Tattoos down Cole Stockton’s right arm tell a heartrending story. “They are mostly for my dad,” says Hearts’ new striker. “My dad’s initials, and there are quotes from my dad: ‘Do not allow the eye to fool the mind,’ ‘My shining star and inspiration,’ and that is the day my dad died on my birthday.”
The 23-year-old endured the toughest time of his life in his teens, losing his father whilst battling septicaemia himself in hospital. It taught him to seize every moment and make the most of every opportunity.
Inspired by his dad, Stephen, he aims to do just that at Tynecastle after signing a two-year contract. “My dad is definitely my inspiration. He passed away with liver failure. That was a hard time in my life,” recalls Stockton. “At the time, I was in hospital with septicaemia. My mum and dad weren’t in a relationship but I would always go and see my dad three times a week. Then I was in hospital at the same time.
“I remember getting a letter from my mum, who would come and go from the hospital. My mum said: ‘There’s a letter from your nan here; your dad’s in hospital.’ I didn’t know he was in hospital. It’s a bit of a mad story. Luckily, I pulled through but I remember the night my dad passed.
“I didn’t know he had passed but that very night I had a dream that I was playing football with him. To me, it’s like he came to me first to say: ‘I’m here for you.’ I went to school two days later and, when I came home after school, my mum said: ‘Listen, your dad has passed.’ He has always inspired me. Everywhere I go, I know he’s there with me.”
Stockton Snr was a Sunday league footballer in Huyton, Merseyside. His son speaks with a strong Scouse accent and is a massive Evertonian who grew up idolising Wayne Rooney. He came through the youth academy at Tranmere Rovers but joined Hearts to further his career beyond England’s National League. He is mindful that he almost didn’t get the opportunity due to illness. “I was critical,” he says. “Scepticaemia is a serious illness. It’s like a blood infection. As a kid you don’t realise how serious it is but being around my mum and seeing her face told me. If I hadn’t got it checked out I’d have probably snuffed it, basically. They said if I hadn’t gone to the hospital within 48 hours I’d have passed out on the couch.
“I was in hospital for just over a month, and I lost around five stone because I wasn’t eating. I tried to get back into football but I wasn’t strong enough, I couldn’t run, physically I wasn’t ready. After a couple of months I began to get there gradually. It was a tough period. I could have gone one way and just thought: ‘It’s done now for me.’ Luckily, I had the right family around me to guide me. I knew what I wanted to do from school and football was always on my mind. So that was my goal.
“I think I was on trial at Tranmere at the time. I was 12 or 13. I remember playing a game and coming off with a sore back, and I didn’t know what it was. I used to play for two teams then so I went and played for my Sunday League team that afternoon. When I woke up the next morning I couldn’t move my left leg.
“I went to the doctors and got MRI scans and that’s when they saw the infection in my groin. Luckily, I got move to Alder Hey hospital and the nurses there were brilliant. I donate to them every month. I can’t thank them enough.
“I’ve been through a lot but I am not one to drag it out or make it a sob story. It just shows it is doable, you know what I mean? I know there are people out there who go through hard times but there are good times out there as well. It definitely shaped me. It made me mentally stronger. It gets you prepared for anything because once you come through that, you can come through anything.”
Stockton’s physique looks as sturdy as his mindset. He is 6ft 1ins tall, decent in the air and carries a powerful shot. He is in Edinburgh with lofty ambitions, too. “Europa League, definitely,” he replies when asked what he wants to achieve with Hearts. “With the players we’ve got here, and maybe if we bring in more, we’ll have a good squad.”
He rejected interest from clubs in England’s League Two to leave Tranmere and move north. One of his suitors were literally in the process of wooing him when Hearts intervened. “I went to meet Carlisle’s manager. That was before I heard about Hearts,” says Stockton.
“When I was going to meet the Carlisle manager, Austin MacPhee [Hearts assistant coach] rang. I had a good chat with Austin who told me a bit about the club. We met in Manchester. We flew up here a week after, met the manager [Ian Cathro] and Craig Levein [director of football]. They showed us round and put us up for the night. Then they took us out for food. First impressions mean the most.
“There were a few other clubs interested but it was about what fitted and suited me better. My eyes lit up when I knew Hearts were interested. My girlfriend said she would move up with me and get a job up here. It is different being away from my family.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been to Scotland but my mum has been brilliant with it and she will be up here every other week.”
Stockton knows this opportunity could be the making of him after a similar working-class upbringing as the aforementioned Rooney.
“I was always out on the streets with my mates, just playing footie, up to no good. It makes you realise how much football means to you.”