Business & Economy
May 12, 2023
Chris Kamara is writing a book. Due for release at the end of the year, ‘Kammy, My Unbelievable Life’, promises to be a searingly honest and fascinating account, highlighting his journey from the streets of Middlesbrough to hard-tackling, much-travelled footballer and broadcasting national treasure. TV presenter, commentator, (sometimes masked) singer, footballer, manager and campaigner, Kammy’s action-packed career has made him a bona fide British hero. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Kammy, as he’s affectionately known, had a tough upbringing, fought racism on the terraces during his playing career and has, in recent years, dealt with a rare neurological condition – apraxia of speech – which has affected his voice and delivery, and forced him to quit Sky Sports after nearly 25 years. Despite this, Kammy’s star has only risen as he’s met every challenge with courage, determination and his infectious smile and laugh. And, as he puts the finishing touches to his autobiography, he tells Colin Young what to expect.
A year ago, Chris Kamara was ready to step away from the public eye for good.
But 2023 had different ideas for him.
If only there was a catchphrase to express how good this year has been already for Middlesbrough-born Kammy and his family.
It got off to a flying start when he was awarded an MBE in the King’s first New Year’s Honours List, in recognition of his services to football, charity and anti-racism.
Nominated by Marie Curie and Show Racism The Red Card, he travelled to Windsor Castle in March to collect his award with wife Anne and sons Ben and Jack.
The Duke of Cambridge, president-designate of the Football Association, was on duty to hand out the medals and gongs on that sunny day.
And it was no surprise to discover the heir to the throne was a huge Kammy fan.
It turns out the prince was an avid and regular viewer of Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday in his University of St Andrews days and, it’s highly likely, was a participant in the drinking game so popular among his generation.
The rules were simple; every time Kamara said ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ – which was quite often – players in student union bars across the country had to down their pints.
No wonder Kamara’s so popular.
It might also explain why the Duke’s official Twitter account put out a unique tribute to him after he had been presented with his gong.
‘We’re off to Windsor Castle, where there’s been an MBE – but for who @chris_kammy?’
The tweet summed up a surreal day for Chris.
“It was an amazing occasion from start to finish,” he says.
“We travelled down the night before; the four of us stayed in a beautiful hotel next to Windsor Castle, had a meal and reminisced about some of the amazing things that have happened over the years.
“I just kept thinking, ‘how has this scruffy kid from the Boro ended up here, receiving an MBE in the King’s first honours?’
“It was such an incredible occasion; we met James Milner and Richard Bevan, the head of the League Managers’ Association, beforehand, and we were all so nervous and excited.
“And to be able to share it with Anne, Ben and Jack, and see them at the investiture, was perfect.
“The prince is a huge football fan; I know he’s an Aston Villa supporter, so we chatted about that. He’s very knowledgeable on the game.
“He’d sent me a letter of congratulations when the MBE was announced, so I was able to thank him for that, and he said it was well-deserved and long-overdue, which was amazing to hear.
“And then he asked how I was, which was overwhelming and totally unexpected.”
The accolades have not stopped there.
In the last month, he’s been presented with the Contribution to League Football Award, at the EFL’s end-of-season honours night at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel, which he received from long-time Sky colleague, and well-known Hartlepudlian, Jeff Stelling.
His family and close friends were in the audience to see Chris pick up an award to recognise his long career as a player, manager and pundit, which helped maintain the profile of the Football League for nearly 40 years.
But best of all so far this year? His appearance on The Masked Singer…
Dressed as a ghost and singing with a Scottish accent, Kamara was unveiled by the panel on the hit ITV show at the turn of the year, just days after his MBE was announced.
In a sweet clip posted on social media, among those screaming ‘take it off’ at home were the Kamaras’ four grandchildren.
It’s been viewed more than ten million times, although Chris admits most of those clicks are his.
He says: “It’s just the best video, and I still watch it.
“It was the whole reason I did the programme; I’d have paid a million pounds to see that reaction from the kids.
“I’m so proud I did it.
“The reaction from the public was amazing too; it was a brilliant start to the year.
“I spent most of last year thinking I was going to pack it in, that I wasn’t going to do any more TV, charity work or whatever. Nothing.
“I was just going to disappear off the face of the earth, like people do.
“I often think and wonder about people I played with, or players from the England team of 20 years ago, for example.
“Where are these people now? You don’t hear from them.
“I was just going to disappear into obscurity.
“Thankfully, people around me helped me get back, either by me being open or telling my story.”
And telling his story is exactly what he has been doing for the last four months, penning his autobiography, ‘Kammy, My Unbelievable Life’, which will be published by Pan MacMillan in October.
“It has been really enjoyable,” he says.
“Looking back on some of the clips, shows and madness from the last 20-odd years has been a lot of fun. There have been some great laughs.
“I’d forgotten about some of the shows and things I’ve got up to over the years.
“I was never a big fan of watching myself back, and I don’t want to watch myself now, but it’s been a laugh seeing some of the programmes.
“I was allowed to be myself, and I feel very fortunate.”
The book charts his remarkable rise from the streets of Park End estate, in Middlesbrough, where he grew up and went to primary and secondary school with Steve Gibson, who had his own path in football to follow.
The pair remain close friends.
“My brother from another mother,” says Chris.
Gibson was set to become the chairman who would save their club and take them to the Premier League, Europe and silverware, and build a new, modern stadium to replace Ayresome Park – where they had sneaked in as kids to see their heroes John Hickton and Eric McMordie.
Kamara was the player.
Although forced to leave the town by his father to join the Royal Navy, he was offered an escape route by Portsmouth after impressing in a friendly, and he signed for the club in 1974.
The manager Ian St John paid £200.
“The worst deal in the club’s history,” he jokes to this day.
He went on to make more than 600 appearances in 18 years, including a short loan spell towards the end of his career, which allowed him to fulfil an ambition of playing for his hometown team at Ayresome Park.
By that stage, Kamara had already lived out his boyhood dream – to play for Leeds United, where he enjoyed his most successful period as a player.
He had brief spells as a manager with Bradford City and Stoke City before he joined Sky Sports permanently, securing a place in the hearts of the nation’s football fans as a pundit, co-commentator or programme host with his very unique style.
Walk a few steps in his company on the streets and you will hear his catchphrase ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ an awful lot.
“I don’t think there has been a single day when I haven’t heard it,” he says.
“But I love it. I honestly don’t mind it.
“Can you imagine having a job where people walk up to you smiling, say ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ and then ask for a selfie!?”
Soccer Saturday was to earn cult status, mainly thanks to the Kamara and Stelling double act.
Despite being forged in Teesside, however, the pair never met until a couple of days before they were due to appear on screen together.
They would work alongside each other for more than 20 years, Kamara as the roving reporter who was first to use the in-vision cameras which are now the staple of any Saturday afternoon results service.
He says: “It was called Kamara-cam back then.
“Ian Condron, the producer of Soccer Saturday, said he had a new role for me and wanted me to report from games with a cameraman, but not show any of the match.
“I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t convinced it would work.
“Jeff thought it was unnecessary in his fast-flowing results service, and nobody could see the benefit of watching a reporter talking with the crowd behind him when the viewers couldn’t see the action.
“Thankfully, though, Condo persevered.
“We worked hard to get it right, but the first time we went live it was a disaster.
“I ended up getting into a scrap on screen with a local cameraman because we were in his spot, and I was certain the feature would be pulled the next week.
“Thankfully, Tim Lovejoy and Helen Chamberlain watched the clip and loved it.
“They featured it on Sky’s Soccer AM programme the following week and had a laugh about it.
“It really took off from there.”
Chris was to appear regularly on Saturday afternoons, and as a co-presenter on the relaxed and informative Goals On Sunday, where he built an on-screen bond and off-screen friendship with Ben Shephard.
Happy to laugh at himself, Kamara’s career took an unexpected turn thanks to a mistake during a routine match report on April 3, 2010.
Just as his football career had started at Fratton Park, so his TV career was about to take another path, thanks to a genuine mistake in the downpour at the same ground.
‘We’re off to Fratton Park, where there’s been a red card – but for who Chris Kamara?’, asked Stelling.
What followed was a career-changing moment – described by comedian Lee Mack as perfect comic timing – which was to eventually elevate him into the TV mainstream.
“I don’t know, Jeff? Has there? I must have missed that… is it a red card?”
It remains one of the funniest and most iconic moments of Soccer Saturday’s coverage in Kammy’s 24 years on the show.
There are very few mainstream entertainment programmes he has not appeared on across the last decade, and he has earned serious and long-term roles which have further endeared him to a wider audience.
Recognising his close relationship with Good Morning Britain presenter Shephard on their Goals On Sunday show, ITV execs put the pair together for Saturday night primetime production Ninja Warrior UK.
They have now recorded six series, and since the first one, Chris has hosted Cash In The Attic, The Games and UK’s Strongest Man too.
There have also been plenty of magical moments for Kammy, which are certain to feature in the new book – such as the time he appeared on an Alan Carr Christmas special with Channing Tatum and failed to recognise the Hollywood A-lister, resulting in a serious phone/internet search nightmare.
Or the time he met Sunderland’s then manager Roy Keane in a hotel lift.
The Irishman’s young team were struggling in the Premier League at the time, and he was on the brink of quitting Wearside.
Keane and Kammy got in together on the top floor. ‘Going down,’ said the lift announcer.
“I think she’s talking to you, Roy,” said Chris. They both laughed. Just.
His work has been severely hindered over the last two years by his illness, which became public knowledge in March when he was forced to quit his Sky role.
And he’s had numerous important appointments in his battle against apraxia of speech since.
GPs, neurosurgeons, MRI and DAT scans, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, voice therapy, dietician – the list is endless.
One appointment he is looking forward to, though, is a September meeting at the House of Commons with MP Saqib Bhatti, who is signed up to raise more awareness of apraxia and similar conditions.
Saqib is the local MP of 21-year-old Mikey Akers, who has had verbal dyspraxia since the age of two, and has campaigned tirelessly to improve services, education and support for people affected by speech conditions.
Services and support for children and adults who have speech and similar neurological conditions is severely underfunded.
The MP has already brought the issue up in the House and, after a question to former Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, has arranged meetings with the relevant ministers.
Kamara and Mikey met during the filming of his documentary into his condition and his battle to recover.
One poignant moment between the pair proved the inspiration for his tome – and ignited his determination to do more for others, while facing his personal battles.
Chris says: “A lot of people had approached me about doing a programme about apraxia after the diagnosis; Shep asked me, I trust him implicitly, so could never say no to him.
“He told me I was in a unique position to help raise the profile of this little known condition for kids and people who suffer from it, and this could be the most important match of my life because I would be helping people who don’t have the platform, opportunity or the voice to get help.
“Mikey said to me I can’t quit because I have given people like him a voice now, and that is one of the main reasons for writing the book.
“If this can raise awareness and give one person the support they need, that is fantastic.
“I knew of the condition when I was diagnosed, but I didn’t really know a great deal about apraxia or dyspraxia.
“It affects five per cent of not just adults, but children, so it is more common than you think, and yet not many people know about it.
“My voice might not sound like my voice anymore to me, but if it is a voice which can still help people like Mikey, then I am happy to carry on.”