Weekend Interview: Labour of love for union boss Ritchie Humphreys

Ritchie Humphreys is flanked in the Chesterfield dressing room by team-mates who weren't even born when he was helping Sheffield Wednesday top the Premier League.

SUITED AND BOOTED: Ritchie Humphreys is kept busy as PFA chairman, but he is also still enjoying life as a professional football.

It’s a clear indicator the Sheffield-born footballer is entering the twilight years of a career that has seen him chalk up in excess of 700 performances in over 20 years as a player.

Humphreys learned his craft at Hillsborough – having been rejected as a 13-year-old by his boyhood club Sheffield United – making his debut as a 17-year-old in the Premier League at QPR in 1995.

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Since then he has played for over two decades, including a 12-year stint at Hartlepool United, where his career has seen him move from striker to winger, before settling at left-back.

Ritchie Humphreys (right) celebrates a goal during his Sheffield Wednesday playing days.

Humphreys appreciates life football has afforded him – “the fact I have been able to earn a living for 20 years, from playing football, is all I ever wanted to do” – which makes his work as chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) something which is close to heart.

Now in his third year in the job, he juggles his playing career with helping out coaching at the Spireites, but he is determined to give something back to the game.

With 4,000 current members – and 50,000 ex-members – being in charge of the footballers’ union is hardly a part-time gig.

But Humphreys is passionate about the work carried out by the PFA, and appreciates the longevity of his own playing career is not the norm in modern-day football.

Ritchie Humphreys (right) celebrates a goal during his Sheffield Wednesday playing days.

Young scholars now fall by the wayside in worrying numbers, where the average professional career spans no more than seven short seasons.

It’s a subject which the PFA are working hard to remedy, acting as a safety net to help re-educate footballers with secondary careers.

“There’s lots of issues we deal with, but the fall-out rate of scholars today is quite high,” said father-of-two Humphreys. “We get young players never going more than a couple of years in the professional game. Someone like me brings the average up, but the average is something like six or seven years.

“Therefore the main objective for the union is re-education, making sure the lads are on courses or thinking about a second career. There is only a small percentage of our members who financially wouldn’t have to work again, obviously there would be some who still want to work, but the majority of us will have to have a second career to go into.

“The more popular subjects are journalism, physiotherapy, coaching because they are still involved in the game. The different amount of training the lads do these days, range from a pilot to a forensic biologist.

“Other areas include the benevolent fund, helping ex-members who may have fallen on hard times and are struggling to make ends meet. There is the accident fund which helps players who have maybe had old injuries, help with medical fees and get them back to full fitness – like a 60-year-old former player who has recurring knee trouble, we can help with that.

“Obviously, there’s the mental health awareness – we have a 24-hour helpline – 30 counsellors around the country, on hand in case people need someone to speak to. That’s all confidential and private.

“We have an equality department going round, I think we have been to every Football League club now, looking at diversity awareness issues. It includes racism in football, homophobia in football. I have seen this delivered, and it’s very educational. It’s not just football, all of society has to pay attention to these issues and help out, whether you’re a teacher, parent or coach.

“We all have a part to play.

“We can also help with any legal issues players can have, maybe their contracts, or issues they have at their club.”

Humphreys was first appointed a PFA delegate at Hartlepool in 2003 – each Football League club has one – and followed in the footsteps of Chris Powell and Clarke Carlisle when he was elected chairman.

“When Clarke finished playing, the management committee elected me to be the chairman,” he said. “That was a real honour for me, to be chairman of the players’ union.

“I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of the players on a matter of subjects.

“It’s very difficult to always get it right, to get everyone’s opinion would be difficult, but I try and balance it as much as I can. It’s a privilege and honour to do.”

Humphreys has no plans himself to hang up his boots just yet, as long as he maintains the same enthusiasm for the game 20 years after starting out at Middlewood Road cleaning the boots of then manager Trevor Francis.

He said: “If anybody asks me, I always say I want to carry on playing for as long as I am physically able to.

“I might get told by the manager along the way ‘you’ve had enough son’, that’s inevitable as well, and it might be harder for me to get a new contract as people always take your age into consideration. I would always put my record in front of them, I have played 730 games in the 20 years I have been playing, and I have only had one or two injuries along the way. I have looked after myself quite well.

“Ultimately, time will catch up, there’s few players who go beyond 40 – Ryan Giggs was a brilliant example to us all.

“I love waking up on a Monday knowing I have got a week of professional football again to throw myself into. I have friends who dread Sunday night because they have to go back to work on a Monday. I just can’t wait to play football.

“Whichever comes first, either I stop enjoying it or I can’t physically play football any longer, I will stop.

“I would be gutted, but I can’t say I haven’t had a successful run, 20 years as a professional. If somebody had offered me that as a 16-year-old, I would have grabbed it with both hands. I feel very fortunate, and that’s why I do go out and enjoy playing.”

With the influx of money in English football, mostly congregated around the Premier League and Championship, it would be easy for Humphreys to feel a little envious.

But the 38-year-old – who went throughout his career without an agent – has no regrets, even when pushed by The Yorkshire Post about missing out on playing for his beloved Blades.

“I don’t have regrets,” he replied.

“To have played for 20 years I feel very fortunate. I played at one club for 12 seasons and that’s rarely done these days.

“I got to play for one of my hometown clubs in Sheffield Wednesday, and feel my career has been as good as it possibly could have been because of how I applied myself.

“I would never sit back and think what would have happened if I got this move, or that contract. It’s all an irrelevance to me. The fact I have been able to earn a living for 20 years, from playing football, is all I ever wanted to do.

“You get older and wiser, and you start thinking about second careers, and that’s going to come, probably sooner rather than later.

“I never really had an agent throughout my career, I always felt comfortable talking to a manager or chief executive about my contract.

“I used one once or twice, but never one to negotiate me moves or anything like that.

“I spoke at an agents meeting recently and told them that, they looked at me a bit shocked.

“There’s still a job for players’ agents, of course, I just think I did okay without one.”

At over 730 games and counting, that’s probably the biggest understatement of our interview.

Richie Humphreys factfile

April 1986: Middlesbrough have to borrow £30,000 from the PFA to pay players’ wages.

May 1986: Chairman Alf Duffield resigns. The club are relegated to the Third Division on the final day of the season at Shrewsbury. With debts at £2m-plus, the provisional liquidator is called in.

July 1986: Inland Revenue takes the club to court over a tax bill of £115,156. The judge issues a winding up order.

August 1986: Rioch and 29 other non-playing staff sacked and the gates to Ayresome Park are padlocked, with a consortium, including director Steve Gibson, businessman Henry Moszkowicz and representatives from the ICI and Scottish and Newcastle breweries, valiantly working to save Boro.

The day before the start of the season on August 22, a meeting is held with the Football League.

Boro chairman Colin Henderson agrees a deal with ICI for a bond, meaning that the company would pick up a major part of any subsequent debt, and the consortium put in £825,000.

With 10 minutes to spare before the registration deadline, the documents are signed and the club is saved.

Boro draw 2-2 against Port Vale at Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground in their Division Three opener and eventually clinch promotion.