Feature: Rich in experience, Humphreys is perfect for the PFA

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At his age, you’d forgive Ritchie Humphreys for beginning to wind things down a bit as, with all due respect, the 36-year-old Chesterfield player approaches the twilight of his footballing career.

However, as it turns out, the Sheffield born, former Wednesday starlet, must have seldom had a busier time since first donning his boots as a professional.

Ritchie Humphreys after scoring for Chesterfield

Ritchie Humphreys after scoring for Chesterfield

Not even a couple of months ago, Humphreys was racing down the wing at Wembley as the Spireites were narrowly edged out in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by League One side Peterborough.

A few weeks later he helped secure promotion for the side he joined in the summer after a release from Hartlepool, with a victory away to Burton Albion.

And then, just after that, a win over Fleetwood meant Chesterfield completed the season on top of the table and go into next season’s campaign a division higher and with the League Two champions’ tag proudly placed around them.

While all this was going on, Humphreys was preparing for a leading role in the Professional Football Association’s high-profile annual awards, six months after being inducted as chairman to the players’ union when the position was vacated by Clarke Carlisle.

And of course, a role such as that, isn’t all about glitzy, celebrity-strewn ceremonies.

A week before that prestigious appointment, Humphreys’ wife Amanda gave birth to the couple’s second child, Sidney, a brother for their eldest, daughter Eliza.

Oh, and he’s also been studying for his coaching qualifications, for when the inevitable moment arrives to call time on a, by his own admission, fortunately long career in the game.

So, winding down doesn’t exactly appear to be on the agenda.

“It’s time management for myself – this is my job here, as a footballer at Chesterfield and I have got a young family,” he says.

“I think the first interview I did (after being appointed chairman) I had got the baby strapped to me, walking down Ecclesall Road, talking to Sky Sports News or something.

“I think what has been the real key to it is playing at Chesterfield and living at home in Sheffield.

“I had spent a lot of time commuting (to and from Hartlepool) and had been in my car a lot so I think the fact I was here and being home every night has helped in terms of home life.

“My wife is very supportive and she knows how important the union has been to us as a family.

“It has enabled me to be reeducated, working towards my second career when football does finish and the help with the pension.

His is a position that has taken on greater prominence in the past number of years, with the issues surrounding the behaviour of players – high profile examples of racism on the pitch as an example – and their general health and well-being while still in the game and after retiring from it, coming to the surface and gaining headlines, arguably, like never before.

A South Yorshireman to the core - he was brought up in Heeley - it’s perhaps unsurprising that Humphreys has taken up such an active role in the union.

“I had been a club delegate since 2003 when I was at Hartlepool,” he explains.

“Everyone has a club delegate and ours at the time retired and it was something I was interested in anyway.

“You can attend the AGM and find out what is going on in all the different departments that are going on, particularly the education one, which a lot of the boys had been asking about; how your pension works, how to explain that to the other players who don’t quite grasp it.

“I had been on the management committee made up of players from all leagues and had been on that for five years.

“Chris Powell was chairman when I first joined, then Clarke Carlisle was chairman after that. I had been involved and sat in meetings so that’s been a great way of learning about the union and how it works and how it benefits our members.”

The idea of benefitting footballers is one that would be scoffed at by those who labour under the misapprehension that everyone who plays the game lives a lavish lifestyle of fast cars, big houses and luxury holidays.

That is of course true for those who play at the highest level, but for the ones who, like Humphreys, played out the majority of their careers in the lower tiers, it is a reasonably well paid job, but for potentially a very short time.

And it is those in that particular bracket who make up the bulk of the PFA’s 4,000-strong active membership.

“To get to 30 I was fortunate,” he admits.

“I’m 36 now, coming 37. The average career is about five years – seven years maximum. The fall out rate is high, particularly from scholars who don’t quite make it, the ones who are professional for one or two years, the fall out is great.

“When they come in and they are professional footballers, you don’t want to deprive them of that excitement and of course they have got an opportunity to make a career and do the job that 99.9% wanted when they are at school.

“But you do have to get the message to them under that excitement, you need to think immediately about what happens if you don’t quite make it.

“There are many reasons why people don’t quite make it – lack of opportunity, injury of course, sometimes they don’t quite get there.

“Getting ready for your second career, getting started on that process early, I’d say any senior pro would tell you and advise you to get it done.”

Education and retraining in other vocations is just one of the major aspects of the PFA’s work, in helping the current membership and the approximately 50,000 ex-players who remain on the books, “you wouldn’t believe the diversity in what lads are doing courses in,” adds Humphreys, exploding the myth of the unintelligent footballer. “We have ones training to be pilots; we have forensic biologists, there was one doing Swedish Studies...”

However, a lot of work has been done to ensure football in England meets the needs and moves forward in terms of the country’s increasingly multi-cultural society. And the diversity isn’t just about race or nationality; it also incorporates gender and sexuality.

“I think we have evolved very, very well and we have tried to move with it as best we can,” he said.

“Certainly in the last few years that’s happened even more so; our equalities department headed up by a lady called Simone Pound has got bigger, we have now got guys working in the education or coaching department but they cross over into the equalities department as well.

“And we have a player welfare department as well, headed up by a guy called Mickey Bennett, for mental health issues which have been quite prominent, working with Sporting Chance.”

The latter is something that once held a stigma - particularly so in such a potentially ‘macho’ environment as football - but, as society changes, that has been shaken off and the PFA has been at the forefront of helping footballers’ look after their mental as well as their physical health.

“This (depression) can happen at any stage,” Humphreys said. “This can happen when they’ve left school or left home - all of a sudden, they are miles from home. I know of lads who have not had mental health issues but have just left school, moved 200 miles away for a scholarship, living in digs, don’t know the group they’re working with..they’ll get to know them obviously but that can all have an effect.

“They may then get a professional contract but get a long term injury, that can have an effect. Coming out in front of what we get here (at Chesterfield) six or seven thousand, things aren’t going well and the crowd react badly...these can all have an effect.

“Then you go all the way to lads that are worried about a contract, they might be 30, they’ve got two children and a wife and all of a sudden they are out of work.

“An out of work footballer might not have many qualifications to fall back on; these sorts of things can be a worry to our members and then again when you have retired; you’ve been a footballer since you were 16 and you’re now 35.

“We run a course called ‘Making the Transition’ for people who aren’t making that transition very well, maybe into a 9-5 job that isn’t paying as well as football was.

“They may have to downsize house, downsize car, not have the holidays they used to have.

“All of these things have an effect and then we have the alcohol and drug abuse issues as well so that’s why we are there with the various departments to help our members deal with any issue that they may be facing.”

He added: I’ve noticed it more as I have got older, without knowing any any particular case that has got really bad I do know lads who have been through depression and alcohol abuse who are now out the other side and working with us to help people who are going through that.

“That is always a help to a footballer who is going through it if they are speaking to someone who has gone through it, they can see where that person is now and that they can help them. Our job is to look after our players regardless of their salary, we treat everyone the same.”

After all that work, things on the pitch must seem a bit of a breeze...

“I’ve loved it this season at Chesterfield,” he said. “We have had a great season, there are some great players here and everyone has been brilliant with me.

“Being closer to home has been a big help and I have really, really enjoyed it.”