End of an era for Hartlepool Utd legend Ritchie Humphreys

Ritchie Humphreys with the Poolie Penguins at the end of the game against Crawley Town. Picture by FRANK REID
Ritchie Humphreys with the Poolie Penguins at the end of the game against Crawley Town. Picture by FRANK REID

END of an era.

Those four short words do not go anywhere near to capturing the mood of this bombshell.

“Humphreys to leave Victoria Park” read the headline on the club’s website.

While it was on the cards, the news will still have come as a massive shock, Ritchie Humphreys and Hartlepool United have been involved in a love affair stretching back 12 years.

Even now, 24 hours on, it is still hard to believe, hard to stomach – Humphreys will not be adding to an amazing record 542 games and 37 goals.

He was still playing well enough at the age of 35 to be a mainstay in the team this season and was probably one of the most consistent performers.

This writer reported his final appearance on the Vic – against Brentford – and while he would admit it was not one of his finest, he was still giving it his all. And when substituted he was afforded generous and well-earned applause. Rightly so.

The Pools faithful loved Ritchie and the feeling was mutual.

This reporter saw his last-but-one appearance in the Pools strip and had the privilege of witnessing his first, on the 2001 pre-season tour to Norway.

But, it would be fair to say, that the early Humphreys days were not exactly covered in glory.

Signed on a free transfer by Chris Turner from Cambridge United – one of the many inspirational “buys” by Turner – he came with a high-class reputation as some sort of Sheffield Wednesday wonderkid.

Many remembered a sensational Premier League goal live on Sky against Leicester at Hillsborough, which had followed on from receiving praise from the legendary Dutch forward Johan Cruyff, likening him to Marco van Basten.

However, through those early appearances some wags thought he was more broken van than van Basten.

Paired up front with Kevin Henderson, Humphreys failed to find the back of the net and, it’s hard to believe now, was left out for another incredible Turner acquisition, Gordon Watson.

But Flash and Humphs teamed up as the strikeforce and the goals did come until another great Turner masterstroke – he switched Ritchie into the midfield.

The wins started to arrive, the goals were flowing and an incredible end-of-season run of five straight victories took Pools into the play-offs.

It was there the Humphreys Pools legend was born.

After two 1-1 draws with Cheltenham Town, the tie had to be settled by penalties at Whaddon Road. It was 4-4 after the regulation five spot-kicks and it was down to sudden death.

Humphreys’ struck his kick hard but, unfortunately, against the bar, with the ball then hitting keeper Steve Book and his left-hand post before staying out. You could not have seen more cruel luck.

My colleague, photographer Frank Reid, captured Humphreys in tears and being consoled by Henderson and Chris Westwood.

How would Ritchie recover? With some style was the answer.

Pools swept to promotion in 2002-03, the side built by Turner was taken up by Mike Newell, with some brilliant football and some great goals from the maestro.

After a scoring with his right foot against Exeter, there was another collector’s item, came a headed goal in a hat-trick in a 4-0 rout of Swansea City (yes, the now Premier League Swansea).

He even showed his talents were not just confined to the pitch, when he penned his own promotion diary, From Tears To Cheers.

Humphreys was crowned Player of the Year with magnificent performances (and goals) from midfield and how he carried that on up at the next level.

In the next two seasons, he was at the heart of the best two years of Hartlepool United’s history – back to back play-off appearances in League One.

And that brings me on to the other defining moment of his life at Pools – the play-off semi-final Tranmere.

Just like Cheltenham, penalties were required to settle it after a 2-2 aggregate score and it went to sudden death.

I am sure I was not the only Hartlepool person at Prenton Park – and the thousands glued to their TV sets – who was thinking “please Ritchie, find the net”.

And that beautiful left foot did just that, an incredible moment of skill and bottle.

It took Pools to the Millennium Stadium and a clash with former club Sheffield Wednesday.

Alas, post-Cardiff it’s never really been the same for Pools.

Relegation under Martin Scott followed and the following season Humphreys found himself out on loan at Port Vale.

But it is the mark of the man that he did not sulk and gave it his all in the Potteries.

And when he came back what a return, a sensational goal at Accrington Stanley sparking a club record 23-match unbeaten run as Danny Wilson guided Pools back to League One.

It must be said that recent seasons have hardly been classics, but Humphreys remained a key member of the squad in the middle of the park and also did his bit on the coaching field.

But he was more than just a player and a coach.

He was Hartlepool United – so much so he was named Player of the Century in 2008 and, like one of his best pals, Michael Barron, had a street named after him.

As a man, he has been the perfect gent, we’ve only ever had the most minor of fall-outs, when the Mail put a tearful Gordon Watson as our back-page lead after losing the title decider at Rushden & Diamonds in 2003.

As a servant to Pools, and an ambassador for Hartlepool, he has been immense.

It is the end of an era.