It’s not that Southend’s sea front doesn’t have its charms, with its pier, Adventure Island and the Sea Life aquarium appealing to the British traditionalist.
It’s more that there is a lure to the north west of England that only someone who hails from that part of the land ever truly feels. It’s so much more than Hollands Pies, mithering and cruckled ankles on cobbled entries.
As Stephen Humphrys stared out of his hotel room window, bags packed behind him, he desperately awaited the call that would reunite him with that place and his family. As the setting sun cast its final rays over the Thames Estuary, finally, it came. Southend United had accepted a bid from Rochdale AFC and he was free to discuss terms. This was a no brainer for Humphrys, who had been well aware of Rochdale’s courtship for several weeks, with Shrimpers chairman Ron Martin already having repelled two previous bids.
He didn’t need to be told twice. Humphrys was ploughing up the A1 in less time than it takes to say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night. Personally, it hadn’t been an unhappy experience at Southend after Fulham agreed to let him leave in 2019. His goal against Sunderland kept them in League One at the end of that season. Sadly, despite thriving in a struggling team the next, he was unable to keep Southend up a second time – and relegation triggered a 50% pay-cut clause in his contract that meant he had to give up his apartment and adopt a Travel-Tavern-style existence made popular by a certain Mr Partridge. Although born and bred in the Royton area of the Oldham/Rochdale border, Humphrys was used to being away from home, having been snapped up by Fulham at an early age. But, with a full-blown coronavirus pandemic providing the backdrop to Southend’s much publicised financial woes, home was now calling more loudly than ever before.
And it wasn’t a case of any old North West club fitting the bill. No. Humphrys had enjoyed a loan spell at Rochdale in 2018, which saw him net a memorable goal at Wembley in an FA Cup replay against Tottenham. It was a return to this club, and happy memories made there, upon which he had set his heart.
“I felt like I had unfinished business at Rochdale,” he says. “I showed glimpses of what I could do here last time, but I was only 20% of the player I know I can be. The fact I would be playing under BBM [manager, Brian Barry Murphy] was massive. He’s a coach who I think will go to the very top and I want to be a part of what he brings to the club. The fans also played a massive part in my desire to return here.
“I’ll never forget when I returned to Rochdale with Southend. I was out of action due to my facial injury but still went out on the pitch. The Rochdale fans all stood up and applauded me and I instantly felt the kind of love from a group of supporters that I hadn’t felt since I was here the first time – I knew I had to come back. I’m a northern lad, I live 10 minutes away from Spotland, so, for me, this was also about coming home.”
And Humphrys very openly revealed that the club helped him tackle some personal demons when he was last at Rochdale.
“I was extremely distracted off the pitch when I was here on loan and was going through a lot of personal struggles, which affected my mental health,” he says. “This, in turn, affected my performances. The club were great with me though, and I spoke to Keith [Hill, then manager] about the issues I was facing off the pitch. He understood and gave me the option to either be part of the squad or to take time off. I chose to keep training and made myself available for selection. Thankfully we managed to stay up. I’m grateful to Keith for being understanding and helping me at that time.”
But could he have returned to Spotland sooner?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “My Southend move came about so quickly. I got a call and a contract offer on the same day. I agreed and signed within 24 hours. Looking back, I rushed my decision and I think if Rochdale had come in for me, I would’ve gone for it. But, at the time, there was just Southend and another League One club who offered me deals on the day, and I didn’t wait long enough to explore other options.”
So, what are Rochdale getting this time around? Just what was it that made Brian Barry Murphy and the club pursue Humphrys through protracted negotiations with Southend and part with a decent fee in a time in which many clubs are cutting back?
“I’m a more confident player as well as person now,” Humphrys says. “When I came to Rochdale the first time, I was still just a boy with little experience.
“I’ve had to come through a few hardships since then and I feel like a man with a lot more to offer. I want the ball all the time. I don’t shy away from receiving the ball in tight areas. I back myself to take on defenders and score all types of goals. Also, before I joined Rochdale the first time, I had only trained for five days and hadn’t played a game in six months due to a hamstring injury. I was 97 kilograms of pure muscle and struggled to last longer than 65 minutes at full throttle. I’m around 87kg now. I’m fitter, faster and more confident than ever. I’ll maintain my fitness throughout the rehab of my current injury and I’ll be back stronger and better than ever.
“I think Brian knows how much I want to be at the club. He knows I’m a player with untapped potential and some players just need a bit of time to develop in to what they really are. Ivan Toney took a while to become the top goal scorer he is and now he’s at a top championship club. I think myself and Brian see that in me. I believe in myself enough to reach those levels and I know Brian does too.”
Humphrys mentions the Championship. Is that his ambition? Or even higher?
“Every young lad’s dream is to play for England,” he says. “But for me, I don’t like setting targets that are more than a year ahead. I just want to get my head down, work hard and score goals at Rochdale. Whatever happens after that is out of my hands, but I’d like to be a Rochdale player and ultimately help Rochdale climb the league table over the years and, if possible, get promotions.”
More importantly, a return to the North West means access to quality pies and, with that, perhaps the most important question Humphrys has ever been asked.
“My favourite?” he says. “Steak and kidney.”
Photos: Dan Youngs and Mark Wilbraham