Sheffield United fan who played for Sheffield Wednesday set for gruelling charity challenge
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The Sheffield United fan who became a Sheffield Wednesday player has a unique insight into the Steel City’s football rivalry. How, even when people aren’t being partisan, it can permeate every aspect of life. He grew up a Blade and after becoming an Owl, making 60 Premier League outings for his boyhood team’s arch-rivals, rekindled his love affair with Bramall Lane following the last of his 743 career appearances. Which is why, as he reflects on those pilgrimages with his late father John, Humphreys is here: sat in a bar on Ecclesall Road and describing, in between stories about his journey through the game, the gruelling challenge he is about to undertake in order to raise money for a charity which is not only close to his heart but the entire city too.
“I don’t think there’s anyone around here who hasn’t been touched by St Luke’s in some way,” he says, explaining the cycle ride he is performing with three friends to support the hospice which cares for people with terminal illnesses. “It’s hard to put into words how brilliant they were with not only dad when he was there but also mum and our family. I wanted to do something to thank them so we came up with this.”
Together with James, Wayne and Dave - “He’s done John O’Groats to Lands End, so he’s doing all the route planning” - Humphreys has devised ‘Big John’s Promotion Bike Tour’ which will see them ride from Bramall Lane, via St Luke’s, to all of the grounds where his father, a devoted follower of United, saw them win promotion. As well as pit stops at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City and the site of Darlington’s old home Feethams - “It’s a supermarket now” - Humphreys and his pals are also making a visit to Hartlepool; the team he represented for 12 years and where, in recognition of his service, a road has been named after him on a housing development near Victoria Park. Humphreys’ spell there included an appearance, against Wednesday, in the 2005 League One play-off final.
“Dad spent so many happy times there and the place means so much to me that it would seem rude not to go. Whenever we go up as a family, we make a point of going to ‘Ritchie Humphreys Drive’ and having our pictures taken by the sign. My teenage daughter thinks it’s a bit embarrassing but I’m really proud of it.”
Humphreys, who retired in 2017 following a spell with non-league Sheffield FC, has a wealth of tales about his life in football. A former PFA chairman and now a delegate liaison officer for the union, most of them predictably involve United - “Being released at 12, it broke my heart” and Wednesday, who picked him up and turned him into a top-flight player who impressed even the great Johan Cruyff during a pre-season trip to the Netherlands.
“When I was younger, dad got to know a few of the players from meeting them on nights out and so they used to leave him tickets for the lounge. When he was having a pint, I’d be outside kicking a ball around seeing all these greats I idolised. Joe Shaw, that era, and of course Tony Currie, those were his favourites. I wanted to be Keith Edwards, because of his goals, and then (Brian) Deane and (Tony) Agana. Those are the guys I looked up to.”
“Mum made curtains and did a lot for the players,” adds Humphreys, whose grandfather Ernest was also a professional footballer and dyed-in-the-wool Blade. “So there’s a soft furnishings connection there too.”
After leaving United, Humphreys turned professional with Wednesday. Part of the team which looked set to challenge for the title in 1996/97, his dreams of becoming a footballer were nearly dashed by what he now suspects was a prank.
“One of my jobs, as a scholar, was to look after the manager’s boots. It was Trevor Francis.
“I packed his and the staff’s boots in a container at Hillsborough and set off for training. When I got there, Trevor’s were missing. So I sprinted back to pick them up and, even though I was sure I’d taken them, there was this brand new pair of Pumas on a peg - the only ones left behind. Trevor was fine because they hadn’t started but everyone was looking at me and, when they did, they got punished with a run.”
Studying David Hirst, Mark Bright, John Sheridan, Chris Waddle and others proved an equally invaluable experience.
“If we were cleaning the showers, you’d hear them speaking about football. Playing with them, initially if they came into the reserves after injury, just the demands they put on themselves taught me so much.”
Humphreys, who also represented the likes of Scunthorpe, Cambridge and Chesterfield, made his final appearance for Wednesday against United when, after an admittedly poor first-half, he was replaced by a debutant called Derek Geary.
“That’s the match the bloke on social media was on about,” Humphreys smiles. “I’d have liked to have gone out better. Funnily enough, Del went on to play for both clubs and he’s still on staff at United. I never got to play for United but I did score at Bramall Lane for Hartlepool and I know, being from Sheffield and being in a derby, my dad couldn’t have been prouder regardless of who he supported.”