By Nick Friend
From humble beginnings growing up in Middlesbrough, Chris Kamara’s story is proof that dreams can come true. From Royal Navy to Goals on Sunday, there is far more to ‘Kammy’ than the bubbly pundit who graces our screens.
Born on Christmas Day, Kamara, who is half-Sierra Leonean through his father, acknowledges the difficult period in which he grew up. Raised on a council estate in Park End, Middlesbrough – where he met long-time friend and ‘Boro chairman Steve Gibson, he admits “it was tough.”
“My family was one of the first black families in Middlesbrough”, he explains. “This was a time when things were very different to today.” These issues didn’t end on the estate. He echoes Queens Park Rangers manager Chris Ramsey’s recent comments when I ask him about encountering racism during his career.
“Yes, I did”, he confesses. “There were too many incidents to mention. Luckily for me, I don’t encounter such incidents these days.” Indeed, Kamara was inducted into the Show Racism the Red Card Hall of Fame in 2004. Whilst ugly scenes marred multiple Europa League fixtures last week, , ‘Kammy’ is full of praise for the work being done in this country, in spite of recent criticism from the likes of Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand.
“The guys are doing a great job. With them and so many other organisations in place to eradicate the racism, it is better than it has ever been – and long may that continue.”
On the subject of the Rooney Rule – the NFL’s regulation to promote black managers – Kamara is less optimistic. Simply, he says, “it cannot work here in the UK.”
“I applaud its success in the USA, but unfortunately we do not have an interview process. When a job becomes available it is very often ‘not what you know, but who you know’.” This season’s Premier League managerial merry-go-round has proven Kamara’s point. None of Tim Sherwood, Tony Pulis, Chris Ramsey or Alan Pardew went through rigorous interviews to secure their new jobs. All four were handpicked.
Southampton’s technical director Les Reed told The Telegraph earlier this year that his job is “to identify coaches who will buy into it because of the track record they’ve got and the style they play.” The short-termism of modern football means that the traditional interview process is now obsolete. Owners can’t afford a slack month of results caused by managerial uncertainty.
Of course, there was a time when Kamara himself was part of what he describes as “our infamous merry-go-round of managers.”
To Soccer Saturday viewers, his persona may not appear as that of a manager in the most harsh and gruelling of industries. Yet, ‘Kammy’ enjoyed remarkable success as Bradford City manager after replacing Lennie Lawrence in 1995. Tasked with keeping the Bantams in the division, he took the club on a run of three defeats in thirteen games to claim promotion through the playoffs – a period that Kamara describes as “unbelievable.”
Could he be tempted to hop back on the merry-go-round? “No chance”, he tells me. “I have a fantastic career now, which hopefully is still climbing.” He backtracks slightly though. As we are so often told, “you can never say never in this game.”
Such has been the nature of his success since joining Sky Sports – Goals on Sunday is now in its fifteenth year, it is easy to forget Kamara’s success on both sides of the touchline.
Despite a somewhat nomadic playing career spanning ten different clubs; ‘Kammy’ assures me that he can have no complaints.
“I loved all the clubs I played for. When I was a kid it was my ambition to play for Middlesbrough, and my dream to play for Leeds – and I was lucky enough to do both.
“I had two promotions with Swindon, and one with Leeds. I played in the top division with Luton, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Leeds – there are so many fond memories. I have been very lucky in that I have been happy in all aspects of my career. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Along with more conventional stints at Portsmouth, Swindon, Brentford, Stoke, Luton, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield United and ‘Boro, Kamara’s on-field career is framed by two less than traditional spells.
His career – he admits – was fortuitous in its beginnings. After following his father into the Royal Navy, his break came when ex-Liverpool striker and then-Portsmouth manager Ian St. John spotted him playing for the Navy. Although his foray into naval life came at the detriment of an appearance for Middlesbrough in the FA Youth Cup Final, Kamara insists that the experience aided his development.
“The navy was good for my football career – I may not have had the career I had if I hadn’t been spotted playing for them.”
Seventeen years after playing his final match for Bradford City – who he would then go on to manage – ‘Kammy’ turned out twice for Welshpool Town in the Mid Wales Football League.
The story matches up with the perception of Kamara as a jovial character in his most famous guise on Gillette Soccer Saturday. He explains to me that his brief venture into Wales’ lower leagues came as a favour to a club in crisis.
“Jeff Stelling laughed at one of their results on Soccer Saturday when they had got beat 10-1”, he recalls. “The manager explained that the only reason the team was still running was thanks to funding by the good people of Welshpool, as the club had no money for wages, and all the best players had gone on to pastures new. I played twice – once with Paul Merson – just to help in putting them on the map and getting a few people through the turnstiles.”
As Kamara admits, Soccer Saturday has reinvented him as a television personality and excitable pundit. Partial to the occasional gaffe, he has thrived in his role as a free-spirited reporter.
“My fortunes have turned around and it appears that everyone seems to love watching my antics unfold with the panel.”
Over the years, he has coined multiple new phrases. ‘Fighting like beavers’ has claimed cult notoriety and his autobiography carries the title ‘Mr Unbelievable’ in reference to his penchant for the word.
“I can’t tell you where they come from”, he admits – “just out of my mouth, along with lots of other crazy things!”
Most famous, perhaps, was a Saturday afternoon at Fratton Park when ‘Kammy’ failed to notice Anthony Vanden Borre’s red card whilst playing for Portsmouth. The incident went viral immediately and gave Kamara cult status amongst football fans. He laughs when recalling the incident, joking that “I wasn’t the only person at the ground to miss the sending-off, but unfortunately I was the only one on air!”
It is this happy-go-lucky attitude that has engrained Kamara’s name in footballing folklore. From Middlesbrough council flat to Royal Navy, ‘Kammy’s’ inspirational rise has made him the pundit of the people.
Photographs: Chris Kamara, Sky Sports