A scouting profile of Stephen Humphrys should probably come with a warning about graphic content.
The 23-year-old Rochdale striker – who has now been linked with Stoke City – suffered a gruesome 15-bone breaking facial injury two years ago that the surgeon described as the worst he had ever seen.
He was warned he would not be able to start even jogging for 12 months – yet he was asked to play again for Southend within six weeks. And, wearing a ‘rock solid’ mask, he scored the goal which saved the club from relegation.
Humphrys went on to move north, closer to his family home, last summer for an undisclosed fee.
He has been one of the leading strikers in League One this season, with 10 goals in 24 starts and one sub appearance, despite his team being bottom of the table and a knee injury keeping him out for the best part of 11 weeks in the autumn.
A keen vlogger – “I’ve always been a geek – and it is nerdy – and very good with technology. My gaming set up is at the level of a top YouTuber, top gamer… I used to make videos, ever since getting my little cousin recording me on my BMX to put on YouTube,” he said in a YouTube interview last month – he has been attracting Championship scouts with an all-round game.
He is a powerful dribbler, he has been good at making his own chances as well as opportunities for teammates, and he has scored different types of goals from headers and poacher’s finishes to direct free-kicks.
In fact, he reads like a young League One Steven Fletcher.
“I’d say it was the best I’ve been performing in my career and the most consistent I’ve been but I still only think I’m 70 per cent of what I’m capable of doing,” he said.
“The way the team plays helps me a lot. I think I’m getting a lot more chances to score these goals.
“When I was at Fulham and in the 23s – I know it’s a different level – but we played the same type of football we play here and I scored 12 in seven. I know I can be a goal scorer, I know my conversion rate can be high when I’m given chances and I don’t have to drop deep and try to beat two or three men to try to score a goal.
“The last goal I scored for Southend was getting the ball in my own half, dribbling up the pitch to beat a man and shooting from about 30 yards. It seemed like they were the only goals I was going to score at Southend whereas at Rochdale I feel like I can score two every game.”
Humphrys had started out on the books for Bury but earned a move to Fulham in 2016 and hopes were high when he was promoted to the first team set up at the age of 18.
He explained in an honest interview with omni-sports: “When I joined Fulham, I expected to make it and it was a case of when rather than if in my mind. There was a point where I was with the first-team during pre-season and I had scored four goals in 90 minutes. I was flying.
“But, being the silly 18-year-old boy that I was back then, I thought I had made it already. I got too big for my boots and the manager noticed that and he dropped me back down to the under-23s. I thought I was finished.”
He added: “I pushed for a loan, when I really should have just got my head down and stuck with Fulham. I was too young to even go out on loan really, and some of my loan spells could have killed my career.
“I am very fortunate to have been given more chances since then. I was just naïve as a youngster, a lot of players probably are guilty of that.”
Loans followed at Shrewsbury, Rochdale and Scunthorpe before he joined Southend permanently in January 2019 – having been impressed with manager Chris Powell – and suffered what might have been a life-changing injury within a few weeks.
He got smashed in the face in the act of scoring a header and the ‘suspected broken nose’ that was reported as he was stretchered off turned out to be a lot, lot worse.
“I had broken 15 bones in my face. When they operated, they had to remove my eyeball from its socket so it was resting on my face while they did it,” he said.
“My surgeon at the time told me I needed 12 months of no running, no bike work and told me to do absolutely nothing. He told me to stay in bed for the first few months and do nothing for a year.
“But on the ninth week of those 52, the Southend chairman rang me and asked how I was feeling.
“I said it was the worst I’d ever felt physically because I’d done nothing but I remember him saying we need you, can you come back. My face was 10 per cent healed!
“I spoke to the physio Ben Clarkson, who I can’t speak highly enough about either and he said it was up to me. I felt a lot of pressure from the powers that be and I was overweight because I hadn’t been able to exercise.
“I’d been in bed taking painkillers just so I could sleep and then I got a text on a Sunday night saying you’re in tomorrow.”
He added: “I was up at 5am the next morning. I was doing a completely different session to the rest of the lads but I jogged around the pitch once and I threw up. It was just such a shock to my system.”
Humphrys says he had been warned he would be fined if he missed training – and he had needed to borrow money from his grandparents to stay in the game – but he did end the season on a remarkable high by scoring the winner over Sunderland that prevented relegation.
He said: “I was told to keep training and keep myself fit but even in the Sunderland game I was probably about 30 per cent fit. I’d put on too much muscle and I was more of a rugby player build for that game.
“I wasn’t ready for it and it was a weird time period. But I managed to score the goal and it was pure relief.”
Two years on and he is being linked with a step up to the Championship.
It adds that “all six are very interested and likely to make a move this summer but as it stands Blackburn, Preston and Stoke are the three looking the most keen”.
Stoke will be in a hunt for a striker this season after seeing the impact of injuries to Tyrese Campbell and Fletcher this season on the team’s fortunes.
But Michael O’Neill will be hampered in that bid by the EFL’s financial restrictions.
Stoke legend Denis Smith told StokeonTrentLive earlier this week: “You’ve got to look at the size of the squad and Financial Fair Play kills us. We either have to bring players through or be lucky to drop on one. I’m sure they’ll be scouring lower down where it will be cheaper to see where they can find that X-factor.”