It's no secret that Great Britain's women's football squad boasts an array of star-studded talent - some of the biggest and most successful players in the world. However, what may come as a surprise to some is that among those glittering names stands a player who has in fact already won gold with Team GB.
The player in question: Demi Stokes. While this summer's Olympic tournament in Tokyo marks her first appearance at the Games, the defender captained Team GB to a gold medal at the 2013 Summer Universiade in Russia, alongside former City midfielder Izzy Christiansen and fellow future Lionesses stars.
A reserved and thoughtful character, Stokes is definitely not one to blow her own trumpet - instead preferring to shy away from the limelight. Though one of City's longest-serving and most consistent performers, she is not necessarily the first player on everyone's lips - but that suits the left-back just fine.
Stokes would much rather do her talking on the pitch, letting her stellar displays speak for themselves. She is not motivated by stardom - only success - and a self-sacrificing willingness to help her teammates by producing the very best level of performance she can. With true dedication, drive and plenty of wisdom, she is fuelled by a desire to be the best version of herself - both on and off the pitch.
“I’m always hard on myself. I always want to be better. You can’t settle for being satisfied with performances, especially with games getting bigger, more competitive and coming thick and fast. It’s important to keep pushing for consistency and good performances – striving for eights or nines out of ten every week. Although you may be happy with what you’ve done, there’s always something new you can learn.”
Though born in Birmingham, Stokes grew up in the north-east (South Shields to be exact): a football-loving area known for the passion, friendliness and generosity of its people - all traits Stokes carries proudly.
Her love of the beautiful game was sparked on the streets - kick-abouts with the local lads. As her talent shone through, she was made captain of the school boys' team and signed for Sunderland's Academy at the age of eight! Growing up, she looked up to Black Cats stars (and current City and England teammates) Steph Houghton and Jill Scott and went on to make her senior debut for the north-east Club as a teenager in 2007, playing her part in their FA Women's Premier League Northern Division success and impressive 2009 FA Women's Cup campaign.
Two years later, she set out on a new adventure, jetting across the Atlantic Ocean, accepting a four-year scholarship to the University of South Florida to play 'soccer' whilst earning a degree general studies and a minor in leadership. She also spent time with Canada's Vancouver Whitecaps during her stay overseas.
Stokes had headed to the States with the hope of catching England's eye, eager to earn her first call-up to the Lionesses' senior squad, and she achieved her goal in her fourth and final year of college. Having represented her country from Under-17s level (as a 15-year-old!), the defender had already tasted success on the international stage, clinching the 2009 UEFA Women's Under-19 Championship (along with Christiansen, Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan), and won her first senior cap in 2014.
Although she was disappointed to miss out on Mark Sampson's 2015 World Cup squad, Stokes has been a regular name in the Lionesses' line-up ever since, tallying 60 caps and one goal - and that first senior call-up would prove to be a game-changer in her career... literally!
Until that point, the South Shields starlet had occupied a more offensive role as a left-winger. Idolising Rachel Yankey as a youngster, Stokes had modelled her own game on the England and Arsenal legend - but Sampson envisioned another path for the lightning-fast Lioness, switching her to left-back when England faced Norway in La Manga. Taking one step back definitely proved a step forward for Stokes' career.
“It was the first time I played at left-back and I didn't have a clue what I was doing! Before then, I'd played as a left-winger but Mark Sampson must have thought I had the attributes to get up and down the wing. He tried me at left-back and that's where I've played since! Thinking about it now, if I'd have stayed at left-wing, I'd possibly not have been as effective or played as many games in my career...”
Though more than 4,000 miles away in Florida, Stokes' impact in the States had been keenly noted by Nick Cushing and his City backroom staff back in Manchester. With the dream of playing professional football on home soil, the defender's signature was secured in January 2015 as she joined the City revolution for our second season in the top flight.
A stalwart on the left side of defence, the then 23-year-old hit the ground running, playing an integral role as Cushing's side clinched Champions League qualification for the first time with a top-two finish. The following year, she would prove a key influence again as City lifted the FA Women's Super League for the first time, conceding just four goal all season; only one from open play, and regain the Continental Cup. The marauding full-back also found the net on the final day of our imperious campaign to preserve our historic unbeaten run in the league.
Today, she stands as one of City's highest appearance makers, having clocked her 150th game in sky blue in the 2020/21 season. During those six years, she has helped City to no fewer than seven trophies: three FA Cups, three Continental Cups and a league title, and has made a name for herself as one of the best left-backs in the game, building expertise in the role by gaining a more tactical understanding and ensuring she remains in peak physical condition.
Hard-working, tireless and ever dependable, she is one of the most beloved characters within the squad - there most certainly beats a heart of gold underneath the shirt badges of her Club and country. Whether Stokes will once again sport a gold medal around her neck this summer remains to be seen...
But we're 'stoked' to find out!
“It's good to see where I started and how the Club has evolved. There have been changes and you have to ride with it and embrace it. It helps you to improve and that's what I want. For me personally, my aim is to keep pushing, thriving. Although I am getting older, I want to keep pushing myself, stretching myself to become even better - even if it's a 1% difference - and I believe I can do that with the players around me.”
By Caroline Oatway