Matt Healey continues the series.

Gareth Stoker was born in Bishop Auckland on the 22nd February 1973. He was a trainee at Leeds United and then signed a professional contract with Hull City in 1991. He spent three years at Boothferry Park, but injuries impacted his time there and he then dropped into non league with Bishop Auckland.

Stoker told us “I had damaged my cruciate whilst at Hull and was out for a year. I then made a comeback and injured my medial ligament and was out for another year, my contract was up and with Hull struggling financially they didn’t offer me another deal. The PFA got involved and they sorted me out with a financial arrangement so I still trained at Hull and did my rehab”

Stoker would gain extra fitness by playing with Bishop Auckland in non league “They were my hometown team and I played around 10 games for them”

He returned to the professional game when he was signed by John Layton at Hereford United in early 1995.

“I knew Hereford’s coach Dick Bate from when we were at Leeds, one of my best mates at Elland Road was Damien Henderson who was on loan at Hereford at the time and he recommended me to the club as he found out they were after a midfielder”

Stoker made his debut in a 2-1 win over Scarborough on the 18th March of that year. He played every game for the rest of that season switching between central midfield and right back.

Layton would leave Hereford that summer and former Aston Villa manager Graham Turner took charge at Edgar Street. “GT was absolutely brilliant, he had a big influence on my career”

Stoker started most of the early season games in the 1995/1996 and opened his Hereford account with a goal in a 2-2 win at Scarborough on the 16th September 1995.

Stoker would be in and out of the side during the winter of that season, but famously came off the subs bench to score a late consolation goal in a 5-1 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in an FA Cup 3rd round replay. His 25 yarder gave the 5,000 contingent of Hereford fans something to cheer. “What I remember from that game was the pitch was actually like a bowling green, we were 5-0 down. I got hold of the ball and whacked it in with a left foot swinger”

A few days later he was on the scoresheet again in a 3-1 at Barnet.

Due to Hereford’s success in the cup competitions and due to a cold winter by the 12th February 1996 they had only played 24 league games and had 22 games to fit into less than three months. It was pretty much Saturday/Tuesday/Saturday until the end of the season. Stoker was in and out of the team but by the end of March 1996 would be a permanent starter for the Bulls. “We had a good team and we had consistency then, Chalkie White was banging in the goals and with a strong backbone in defence it all clicked together”

On the 23rd March 1996 Hereford had lost 1-0 at Darlington and were in 14th position, but the remaining 12 games (and with Steve White scoring plenty of goals) saw the club pick up 28 points from a possible 36 and this saw them surge into the play off positions. Stoker and Richard Wilkins had formed a fantastic midfield partnership.

Unfortunately the Bulls would bow out in the Play Offs losing both games to Darlington 2-1, thus losing 4-2 on aggregate.

“Darlington were probably the best team in the league, they were very strong and played a 3-5-2 system, they had Robbie Blake and Robbie Painter up front. We would have beaten the two other teams in the play offs if we had faced them”

Stoker would sign a new contract at the club ahead of the 1996/1997 season.

That summer saw a big change in the playing squad with the likes of Steve White, Richard Wilkins, Tony James, Nicky Cross and Neil Lyne departing. New signings included Gavin Mahon, Ian Foster, David Norton, Quentin Townsend and Adrian Foster.

Stoker was left out of the starting eleven for opening day 1-0 defeat at Fulham on the 17th August 1996, but returned a week later to score the only goal in a 1-0 home win over Doncaster Rovers. “I was really settled at Hereford. I was living in a house with John Brough and Murray Fishlock. I was enjoying my football”

Despite plenty of pre season optimism Hereford had made a disappointing start to the new season and were bottom of the league by September. A brief resurgence in form saw Hereford win three on the bounce in October 1996. Stoker was on the scoresheet In a 2-0 home win against Leyton Orient on the 19th of that month.

Stoker was a regular in the Hereford lineup and the only games he missed were in mid December 1996 after receiving a two game suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards.

By the middle of January 1997 Hereford were on a awful run of form with no wins in 13 games, but the curse was broken on the 25th January 1997 when a Chris Hargreaves goal secured a 1-0 win at Cambridge United. This would be Gareth Stoker’s final game in a Hereford United shirt as he was then sold to Division Three rivals Cardiff City for £20,000.

“Graham Turner called me into his office on a Thursday morning and said we had an offer from Cardiff. It was a case of we don’t want you to go, but we need the money. I went down to Ninian Park for talks with Kenny Hibbitt and he sold the club to me. I drove back to Hereford still unsure, but what clinched it was they offered me a 2 and a half year contract. After a long period out with injury a couple of years before I need stability”

Stoker would return as a Bluebird a few weeks later when Hereford faced Cardiff at Edgar Street on the 16th February 1997. In a fiery local derby played on a Sunday lunchtime Stoker was the victim of a late challenge from Carl Beeston which set the tone for the match.

Stoker would then score the opening goal in front of the Meadow End “I remember the goal well, the goalkeeper had made a mess of it the ball came to me and I whacked it in” Adrian Foster would equalize for the Bulls.

Towards the end of the game Stoker committed a foul on Chris Hargreaves which led to his sending off. The game ended 1-1. “I was always a bit of a joker at Hereford and the week before the game the lads were calling me and winding me up. When I got sent off Hargreaves was rolling around , but as soon as I got sent off he was up ok and laughing, he even gave me a wink which incensed me, Brough and Fishlock were chuckling away too.

When I went down the tunnel I kicked the dressing room door in frustration. A police officer saw it and they were thinking about pressing charges, but GT said no, I was in the bar after having a drink and the Hereford fans were giving me plenty of banter”

The Hereford United fanzine Talking Bull would produce the following front page image.

Hereford would later rue the decision to sell Stoker. At the time manager Graham Turner wrote in his programme notes “The decision to allow Gareth Stoker to leave was one I took with reluctance . Gareth was a busy player who was always prepared to work hard, but the offer from Cardiff City was acceptable with the knowledge that the money would be available to strengthen the side in another position”

Unfortunately for Turner. Carl Beeston would be recalled from his loan spell by his parent club Stoke City, Keith Downing would then be forced to retire due to a back injury and this meant Hereford were light in the midfield department. Brian McGorry was later signed from Wycombe Wanderers to replace Stoker but Hereford would miss him.

Hereford were tragically relegated from the Football League on 3rd May 1997. In an end of season shootout. The final game of the season was against Brighton. To stay in the Football League Hereford needed to win. Brighton needed a win or a draw. The game ended 1-1.

Despite accruing 47 points, which would normally most seasons keep you up. It was sods law that in the 1996/1997 season the rules had changed.

Usually when a team is level on points, the usual system of goal difference would kick in, but that season it was changed to goals scored, and with Hereford scoring less than Brighton, and with both clubs level on 47 points, Hereford went down by just 3 goals. If it had been on goal difference then the Bulls would have survived.

Stoker enjoyed his time at Cardiff. Former Hereford colleagues Steve White and Kevin Lloyd were at Ninian Park “We had a good team and reached the Play Offs in the 1996/1997 season, we were unlucky losing to Northampton. I then damaged the cruciate in my other knee and was out for a year, by then Frank Burrows had come in and he had bought in his own players. Frank was great though, but I wanted first team football so joined Rochdale”

Stoker would later join Scarborough and Forest Green. I asked him if he ever had the chance to return to Edgar Street “No unfortunately, Hereford United legend Colin Addison signed me for both clubs and offered me a really good contract at Forest Green, but there was never an offer from Hereford, things move on and Graham Turner had different players”

Stoker then wound down his career playing for Leigh RMI and Wakefield. He retired from the game in 2008 and had a brief spell in non league management.

He now runs a coaching company. “We send coaches into schools to teach PE to the kids”

He finishes with a message to the Hereford fans “In my two years at Edgar Street it was the most enjoyable of my career. I had a great relationship with the supporters and got on really well with the management, it was a great era for me”