Weekend Interview: ‘Unbelievable, Jeff’ - How Chris Kamara went from playing star to TV personality

Chris Kamara during his spell as manager of Bradford City at the end of what was a long career in football. (Picture: Gary Longtbottom)
Chris Kamara during his spell as manager of Bradford City at the end of what was a long career in football. (Picture: Gary Longtbottom)
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AS A boy growing up in Middlesbrough, Chris Kamara’s ambition was to play for his hometown club. His dream, however, was to join Leeds United.

Typically, he achieved both during a career in football that, just a couple of days short of his 60th birthday, shows no sign of easing up any time soon thanks to an enduring popularity as one of TV’s most familiar faces.

Chris Kamara playing for Leeds United in 1990.

Chris Kamara playing for Leeds United in 1990.

Things could, though, have panned out very, very differently with Kamara’s father insisting his 16-year-old son forget any dreams of becoming a footballer in favour of a much more secure life with the Royal Navy.

“I played for Middlesbrough Boys and was hoping to be an apprentice at Boro,” he says to The Yorkshire Post ahead of reaching his landmark birthday on Christmas Day. “But my dad was having none of it.

“He made my brother go into the Army and me into the Navy. He had been in the Navy, too. You would never do that to your kids today but it was different back then. He ruled the roost and didn’t want me to be a waster in Middlesbrough, that was pretty much his explanation.

“So, I left home and went into the Navy. The next thing I knew I was on a six-week training period in Devon.”

Playing for Howard Wilkinson at Leeds helped me hugely with that. I became a real student of the game under Howard, who was the first manager to explain to me what I was doing wrong rather than just scream at me.

Chris Kamara

Kamara would, in fact, spend just four-and-a-half months in the Navy. Two goals in an Under-18s match between the Navy and Portsmouth caught the eye of the south coast club, who were soon buying him out of the Forces for £200.

“Pompey will probably say it was the worst business they ever did,” he laughs. “But, for me, it changed everything. A letter went from the Admiral of the Navy to my Dad, explaining how they would take me back if things didn’t work out.

“That smoothed things over at home. Though, to be fair, I was living away by then and would have made the decision myself.”

The Navy’s loss was very much football’s gain. Within three months, Kamara was making his first-team debut at Fratton Park as a striker alongside George Graham. A first senior goal followed a few days later against Bolton Wanderers.

“Big Sam (Allardyce) taught me a lesson that day,” he adds. “The ball came towards us and he clattered me in the head. I was seeing stars but Sam just walked away, looking all angelic. I knew then I had to toughen up.”

It was a lesson Kamara heeded in a playing career that brought a hat-trick of promotions, the third of those coming at Leeds under Howard Wilkinson in 1990.

A move into management yielded another promotion at Bradford City but it is nearly two decades since Kamara last occupied a dugout. A short, unhappy spell at the helm of Stoke City ended in April, 1998, and since then he has carved out a hugely successful career in the media.

Sky Sports is most commonly associated with Kamara but, as appearances such as last year’s with Mary Berry on ‘The Great Sport Relief Bake-Off’ illustrate, his appeal far transcends the world of sport.

“My life is fantastic and I am very fortunate,” he said. “I played, coached, managed and am now on TV talking about the game. I first worked for Sky (as a pundit) when manager of Bradford.

“We had a decent opening month in what is now the Championship and I was named Manager of the Month. That is presumably why I was asked by Sky to work on their first live Football League game at Sheffield United.

“I thought, ‘Why not? It is only 40 minutes from my house’. Unfortunately, it turned out I wasn’t at Bramall Lane but down in Isleworth, in the Sky studio.

“Everything went fine and then there was another game on live straight afterwards. Gerry Francis was down to work on that one but an accident on the M4 meant the traffic was so heavy he couldn’t make it.

“Me and Marcus (Buckland, presenter) ended up doing six hours, straight through, and the bosses were really pleased.”

Kamara’s media career was up and running. Soon, he was pioneering a format for ‘Soccer Saturday’, whereby he reported direct into the camera from matches around the country, that took a while to catch on but is now familiar to all viewers. “Sky still call it ‘Kammy-Cam’ today,” he says proudly.

The coining of the catchphrase ‘Unbelievable, Jeff’ and his enthusiastic reporting style soon made Kamara a popular fixture of Saturday afternoons. The next step saw him conduct post-match interviews and co-anchor ‘Goals on Sunday’.

“Interviewing managers came pretty easy – even if the first couple were quite daunting,” he adds. “Obviously, I had been on the other side of the fence as a manager so understood a bit more how they were feeling.

“I also tried to be constructive. Playing for Howard Wilkinson at Leeds helped me hugely with that. I became a real student of the game under Howard, who was the first manager to explain to me what I was doing wrong rather than just scream at me.

“He gave me a real understanding of the game and a real education. People laugh when they hear me and Vinnie Jones played in midfield together at Leeds, presuming we were sent off every week.

“But, because Howard was guiding us and teaching us, we weren’t anything like that. I am not sure either of us got booked at all when playing together. That was down to Howard.”

Kamara growing up as a Leeds fan in the Revie era is well documented. It does not, though, impact on how he reports for Sky.

“I am genuinely 100 per cent neutral,” he says. “Of course, there are some scores I look for first because of where I have been in my career. But I think it is important I am seen as neutral or it wouldn’t work.

“Steve Gibson thought for a long time I was hard on Middlesbrough because I was trying too hard to justify myself. He doesn’t any more but, for a time, he did think that was the case.

“People sometimes do say I could be like Jeff Stelling, whose support of Hartlepool is a big part of the show.

“But, to me, the viewers wouldn’t stand for it.

“Doing that with Hartlepool is fine but if it was a bigger club like Leeds or whoever then it wouldn’t work. It would antagonise rival fans.”

As successful a career as Kamara has carved out in front of the cameras over these past two decades, The Yorkshire Post wonders if management still has a lure for the 59-year-old.

“Not so long ago, a League One club did approach me,” he says. “I know the chairman well and he asked the question. But I told him that I genuinely love what I do at Sky.

“People might hear that and think, ‘He doesn’t want the stress’. But my job is stressful. It is live TV and anything can happen. But great fun.”

The Chris Kamara story...

BORN on December 25, 1957, Chris Kamara grew up in Middlesbrough. Current Boro chairman Steve Gibson was a school friend and the pair would attend games at the Riverside together.

Kamara joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old but was spotted by Portsmouth in a youth team game just a few months later. His debut followed in August, 1975.

Two years later, he moved to Swindon Town, where he would have two spells (1977-1981 & 1985-88) and win two promotions. He was also voted Player of the Year at the County Ground in 1979-80. Kamara returned to Fratton Park briefly in 1981 before spending four years at Brentford.

Stoke City signed the midfielder in 1988 before Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson brought Kamara back to his native Yorkshire in January, 1990. Five months later, Kamara provided the assist for Lee Chapman to clinch the Second Division championship.

Further moves followed to Luton Town, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough before he joined Bradford City in the summer of 1995 as player-coach. He was appointed manager the following November and subsequently led the Bantams to promotion via the play-offs. Kamara had a short spell as Stoke manager before moving into the media full-time.