FROM making the grade with Blackburn at 13 to falling out of love with playing football at 19, Ryan Humphreys has embarked on a rollercoaster journey. Adam Higgins heard his unique story.
“I remember going on holiday and having a phone call every other day from Man City, Blackburn, Burnley and Aston Villa.”
You could assume this was an account of a Premier League free agent searching for pastures new in the close season – but this was the moment the life of an ordinary schoolboy with an extraordinary talent seemingly transformed.
A diminutive striker who has “lived and breathed” football from an early age, Ryan Humphreys got a mention in his local newspaper for scoring 65 goals in one season when barely 10 years old.
Three years later – having made a name for himself during a trial with Bury’s youth team – he turned down several offers to sign his first professional contract with Blackburn Rovers.
While friends were focused on poems and fractions, Ryan swapped the Longdendale High School classroom for the Rovers academy training ground at Brockhall Village once a week.
“When I was 13, I took every Wednesday off school to train. All my mates were really jealous. It was good.”
Education has never been high on the agenda for the Stalybridge teenager – “it’s always been about football,” he claims.
“I didn’t really revise for any exams because I thought I was going to be the next Wayne Rooney.”
The two-year scholarship with Rovers was just desserts for a career going from strength to strength, but it could so easily have launched at the ‘enemy’ from across east Lancashire.
“I played for my borough in Tameside for a while. I remember the first game against Burnley. Our team was just a bunch of local lads and we drew 3-3 and I got a hat-trick.
“Right foot, left foot and a header. It was the perfect hat-trick,” he chuckled. “It was after that game Burnley came up to me and said ‘go and get your dad, we want you to sign a contract’.
“I was ecstatic and ran to my dad as fast as I could. We went into the office and asked them to give us some thinking time.
“It was a couple of days after when I went up to Blackburn to look at their facilities and they blew me away.
“They were in the Premier League at the time and it was a family club. I think, at the time, I made the right decision.”
Having a ‘claim to fame’ with a Wikipedia bio and leaving home at 15 to stay in ‘digs’ with new team-mates, the perks of a footballer’s lifestyle materialised as the Ewood Park surroundings became his second home.
“It felt like everything I’d done had come off. I was getting paid to play the game I love most.
“You would go to training and people would talk about Phil Jones and David Dunn, who came through the academy.
“The players used to come down and the manager too sometimes, it was Steve Kean at the time, and he would have a good laugh with you.
“But travelling around the country to play the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United, what more could a boy dream of?”
There were training camps in Scotland and tournaments in Holland but it was a trip to East Anglia that stood out – for contrasting reasons.
“We were on the coach going to play Norwich and I felt ill the whole way. When we arrived, we went through the team and I was starting the game.
“I was throwing up in my hotel room later and had a bad night’s sleep. I spoke to Tony Grant [the assistant coach] and explained that I didn’t feel well but he said to play through it.
“I didn’t get into the first half and was lucky not to be taken off when we were losing at half-time. I stayed on and equalised in the second half. I set up our second goal and then scored the third in a 3-1 win.
“It was a great feeling because the coaching staff afterwards joked ‘you should be ill every week.’ That was the game I remember most but I don’t have many good memories of Blackburn.”
Frozen out for the competitive action live on MUTV and thrown in for a friendly at Macclesfield Town where “no-one was watching”.
The experience soon became forgettable and the relationship with Terry McPhillips – now first-team assistant manager to Gary Bowyer – and academy coach Phil Cannon soured.
“All I did was play in friendlies which didn’t really mean anything so it was hard to get motivated,” admitted the boyhood Manchester United supporter, who netted a goal every other game in around 20 competitive appearances for Rovers.
“It felt like no matter what I did it wasn’t good enough. They made a laughing stock out of me in my final two years there.
“I started to lose enthusiasm for football. At the start, my relationship with Phil and Terry was really good, but it just faded away.”
The frustration of repeatedly warming the bench eventually took its toll but the time to move on came quicker than expected.
“I came on for the last two minutes in a 6-1 defeat to Reading and I felt after that my time was up.
“I went to see Terry after and asked why I didn’t start and that’s when, out of the blue, he said they were going to release me.
“He said they had seen enough but told me in the middle of November so I could find another club. I was absolutely gutted.”
It took a while to get over but the 19-year-old has since gone far and wide to rekindle his love for the game.
“I’ve done a lot of things since I left Blackburn. I went to Accrington Stanley, played in a few trial games for Sheffield Wednesday and Notts County.
“I played a game at Meadow Lane and it was probably the best I’ve ever had. The manager at the time, Chris Kiwomya, was watching and praised me afterwards.
“He invited me down for pre-season [in 2013-14] and they paid for me to stay in a hotel. I trained with the first-team and they made me feel really welcome but nothing came of it in the end.”
It’s a journey that’s had its fair share of ups, downs and regrets – and, with the future still uncertain, it might not be over just yet.