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Chris Kamara sits down with Jade Cradock to reflect on his career in the Beautiful Game. And – with his voice more powerful than ever – how his life has changed since developing apraxia.
It has been little over a year since Chris Kamara stepped down from his role on Soccer Saturday. It’s fair to say we’re all missing him. The popular, warm, effervescent former footballer found a natural fit in his life on some of Sky’s biggest football shows. He was everyone’s favourite matchday reporter (apologies to other matchday reporters, but there will always be only one Kammy) on Soccer Saturday. His joy and enthusiasm were infectious, his warmth made viewers feel like a close friend. Kamara’s odd gaffe – ‘I don’t know, Jeff!’ in response to his co-star’s lead-in ‘There’s been a red card, Chris, but to who?’ became a viral sensation which only served to reinforce his legendary status.
His departure from our screens last summer left an enormous, unfillable hole. Sadly, Chris, or Kammy, as he’s more affectionately called by the football family, had to step away due to ill health. Fans would later learn that Kamara was suffering from apraxia – a neurological condition that affects speech and movement. This condition has taken an incredible toll on the happy-go-lucky Middlesbrough man, as he details in his frank, and emotional memoir – My Unbelievable Life – where now he is finding himself in a better place physically and mentally to open up.
But when I sat down with the former Leeds player to discuss the book, a heartfelt apology was the first thing to come out of his mouth, determined, he told me: “Firstly, I was stupidly ashamed of my condition, so I’d like to apologise to every single person who has a speech problem or neurological problem. I didn’t particularly deal with that problem very well in the first place, so I want to put the record straight and raise awareness.”
'Lost for Words' Chris Kamara poses for a photoshoot with the ITV in December 2022 | ITV/Shutterstock
The book certainly does that, in what readers will find a very moving and, at times, heart-breaking portrayal. And while it’s natural that people would be both interested and concerned about his well-being, it’s clear that he feels he owes an explanation. It is easy to see that this has been an incredibly testing time for Kamara, and it is truly a big ask for him to speak out earlier, considering this disease has affected his very ability to speak. Now, however, Kamara can be candid in outlining his symptoms and struggles. When asked how he’s doing on the day of the interview, he answers in his typical positive way: “I’m good, I’m on the mend. I’m talking fluently which I couldn’t do before, so all is good.”
Writing the book and reflecting on what he’s been through, he admits, has been emotional – another side effect, of his health struggles. “I don’t have a thyroid anymore; that plays with your hormones. It upsets me to actually read the book because it’s what I went through and the support that I’ve had makes me quite emotional.”
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that the football community would be quick to rally behind a man who has become a hero on and off the pitch. Yet, Kammy seems taken aback by the way people have responded since telling the world about what he’s going through. “The football family is amazing. I never really thought in a million years that football fans of other clubs would be concerned about me, but I now realise that they are.”
And Kammy has needed that support now more than ever, the book touches on some very difficult times with his mental health. Whilst this has increasingly become a priority in recent years, the subject of mental health in football is largely still playing catch-up. Especially for players of Kamara’s generation, it can be even more taboo to discuss. Kammy himself acknowledges his own shortcomings when it comes to such matters: “I was a dinosaur, an ostrich sticking my head in the sand, saying I’m all right, don’t worry about me, I don’t need to see anybody, I’ll carry on regardless. Now I realise that was wrong. Totally wrong.”
Chris Kamara stands amoungs fans during the Cyrille Regis Memorial Service at The Hawthorns in 2018 | Getty Images
From his own recent experiences, he is now quick to advocate for opening up: “Suffering made me realise the importance of speaking to people. Whatever you do, people are there to help you and will help you if you tell them what is going on. If you don’t tell them, they can’t help you. The help I’ve had has been absolutely amazing; the people who’ve come forward, the fans who’ve accepted me and my condition and said, ‘We don’t care, you’re still Kammy’ have been brilliant. But it’s been a learning curve for me.”
Given Kammy’s struggles and recent discussions around sport and long-term brain trauma – which in September also saw the creation of the Football Brain Health Fund by the PFA and Premier League – it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. In the book, Kammy speaks of his own concerns over the possible links between his health struggles and playing football. Thankfully, testing dispelled such worries, but it is still something that he reflects on. “There are too many cases now to think it’s a coincidence. This year, I lost a friend of mine, Gordon McQueen, who I worked with on Sky, and you worry, ‘is that my problem? Has heading the ball become too much for my brain and have I got dementia or Alzheimer’s?’ I’m not sure how you resolve the matter.”
There is still a lot to learn and considerable progress to be made, that’s for sure. However, in a footballing career spanning twenty-plus years, Kammy has seen a lot, and indeed played his part in the sport’s evolution. Particularly when it comes to the issue of racism, which he suffered first-hand, initially as a young fan just going to watch matches, then later as a player, including from his own teammates.
He speaks with pride of the work he’s been involved with at the forefront of the Show Racism the Red Card campaign, with his first experience coming back in 1996: “We hired a car at Dublin Airport, and we went round all of the schools educating the children on racism. Back then, there were hardly any black people in the Dublin area, and we went to the outskirts as well – but because I’d been a footballer, chatting to the kids became acceptable. We’ve continued throughout the years with Show Racism the Red Card, and it’s built up now to a fabulous workforce.”
Football gave Kammy a point of connection, but how different his life could have been if not for his initial lucky break with Portsmouth. As a youngster training with Boro’ Boys, it seemed as if he was set on a path to his home club of Middlesbrough. Everything was turned around when the prospect of him being offered terms was broached with his dad, who had then signed him up for the Navy. And Kammy’s dream of being a professional footballer was over before it even began. Well, nearly. Whilst playing for the Navy football team, Kammy came up against Portsmouth, who offered him the chance to sign, so of course there’s no way he could turn it down?
Chris Kamara made 84 appearances for Pompey during two spells at Fratton Park as a player | Portsmouth FC
“Well, if my dad had been in Portsmouth, I would have still been in the Navy!” he laughs, showing that infectious good humour that connects him to people regardless of demographic. “But I was away from home, I could make my own decisions, but I still had to get a letter from the admiral to say if things went wrong in football I could always return to the Navy. I’m not sure I would have done, but that was the safety valve for my dad and he accepted it – he had to. And it couldn’t have worked out better.”
A life as a professional footballer was his reward, but there was no shirking of duties in those days. This was the era where young players cleaned the seniors’ boots and swept the terraces. But even in this, Kammy managed to find the silver lining. “Well, it was good for me because it wasn’t as bad as cleaning the mess. Cleaning your uniform, making sure your boots were shined in the Navy every single day. You had an inspection every morning – at 9 o’clock the petty officer would come in – and if you weren’t up to scratch you got a disciplinary. That meant working in the kitchen for an hour or two, so going to football, cleaning a few dressing rooms, sweeping out a few terraces was heaven!”
Heaven or not, it was just part and parcel of Kammy’s realisation of a boyhood dream, playing football in a team managed by Ian St John, alongside the likes of George Graham. And he speaks of that first season at Portsmouth with great fondness despite suffering relegation. “It was great for me; I was 17 years old and I’m making my debut against Luton Town, it was surreal, really surreal – I should have been on the Ark Royal or something like that, on a ship somewhere.
“I loved every minute, so the fact that we got relegated didn’t hurt me. I was such a young age, and you feel you’ve got the world in front of you. People like George Graham were amazing, such a help to a youngster like myself. He took me under his wing, and I still owe him a few pints to this day!”
A move to Swindon followed, and in a memorable victory over Arsenal in the League Cup quarter-final, Kammy explains that his career could have taken a very different turn. “I was 19 then, you think you’re going to be playing in games like that every week. It was great, coming up directly against Liam Brady who was such a fabulous player. I always remember after that game, Bobby Smith, the manager, called me into his office. Ron Atkinson was the manager of Manchester United at the time and Bobby wanted me to speak to him, he said this could be your next manager, and I thought ‘Great, I’m on my way to Manchester United’.” Two weeks later, Ron signed a player called Remi Moses and Chris Kamara didn’t go to Manchester United: “I think Leeds fans will be happy I didn’t.”
Kamara’s journey through football and, indeed life, seems peppered with these pivotal moments, including his next move which took him to Leeds, but oh so nearly had him moving back home to Middlesbrough. “[Stoke manager] Alan Ball didn’t have any sort of relationship with [Leeds manager] Howard Wilkinson, so unbeknown to me they’d been trying to sign me at Elland Road. I got a call from a journalist, and he said to me, ‘Look, Alan Ball’s prepared to sell you, but he won’t take Howard’s calls. Here’s my number, if they decide to sell you to any club whatsoever, please give me a ring.’
“So I got called into Bally’s office, and he said, ‘I’ve got Middlesbrough manager Bruce Rioch on the phone.’ I spoke to Bruce and he said, ‘I’d love you to come to Boro’ and give us a bit of experience with the young players that we have – Mowbray, Ripley, Pallister, Cooper.’ So I went, ‘Yeah, great, I’d love to.’ I phoned the journalist and I said, ‘I’ve been given permission to speak to Boro’.’ So he said, ‘Sit by the phone.’
“Within an hour, he called back and said, ‘Look, on your way to Boro’, just pop off at Elland Road and then you can go on to Boro’.’ Unbeknown to me, they’d decided I couldn’t leave the ground without signing for Leeds. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but if I’d known that, I would probably have gone to Middlesborough first, then Leeds, to ease my conscience. Anyway, I got to Leeds and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Chris Kamara rallys the troops for Leeds United during a match against Oldham, circa 1990 | Getty Images
Leeds also proved eye-opening for Kamara, who, after spells in the Fourth, Third and Second Divisions, would for the first time find himself in the top flight, introducing him to a whole new way of being a professional footballer.
He cites ‘everything’ as changing in his day-to-day career. “Every club I’d been at, you would eat at home in the morning and then after training you’d eat at home, but at Leeds you’d have breakfast with all of the players and lunch after training. There was the hydration side of it; you’d get weighed every single day; warm downs; vitamins. Arsene Wenger gets credited for all of those things, but Howard was doing it long before.”
And if the First Division was a game-changer, little could Kammy imagine what was to follow, as he appeared in the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1992 with Sheffield United. Some twenty years on, he admits it was impossible to foresee the evolution of the Premier League, not least in terms of the finances.
“I remember Rodney Marsh saying on Soccer Saturday a footballer will earn £100,000 a week soon and everyone, myself included, laughed, ‘Nah, that’ll never happen,’ but that’s small fry now! When I think back to the ’66 World Cup, that England team was full of absolute superstars, and they barely earned more than the average wage. They obviously lived in their own houses, but they all had mortgages and had to pay for them. If you’d have asked me back then would footballers be earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, I’d have said no way. I don’t begrudge them in any way, shape, or form.”
Indeed, despite the obvious financial allure, Kammy is adamant that he’s glad he had his career when he did: “You can’t change the course of history. If I’d have gone to Middlesbrough, instead of going to Leeds, I might have ended up never playing for Leeds and I ended up playing for Boro’ as well eventually. So, I’m delighted I had my time as a player. I came through the game, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.”
After his footballing days came to an end, Kammy moved into management with a spell at Bradford he “absolutely loved” – before a job at Stoke – a club he describes as being close to his heart. He admits to me honestly that he failed miserably.
Stoke’s loss would prove to be Sky and the football-watching hordes’ gain as he became the face of Soccer Saturday. Although Kamara is quick to name Jeff Stelling as sharing that honour. Indeed, has there ever been a more wholesome footballing double act than Jeff and Kammy? Surely such an idea is unthinkable, or, as Kammy would say, ‘Unbelievable, Jeff!’
Starting at Sky before it became the juggernaut it is today, Kammy had little idea of what he was getting himself into: “Initially, I did midweek Soccer Specials with Rodney Marsh, George Best, Frank McLintock, Clive Allen, Alan Mullery – all those top, top players, who were great.
“Then the producer said to me, ‘We’re thinking of sending you out on the road doing reports,’ and I said, ‘Well, people haven’t really got their heads around four blokes watching the screens in the studio.’ He just replied, ‘Do you want to do it or not?’ So, I said, ‘Yeah.’ And that’s how KamaraCam was born and I became a household name.”
That household name was further popularised with Kammy let loose at stadiums around the country for Soccer AM, taking a sneak peek behind the scenes, in the dressing rooms, chatting with managers. It seems fantastical these days when football grounds appear to be as impenetrable as Fort Knox. Kammy agrees: “The thing is back in that day I could ring a manager and he would allow me free access; in this day and age, you couldn’t get anywhere near it. Even in my later days, I would phone Jose Mourinho and say, ‘Can I go round your dressing room?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah.’ I did it at Man U, I did it at Chelsea with him. Now I look back and I think how on earth did we get permission for that?”
Running riot: Chris Kamara makes a last minute dash for the stufio at Riverside Stadium | Getty Images
How fans would long to see Kammy running riot once more inside Tottenham’s futuristic maze, playing havoc with Man City’s multimillion-pound line-up in the dressing rooms at the Etihad or having a pre-match chinwag with Arteta. But football, as Kammy recognises, evolves.
After having spent a career spanning some fifty years in the sport, Kammy understands the game, but, more than that, he loves it. And it’s that love and enthusiasm that brought him a legion of fans, who even now, only must utter two indelible words to conjure their hero – ‘Unbelievable, Jeff.’ It’s a phrase that fans would hear every Saturday, and which would always bring a smile (or, to those of a liquid persuasion, a drinking challenge), but with Kammy’s departure because of his ill health, his words have been noticeably silent.
Yet, as Kammy continues to battle apraxia – this disease which threatened to rob this passionate communicator of his speech – this book proves that his voice is now more powerful than ever. As he speaks out on the disease, mental health, racism and more, offering up his incredible story to others. Now, more than ever, when Kammy speaks, listening to him is a singular privilege.
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