DEMI STOKES reckons she might not be playing at football’s highest levels were it not for her ‘rough and ready’ grassroots experiences.
The Manchester City ace, 30, who became a mum for the first time in May, has fond memories of featuring in a girls’ team battling in a boys’ league.
The Dudley-born full-back credits the experience with helping pave the way for her to rise in the sport for club and country.
A journey that has seen the Citizens defender included in Sarina Wiegman’s provisional Lionesses squad ahead of the Women’s Euros in England this July.
Stokes, who grew up in South Shields, said: “I played for Sunderland 24-7. The division we were in was the Russell Fosters League.
“It was a big deal at the time (being in an all-girls team in an all-boys league) and we're talking twenty-plus years ago now.
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“It was intense at times because you would have dads who would sometimes get animated when the girls were playing better than their sons were.
“It was rough and ready, but we loved it and I'm grateful we had that opportunity to really push ourselves.
“I probably wouldn't be playing today if it wasn't for grassroots games. They definitely helped my career.”
Stokes is in training with the Lionesses at St George’s Park with players gathering before the July 6 start of the Women’s European Championships.
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Before the contest the team, currently unbeaten under Wiegman, will test themselves against Belgium, reigning Euros champs the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The matches come just over a month after the arrival of the City star’s baby boy with her partner Katie giving birth to their son on May 6.
And the England ace is relishing juggling motherhood with her career on the pitch.
Stokes added: “I'm very happy to be a mum.
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"I don't think it's sunk in be honest because I just see myself as Demi still, so I'm just enjoying the journey
“As women, we shouldn't have to pick and choose when to put things on hold.
“I'm very lucky to be able to do this (become a parent) and still be playing. It’s something we really wanted.”
As players we're aware the Euros are not just about the present. This is about but the future (for the women's game.)
This week Wiegman is set to name her final England squad for the 2022 Euros.
The Lionesses, who are seen among the contest favourites, are targeting their first-ever triumph in the tournament with the contest being held on home soil for the first time since 2005
Stokes, who has 66 senior England, caps, added: “Sarina will do the best she can to give the team the best opportunity.
"Hopefully, I get selected and can play my part.
"As players, we’re aware that it's not just about the present. This is about the future (for the women's game).
"It's also about making sure we play good football, we put on a good show and inspire as many people as possible.”
England’s squad selection comes just over a week on from Stokes supporting the McDonald’s Fun Football Programme.
The scheme, also backed by her national team-mate Beth Mead aims to provide a million youngsters aged 5-11 with access to free football coaching sessions.
Thousands of grassroots clubs across the country are thought to be at risk of folding.
A report published in May – backed by retired Three Lions stopper David James – found that 6,000 clubs are at risk of closure.
Stokes said: “It is such a shame that we miss out on talents at the grassroots because some families can't afford for their children to play.
“This is why it's important kids can do this (scheme) for free.
"There's no better time to be doing this for free with some families struggling to put food on the table and pay bills.
"When you're young and if you want to play football, you want it to be fun with no judgement and no animosity. This is about being inclusive.”
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