southampton, for whom he played for many seasons and provided the club’s greatest moment.
And it is this famous episode that came to define Stokes from the moment it happened. If you’re not so familiar with the history of either Southampton FC or the FA Cup, the you have to look back to May 1976, the beginning of the long hot summer that parched large swathes of the United Kingdom. The Saints, managed by the gregarious Geordie Lawrie McMenemy, were a run-of-the-mill Second Division side and faced the seemingly unlikely task of defeating top flight Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Very little of the book centres solely on the game itself, which is just as well because it is not remembered as one of the classics; but what it is remembered for is Stokes’ winning goal late in the game which many – mostly of a United persuasion – contend as being offside.
Everybody loves a Cup shock and, for a brief time at least, it catapulted Stokes to national celebrity status – something which patently didn’t sit too well with the man himself. Sanderson retraces Stokes’ steps from the working class estate of Paulsgrove in Portsmouth to the English First Division and even the NASL – where he briefly partnered the great Johan Cruyff at Washington Diplomats – enlisting the help and memories of those who knew Bobby best; family, school friends and ex-team mates. They help to provide plenty of insight into a player who was seemingly well respected for his wholehearted, honest approach to the game and the selfless qualities that allowed his glitzier colleagues at The Dell – Terry Paine, Peter Osgood and Mick Channon to name but a few – to strut their stuff. More tellingly their recollections illustrate Stokes’ personality deficiencies that, when tested under the microscope of professional football and the testosterone soaked environment it engendered, probably contributed to his career never having reached its full potential and also helped to accelerate his retreat into obscurity once his playing days were over.
Although no wallflower, what shines through in the book is how riddled with insecurity Stokes was even though others had the utmost faith in his qualities both as a player and a person.
Bobby Stokes died in 1995 having spent the last part of his life struggling to make ends meet. He, like so many other ex-pros found it hard coping with life after football, and while the grisly spectre of addiction to booze was implied, Sanderson takes great care not to go into more lurid detail. Which is a blessing. Bobby Stokes comes across as your average man from any council estate in the land. The difference being he could turn his hand to anything sporty and had the determination and talent to make it in professional football. He’s the guy you know down the pub that you occasionally play Pool with; the fella who plays on your Sunday League team, or a bloke that works beside you in the factory.
He was different because – just as footballers were becoming the new rock stars and being lavished with all the trappings of success that can bring – he remained different. By the end of the book you begin feeling a real sympathy for how his life turned out. Crippled financially, his former employers whose greatest day out came as a consequence of Stokes bursting through Manchester United’s back line one Saturday afternoon at Wembley, turned their back on him only reacting to his plight as his life spiralled out of control. He may have been a reluctant hero, but he was a hero all the same and his demise strikes a sad note as the book concludes.
While mass appeal for the subject may not be there in the same way it would be for the likes of Osgood or Channon, supporters of Southampton and Portsmouth alike should enjoy this book as Sanderson recalls – with ample help from those who were there – the Ted Bates and McMenemy eras at The Dell, and the desperate straits Pompey usually found themselves in both before and during Stokes’ brief time at the club under Jimmy Dickinson and, before him, Ian St. John.