Ritchie Humphreys' message to Hartlepool United players ahead of play-off final as he reflects on penalty and promotion joy
Before this season, Hartlepool United’s finest play-off moment came on a Tuesday night at Prenton Park.
Pools were up against Tranmere Rovers in the League One play-off semi-final. Having squandered a 2-0 aggregate lead late on, extra-time and then penalties loomed for a place in the play-off final against Sheffield Wednesday in Cardiff.
There was very little to separate the sides on penalties as the shoot-out went into sudden death.
Chris Westwood and Antony Sweeney both dispatched spot kicks they couldn’t afford to miss to keep Pools in the tie.
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And when Dimi Konstantopoulos saved Ian Sharps’ penalty, Ritchie Humphreys knew all he had to do was score and Pools would be on their way to the Millennium Stadium.
After missing a decisive penalty in a play-off shoot-out against Cheltenham a few seasons prior, it was a chance at redemption for the club’s all time record appearance holder.
“My whole thanks go to everybody who went before me, not because I didn’t want to take one but they knew what I’d been through previously,” Humphreys told The Mail.
“I fancied myself on penalties so to miss one the way I did at Cheltenham was tough. I still have no idea how it didn’t go in.
"At Tranmere, it went into sudden death and the lads who had just taken ones, these are two of my lifelong friends, Sweens and Chris Westwood, they had got up and scored theirs before me and I was like I’ll go this time.
"When I was walking up there I knew that if I scored we’d be through. It wasn’t the greatest penalty but it went in!
"I turned around quite calmly and was like ‘is that it’? And I knew we were through really but to see the joy on the lads’ faces running towards me that set me off, it was a special feeling.
"Dimi had obviously performed heroics during the game and in the penalty shoot out. I actually had a nightmare of a game, but never mind!
"Everyone was jumping on me, they knew what I’d went through and Darrell Clarke coming down from the press box on crutches and he was on the pitch. It was an amazing night and one that will live with me forever because of what we did and then obviously personally as well."
Fast forward 16 years and Pools have sold out their 3,100 ticket allocation for Sunday’s play-off final against Torquay United at Ashton Gate after supporters had queued up overnight in order to secure tickets.
"I saw people camping out on Clarence Road for tickets which was great to see and it reminded me of that feeling when we got to Cardiff, that feeling we had in the town when we were building up to it and tickets were on sale,” Humphreys added
“Of course it doesn’t surprise me! People have really missed their football and it’s great to see fans back in stadiums for the Euros or at The Vic previously.
"That’s what it’s all about and back in our time when we were averaging 6,000 when The Vic was rocking and then to take 18,000 down to Cardiff was just massive.
"It’s stuff like that, flags on cars wishing you well, it’s a really nice feeling and it definitely gives the players a lift to feel that sort of support. You can see how much people want to come to the game and for them to queue up overnight to get their tickets is just incredible support but I’d expect nothing less.
"This week is all about the current group of players at Hartlepool United the staff, the manager and the supporters because it’s been a long old campaign, the time we’ve all had over the past 18-months and the difficulties people have gone through personally, it’s been an incredibly difficult time and the players deserve huge credit along with the manager to get them to this point.
"Hopefully by the end of the weekend Hartlepool United will be a league club once again.”
Along with several play-off campaigns, Humphreys also helped Pools to two promotions during his time at the club.
And he’s hoping Dave Challinor’s side can claim another in Bristol.
“Being promoted is an incredible feeling,” he added. “The play-off campaigns are always really exciting and the club had a couple before I joined and then my first season was the third consecutive year they were involved.
"Getting to the final at the Millennium Stadium was probably the standout moment of those play-off campaigns.
"Hopefully the current group can go one better than us and win the play-off final this weekend. We obviously fell short at the last hurdle so to get into the play-offs and promoted that way, any teammates I’ve had who have been promoted that way have said it’s a great feeling because it’s so nerve wracking towards the end of the season.”
Humphreys then delivered a message to the Hartlepool players ahead of Sunday’s final.
"I’d tell the players they’ve done brilliantly already but this game is another step to where they and the club want to be,” he said.
“The biggest thing I’d say would be to go and enjoy the game. Regardless of the result, you can reflect over time and it’s easier to say now I’m retired but enjoy it because winning games and getting promoted is one of the best feelings so I wish them the very best of luck.
“You don’t have success in every season, I was fortunate to have some good play-off campaigns and promotions and Hartlepool but it doesn’t happen for a lot of players so when it does it’s important to embrace and enjoy it.
"Hopefully that’s what the Hartlepool players can do this weekend.”