After being released by Bolton Wanderers, Chris Stokes set about building his career at Forest Green Rovers. Having made more than 100 appearances for the club in the National League, he left through ‘the back door’ but after back-to-back promotions from League Two, he is back to help the club that gave him his chance as a youngster.
Testing your memory here, moving to Forest Green Rovers 10 years ago, talk me through how the move came about?
I left Bolton and I was looking for a club and Dave Hockaday got in touch and invited me to come and have a look at the club.
He was saying that the club was moving in the right direction, he wanted to build a young team and that side of it interested me.
Being a young player, you want to be given the chance to go straight into a first team and that is what Dave did for me.
It was disappointing how I left Forest Green, I sort of went out of the back door instead of going out of the front door. I always thought I needed to go back and I want to be successful at Forest Green.
He put me straight in when I got there and I went on and made more than 100 appearances for the club. It was the right decision for me to step down from where I was.
To get that chance to play first team football at a young age was such an important thing.
How tough was that decision after being released by a club in the Premier League at the time in Bolton Wanderers? At such a young age, making such key decisions.
It’s tough because I went from a Premier League side, all the way down to the Conference.
I was there thinking if it was the right thing to do because I had built my way up to get to that top level and you’re thinking ‘crikey, I’ve got to go all the way back down to the bottom to start over again’.
Now, looking back, it was the right thing to do because it gave me that platform to have that many senior appearances on my CV at such a young age, whereas a lot of players at the age of 19, which I was, didn’t have that.
A lot of players don’t do that, they stay around the 23s and don’t really play but, for me, it had always been a desire to play games.
When Dave called me and said that he wanted to build a young side and that I would be a part of it, it attracted me to Forest Green at the time – they had a young, attractive playing team like we do now.
You had a trial first before signing on a non-contract basis, was that you giving them your faith as much as them doing the same?
It was certainly a bit of both. I didn’t want to do it to start with, I wanted to see what the club was like and it was sensible for Forest Green to have a look at me as well.
It fitted both parties that I could see what it was like dropping down to that level and they could see if I was up to playing first team football.
Even though it was the Conference, it was tough. Going straight into first team football is hard.
You’re first game was against Darlington, do you remember it?
Vaguely, yeah. There are bits and pieces of it that come back to me, but not a lot. It was a bit of a blur.
I remember it was at home but I can’t remember the score. That’s how long ago it was but I do remember a lot of games for Forest Green from my first stint and they were some really good memories.
I didn’t know at that stage that I would go on and play as many games for Forest Green as I did.
As I dropped down, I always had that ambition to get back to the top and it took longer than I had planned, it took awhile for me to get going.
I enjoyed myself. My family is from this part of the country, so it fit in well and I enjoyed my football and ended up staying around longer than I thought I would do but I never really had an urge to leave anyway.
Every year I was improving as a player and enjoying my time at the club.
What was the team like at that stage in the club’s history and what was it like playing for Forest Green in the National League?
It was an exciting team.
The first time I joined, we were fighting to stay up in the National League and it was the last day of the season that we stayed up.
To be involved in that at such a young age was incredible. You learn a lot about the game, you learn a lot about how things work and I grew up really quickly.
Year-by-year we grew and grew and you can see what the club is like now, it is going even further.
Success on a personal note on the pitch as well, earning a call up to England C squad. What was that like as an experience and an honour?
I was one of a few, James Norwood, Jamie Turley, Eddie Oshodie, Matty Taylor, it was great.
I got called up to face India and that got called off but at the end of the season there was a Bermuda away trip, so that wasn’t a bad one to go on. We played one game of football and the rest of the time we were just enjoying ourselves.
To give Conference players and below the chance to play for an England side is great, because you don’t think you are going to get to that level.
We played against some experienced national sides and it was great. It is always going to help you on a football side as well, you are always going to improve.
It was a great achievement for myself and there were a lot of lads at Forest Green at the time getting called up as well, so it was good for the club.
There were a lot of good players in that team who have gone on to achieve good things. I think that England C is a good platform for players because a lot of them have gone on to have careers higher up in the pyramid.
Towards the end of your first time with FGR, you were allowed to go and trial with two League One sides. Is that when you realised your time at Forest Green was coming to an end?
It was sort of as soon as Ady came in. I have worked under a lot of managers and you get that feeling when a manager isn’t really having you or how you are going to fit into a style of play.
Ady and I just didn’t click from the start. I stuck around for a while and got on with it and he put me in and I played a few games but it was never really working.
We sat down and had a chat as gentleman do and he said I could go and have a look and see what was out there for me.
I always wanted to test myself at a higher level and when the opportunity came around for me to go and look at other clubs, it was just one of them.
I didn’t want to leave but it was the right thing to do because I wasn’t really happy football wise and it wasn’t a time in my career when I was enjoying myself.
The opportunity at Coventry was a great thing to do but it was tinged with sadness as well because I didn’t want to leave Forest Green the way I did.
Looking back do you have any regrets? I suppose you can’t with the way it went for you at Coventry and then with Bury?
I can’t really fault what has happened.
To go to a side like Coventry City, who are a massive football club, and get that opportunity was fantastic and one that, when it came around, I jumped at.
It was disappointing how I left Forest Green, I sort of went out of the back door instead of going out of the front door.
After spending so much time at the club it was a shame, but to get the opportunities I got after that; back-to-back promotions with two different clubs, you don’t really get those opportunities as a footballer very often.
It was a shame that I never really got to do it with Forest Green, that is what always attracted me to come back.
I always thought I needed to go back and I want to be successful now I’m back at Forest Green.
Talk us through those back-to-back promotions, what is it like being part of that, not many players have that on their CV.
We almost had a promotion with Coventry in my second season there from League One, we were right at the top of the table and it fell away and I got injured the following season and I missed nearly all of the season and we got relegated.
To go down to League Two for a club the size of Coventry, it was always an ambition for the club to get straight back up and thankfully we did.
We had to go through the play-offs and that is never a nice experience. Unless you win it.
These things happen in football where you have to look to go and get another club and I went to Bury, another club just relegated from League One and it was the same sort of thing.
I got told that they wanted to go straight back up and to do that was great. Then, everyone knows what happened with Bury and it is such a shame what happened because we did so well on the pitch and all of the supporters were right behind the football club.
At both Bury and Coventry you’ve had to deal with issues off the pitch, how is that as a player? You look at the likes of Macclesfield and Southend this season, does it galvanise a dressing room?
Luckily when it has happened, I’ve had good, senior pros in the team and that is what you need.
You need to have a tight-knit leadership from the top. It comes from the manager as well. Both times it has happened, I’ve had two great managers to work for and they have kept that positivity and energy going.
If you don’t have that, you do fall away and everyone starts sulking and it is not nice. It is your job and the club relies on you going out and putting in performances. You have to get on with it, as much as you don’t really want to if you haven’t been paid.
It’s not nice and hopefully I won’t have to experience it again. At Bury in particular, it is a shame we did all of that hard work and got nothing at the end of it.
Returning to Forest Green, I think you found out the night before deadline day, talk me through that experience for you and your first experience of being a deadline day signing?
It’s strange. I spoke to Stevenage through the month of January about wanting to leave. I had two great seasons at the top of League Two and that is what I got sold at Stevenage and is why I went there.
I was doing well individually and playing well in the team but we were right at the bottom of League Two and it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go and I wasn’t happy.
I sat down with the manager and spoke politely about driving all that way and not enjoying it and I wanted to go and see what was out there for myself. Two days before the end of the window he let me do that and then it was ‘crikey, I’ve got to see what is out there’.
There were a lot of options but when this one came up the night before, it was one that I jumped at straight away and it was done really quickly and I was jumping in the car the next day and driving back to Forest Green.
Was it like slipping into an old pair of shoes, did it feel comfortable being back?
Yeah, completely. It was familiar surroundings and that is always nice.
I’ve been to a few new clubs and when you go in, you are thinking, what is it going to be like, but it isn’t too different to when I left.
It is a completely new set-up football wise but I have fitted in really well, the lads are great, the management staff are great and it is a really good football club.
It’s been a tough time on the pitch, but how important is the last 10 games and making something of the season?
There is no reason why we can’t have a right go.
We have been unfortunate in the games that I have been here for, we’ve been in every game but it hasn’t gone for us and that is football.
Sometimes you don’t get the roll of the dice and you have to get on with it.
There is no point dwelling on what has happened. We have got 10 games left and we have to roll up our sleeves, have a right go and you don’t know what might happen.
At the end of the season, teams get jittery, results that you don’t expect to happen suddenly happen, teams at the bottom beat teams at the top and the table changes.
If we can give ourselves a chance of being in and around that fight come the last five games, you never know what could happen.