Photo: Dave Kendall

October 2018 may have signalled the retirement of Chris Humphrey from professional football but the former Preston North End and Motherwell man has not shirked a challenge since. Together with lending a hand away from the game, the 12-cap Jamaica international was soon back on the pitch, and he now wants the opportunity to continue carving a managerial path.

It is five years and a few weeks since he was among the Preston players at the forefront of the trophy lift in front of Wembley’s Royal Box, after an emphatic victory over Swindon Town took North End back to the Championship. Chris Humphrey is still only 32, but it is already some 21 months since the announcement that he would be retiring from professional football.

Over 400 games since his time as a teenager in Shrewsbury Town’s first team had heavily contributed to a shin problem that made the relentless routine at the higher levels ultimately unbearable for the right-sider. He quickly, though, found a new lease of life after taking East Kilbride director Paul Kean up on his offer to play for the Lowland League side.

Last year saw the Jamaican-born, Walsall-raised wideman cast in the role of young manager for the first time, with the reformed Gretna 2008. Already wiser for the experience, he feels ready to take on a new challenge as a number one, and was recently intrigued by the opening at Kendal Town.

“My good friend Ted Harrison, who’s a local lad up there and does a bit of managing/coaching, used to play for Kendal.” Chris explained. “He came to me and said ‘the Kendal job’s available, are you gonna go for it?’”

“After my time at Gretna and how I was treated there, I thought ‘do I wanna go into something again where it might be a bit of a tough ask?’ After a bit of time thinking about it, I really fancied it.

“I spoke to a few managers I know in the game who would be interested in loaning me some players, so I looked at it from a different angle and thought I could build a good squad. After looking at a few games of Kendal last season, they’ve actually got a really decent squad.

“My agent got in contact with the chairman and said I’d be interested in an interview; just because I’d played didn’t mean I thought I’d automatically get a chance, I understand that. It was just going back and forth and he was saying ‘I’ll put it to the committee.’

“I was conscious of them thinking ‘oh, a big name coming in, he’d want money himself.’ I managed to find a sponsor and said ‘he’ll pay for the time that I’m there, so you wouldn’t have to pay me anything.’

“The chairman asked for that in writing, so we sent that over, with a detailed plan of what I’d like to do with the club. He said he’d put that forward to the committee last Tuesday, and then on Wednesday morning, they said that we hadn’t got the position, ‘but there’s a list of positions that would be available at the club; if your client’s interested, they’ll be up on Facebook.’

“I was just thinking ‘what sort of reply is that?’ and then 20 minutes later, I saw that they’d give it to the two guys that have got it now. Everything happens for a reason, and it looks like I’ve dodged a bit of a bullet there with the way they handled it; I think it would have been another thing like Gretna, where it would have been really hard to do what I wanted to do.*

“After that, though, I just thought I’d really like to get back into it.”

*On 23rd July, Chris was appointed Kendal Town manager, after Gary Fawcett had stepped down, with changes also made behind the scenes since Chris’ initial contact with the club.

Playing over 100 games in Preston’s back-to-back League One play-off campaigns (2013-2015), the ex-West Bromwich Albion prospect featured in the Championship as recently as three seasons ago. He hopes that kind of experience, coupled with his willingness to keep playing, can prove another source of appeal for a club on the hunt for a young, hungry manager.

“For the last two seasons, I’ve played, and I played at Kelty Hearts last season. It’s perfect for me, non-league, because they train twice a week, so (the shin) has plenty of rest.

“My problem with full-time football was it had no rest because I was training every day, twice a day, and it was just too much. So anywhere I went and got an opportunity managing, I’d play as well.

“I’ve had a few family members that haven’t been well at all through this COVID situation, and if I could get somewhere that was close to home, that would be perfect for me.”

While a club close to his North West base would hugely tick a box, he would be willing to cast the net wider for the right opportunity. Spending the first few years of his life in Jamaica, Chris’ caps for the Reggae Boyz included games against the likes of France and Switzerland.

Encounters with major tournament mainstays are valuable for any player, though he will freely admit he was something of a novice again when he began working in a behavioural school after stepping away from professional football.

“I decided I wanted to go away from football and do something that was completely different for me. I wanted to try and give back a bit, in whatever way that was, so I had a look at doing this behavioural management and I’ve really enjoyed it.

“It’s a school in Blackpool, and if the kids are expelled from other schools, they basically come to us. When you find out about their lives and some of the things they go into, these are kids who’ve really had tough times.

“They found out I think about three days after I joined that I’d played football, played for Preston, and I really earned their respect. My goal was to go out of football for a year and then go back into coaching, because I was on my (UEFA) B Licence and I always wanted to be a manager when I retired, but I just wanted a bit of a break from football.

“The reason I haven’t gone to an academy or to be an assistant to someone in full-time football is because at this moment in time, I don’t think I could leave the (school) kids, because I’ve built a rapport with them. On the side of that, my agent also asked me to get involved with his agency as a player mentor.”

The chance to offer that guidance on a day-to-day basis is a huge draw for many coaches. From his first stint as a manager, though, it was admittedly higher up the chain where he took most of his learning from.

“I think it was more experience of dealing with a board; as a player, I’ve never really had to do that side of it, because my agent took care of the money and going back and forth talking to the club. At Gretna, when I took over, they’d asked me to plan and start up an Under-18s team as well.

“We ended up getting two Under-18 teams from the people coming to the trials, and I managed to get a 16-year-old, Jack Patrick, that played for me for the first team. When he came along, I thought ‘this kid’s different class,’ and he went on to play 21 times and was the Lowland League Young Player of the Year.

“I learned a lot of the behind the scenes that I can take into my next job. On the pitch and coaching-wise, I just used the experience for my career, and taking a lot of things from managers I played under, like Simon Grayson and Stuart McCall, on how they were and what they used to do in training with us.

“Just trying to implement it into a part-time team. Obviously, I didn’t know how that would go, because these guys work outside football as well, but they really responded to it well.”

In terms of the managers he feels had a sharp sense of how to bring the best out of him as a player, those aforementioned names from his time at Preston and Motherwell instantly come to mind.

“I would get on really with any manager, because I didn’t mind the riling-up; if I was playing badly, I didn’t mind them coming in and giving you the hairdryer treatment. I can’t really pick one of them, but Stuart McCall and Simon Grayson were the two I would say really understood me as a player and played me in the right positions.

“Stuart McCall, I played more attacking, and Simon Grayson saw something in me where I could work hard up and down, and transformed me really into a wing-back. My game came on under Simon, but I would say I played my best attacking football under Stuart, because he trusted me in that final third to say ‘go and do what you want, as long as you recover back into a certain position when we lose the ball.’”

From the freedom to work off instinct in the final third, to suddenly be left to your own devices in a ‘real world’ sense can notoriously leave many former pros desperately overwhelmed. Chris describes that initial spell after officially calling it a day; how equipped he felt for what was next, and how comfortable he was with leaving so much behind.

“It was good for me, because it was my choice, it wasn’t taken out of my hands, so I was absolutely fine with it. I’d always said if I wasn’t enjoying football then I wouldn’t wanna keep playing.

“I just wasn’t enjoying it; I couldn’t get fit after my injury and all these young kids were frighteningly fit. A week or two after that, Paul, who’s the chairman up at East Kilbride, rang me and said ‘come up to training once a week and just play on a Saturday,’ and I thought that I’d never get the opportunity to do something like that.

“I went up there, had a look, and they had some really good players; lads that had played in the SPL and stuff. I just absolutely enjoyed my time there.

“Trained on a Thursday, stopped at my friend’s house Thursday/Friday, played the game Saturday and then came home. It was no strain on my shin or my injury at all and it was the perfect way to stay around the game.

“I knew I wanted to be a manager and a coach, so they said I could take some sessions. I’m signed up to the PFA, and if you need anything when you retire, you ring them and they do their best to help, but it’s not one of those where they’re on the phone, ‘do you need this, do you need that?’

“You’re kind of left on your own to do things, and if you’re in such a severe set of circumstances, then you can ring them and ask for help. I’ve rang them a couple of times for advice on a couple of things, especially with my coaching badges and stuff, but there’s nothing there initially, as soon as you retire, where there’s someone to say ‘right, now you’re in the big, bad world, now you’ve got to go and find a job.’

“Some are fortunate they’ve made enough money, but unless you’ve played high-end Championship or Premier League most of your career, you’ve got to go and find that job. I hadn’t done that all my life, because I’d been in football, so to go and do that was tough.

“The support network is there, but you’ve got to take that upon yourself to go and seek that.”

As he alluded to, versatility served him well under Simon Grayson at Preston, and he has found that to be a useful ingredient during the uncertainty of the past three months and counting.

“At the beginning of (lockdown), I said to my agent ‘I’m gonna do lives; I’m gonna bring on all my friends that I played with’ and I was doing videos every day for the first few weeks. It wasn’t just footballers, we were getting kit men on, we were getting financial people on, and I was getting some really good messages saying ‘I didn’t really realise football was like that’.

“Had people like Wes Morgan on, Adrian Mariappa, Paul Robinson, Callum Robinson, and Wes is telling me how tough it was in an academy, how he didn’t make an academy and went on to do this, and came in quite late, and he’s won the Prem. So that took up most of my time really, planning and doing the actual thing.”

In our previous interview, a month before Preston’s promotion from League One, Chris talked about having his hands full away from training and matches – “I’ve got two hyper kids; one’s two and one’s four.” Five years on, and double trouble has evolved into a certified triple threat!

“Cody just turned eight in April, Amelea will be ten in September, but we’ve had another one now (Caleb), who’s two. So we’ve got three hyper kids now!

“I try and do as much as I can with them, and since retiring, it’s been amazing, because I’ve never spent as much time with the kids. That part of it’s been special, and it’s another reason why I wouldn’t want to go into something full-time.

“I’m a couple of months off my B Licence, and when football starts again, I can go straight into that and finish that up. I just wanna get a good year’s experience managing, and then if I’ve done that, next summer I can have a crack at my A Licence, and I’d like to get a good two or three years’ experience before doing a Pro Licence, if I wanted to do that.

“Doing the lower leagues is the right way to go about it as well, I think.”

That 2015 interview also concluded with him being put on the spot and asked for four examples of teammates from his career that he would have alongside him in a 5-a-side game. His choices at the time were current West Ham goalkeeper Darren Randolph (ex-Motherwell teammate), two Jamaica counterparts at the back in Watford’s Adrian Mariappa and Wes Morgan, and Rob Earnshaw (with Chris during his time at West Brom) tasked with applying the finishing touches.

Midfield maestro Jason Koumas also earned a mention as the best individual he had seen. So, as we end this one – and with the last few seasons of his pro career now added into the picture – Chris gets his chance to throw out another five to line up against his aforementioned team.

No word yet on whether he will be requesting a transfer to team B!

“You see goalies, I played with some really top, top goalies. Probably John Ruddy in goal.

“Koumas as one, Darren Moore, Jermaine Beckford and Marlon King. It’d be a very good game; one team’s very attacking and one’s not so attacking!”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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