Chris Kamara himself had the archetypal career of a good honest professional. He played for Portsmouth, Swindon Town, Brentford, Stoke City, Leeds United, Luton Town, Sheffield United and Bradford City. He also managed both Bradford City and Stoke City.
Whilst never hitting the heights – although he did win a Championship medal under Howard Wilkinson at Leeds in 1991-92, when a championship medal meant the finest team in the top tier - he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t the best player in the world. Even if he was always one of the most honest and determined.
I ask him who the best player he ever played with was. Without missing a beat Chris replies: “Graeme Souness. He was a hero of mine when I was starting out with Boro. He was simply outstanding. His performances got him a move to an incredible Liverpool side and he fitted in perfectly. He never got the credit he deserved. He was a colossus. Not only could he look after himself but he could play a bit as well. People tend to forget that.”
I always love hearing football men talk approvingly of their football heroes. To listen to an ex professional footballer speak in hushed tones and with complete and utter respect about a player is validation of a player’s greatness in my book. It is the approval of your peers that counts in many industries. Football is no different. But for a journalist to hear such admiration is like being admitted into a secret circle, if only for a few precious minutes.
Who else I ask? “Eric Cantona”, he confides. He was a special player too. He had that charisma about him. He was a leader in his own way.”
“Some people castigated Howard Wilkinson [for selling Cantona] but for me he was the best manager I worked under. Here’s a story about what a coach he was:
“When he signed me for Leeds from Stoke he sat me down straight away in his office and said to me: ‘When you put that Leeds shirt on you only go to ground when you’re 100% certain of winning the ball. Because if you’re late and miss the tackle, or you don’t win it, then you’re out of the game, out of position – no help to your team-mates. And if you do that I will fine you. I want to concentrate on timing your tackles.’ He said the same thing to David Batty as well.
“Well, it made me think didn’t it. I had never really thought about football tactics like that before.
“He was a good man manager. Take the way he handled Batts. He was never shall we say the best trainer in the world, he’d be the first to admit that, all he wanted to do was play games. He could turn it on and off between training and playing games – which is a gift in itself, but I just wonder how certain managers would cope in dealing with characters like that nowadays?
“With your Paul McGraths and Ledley Kings, even going as far back as Steve Foster who I played with at Portsmouth – those lads who didn’t necessarily turn it on in training but never let you down on a Saturday and lived for that 90 minutes.”
Kamara makes an interesting point where modern managers may, to paraphrase the poet, know the price of every UEFA badge but not the value of team-spirit. There is, it would be fair to say, a smattering of current bosses employed at the top level who could fall into that category.
“Do you know what though?’ Kamara adds proudly smiling once again, “Batts and me never did get fined for missing a tackle!”
That familiar, reassuring laugh returns. Chris is a natural storyteller and his easy style is a joy for an interviewer. I can imagine what good value he’d be on a night out - drinking Sapporo beer in Sapporo proved that.
I ask him about characters in the game. “Mel Sterland was great, he just liked a laugh. He was a good lad. Carl Bradshaw at Sheffield United was another. He was the dressing room joker. He was always doing daft things like putting marzipan in people socks.”
I also ask Kammy what Vinnie Jones was like as a team-mate.
“Vinnie Jones!” he exclaims with a genuine fondness for an old friend, as Kammy starts to recount a story about the ex-Wimbledon hardman turned Hollywood actor.
“Me and the wife went to LA for a holiday not long ago. We’d forgotten he was out there to be honest. Anyway we did the whole Hollywood thing, you know, the studios and the sign, and what have you. Then we decided to do that tour they do, the one of the stars houses.
“There was this little Columbian guide doing the commentary. Lovely fella but let’s just say his English was better than my Spanish – but only just. Anyway there we are on the top deck going round all these stars houses, until we get to this one huge place, and the lad says: “Here we have Weenee Yo-nes house. I’m like ‘who’s Weenee Yo-nes to the wife thinking it’s some new star I’ve never heard of. She doesn’t know either. And then he says it again, this time more impatiently: “This is Weenee Yo-nes house! Who has heard of Weenee Yo-nes?”
“No-one answers and the coach moves on. We see Ron Howard's place and so on for a while before the route just happens to take us back to the same road as before. The Columbian guide, bless him, says: “there is Quentin Tarantino’s house – but next door to that is Weenee Yo-nes house”. It had obviously got to him that none of us on the coach knew who this star was. ‘This bloke must be huge’, I thought, if this Columbian lad is completely ignoring Quentin Tarantino’s house next door because he’s far more bothered about this Weenee Yo-nes.
“So, as there’s a few Brits on board someone shouts out, ‘give us a clue who what films Wee-nee Yo-nes has been in.’
And he goes: “Starred in 36 films – Lock, Stock…Gone in 60 Seconds, Snatch – you must know Weenee Yo-nes?!’ By now he’s getting really agitated, until suddenly I say, “He means Vinnie Jones! I know him! He’s a mate of mine”
Well, the little Columbian lad doesn’t believe me so the missus and I get off the bus and press the buzzer. And me and the wife get invited to a BBQ that Vinnie is having!! The look on the Columbian tour guide’s face was priceless!”
“But that’s Vinnie. He welcomed us in with open arms. He’s a very loyal bloke. He’s also a larger than life character. It was a funny day.”
Kammy, once he retired from playing with his last team, Bradford City, then became their manager.
During his successful two-year stint with the Bantams he got the team promoted to the second tier in 1995/96, before he began commentating. It is not widely recognised that the Bradford team which made it into the Premiership soon after contained the nucleus of the squad that he had assembled.
Opting for a role in the media he commentated for Radio Five Live and was soon offered a job at Sky Sports from where he has never looked back.
Kamara explains in his own imitable style:
“Jeff Stelling & me have saying for years we should do a DVD, (Best of Soccer Saturday DVD, out now) so we banged our heads together & came up with hopefully something we think will make people smile & laugh.
“For example the sending off down at Portsmouth v Blackburn of Anthony Vanden Borre that I missed when I first started out on Sky Sports.
[Not sure about the shirt and tie combo either Chris…].
“Some of the things that we’ve done are quite amusing looking back on it, especially early on in my commentating career.
“The Dutchman was too professional as he deliberately handled the ball & calmly walked off knowing he was going to get a red card. At the same time Avram Grant was about to make a substitution so I completely missed it,’ as he laughs that infectious laugh.
“The producer was going mental in my ear saying I’d missed it but by then it was too late. The ticker tape was already telling everyone he was off.
“Let’s just say I got a rollicking”, he says ruefully.
It was a mark of the man that he phoned the producer and apologised after the game, yet as he recounts, still incredulous to this day: “All hell then broke loose. Fox Sports got in touch, TV companies from places like China & Australia, radio stations from Holland and what have you. Sky ended up getting loads of coverage so thankfully it ended up ok in the end.”
Kammy now presents the successful Goals on Sunday with Ben Shepherd. I quiz him on his most ‘difficult’ guest. Far too diplomatic to criticise anyone, not that he would anyway, Kammy thinks for a moment before that smile of his re-appears.
“It would have to be Luis Boa Morte. Don’t get me wrong, he was a lovely bloke. Did well really for Arsenal for a while. It’s just that perhaps we got our wires crossed over how fluent he was in English.
“Every time I asked him a question all he came back with was: “ ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I would then ask: ‘What did you think of such and such’s goal?’ “And the reply would be: ‘good’.
“It was hard work over the two-and-a-half hours to say the least”, he says good-naturedly adding in a tone that suggests the merest hint of a smile: “It was a long morning. We didn’t have him back on again…”
“We’ve had some great guests too but Peter Reid is probably my favourite. He’s great company but he also knows his football. He is a true personality. He comes across as very relaxed – which makes for great TV”.
I could say the same about Chris Kamara.
Yet for all his genuine bonhomie and cheerfulness, the working-class lad who started out all those years ago cleaning boots as an apprentice at Middlesbrough turns serious when I ask him about Gary Speed.
Kamara’s voice drops and he speaks with an all too apparent pain coupled with a shock, which despite the passage of time still haunts him even now.
“Gary Speed was a good friend of mine. I practically grew up with him. It was one of the biggest shocks of my life when I heard the news. It was all so unreal. He was the happiest, kindest person who never appeared to have a care in the world. It just goes to show you just don’t know what goes on sometimes.
“He had such a great attitude. Sometimes when people pass away other says kind things about them but with Gary Speed you will never find a single soul with a bad word to say about him. It was a terrible, terrible thing.”
Ever the decent and positive human being that he is, Kamara picks out a particular match to articulate his praise of the late Wales manager. “People still talk about that goal he netted against Sheffield United where he scored a cracker and say I help set him up for it. I did nothing of the sort,” Kamara scoffs unwilling to take credit: “Gary did all the hard work. I just gave him the ball on the half-way line – it wasn’t me who ran half the length of the field…” He trails off, a dignified man with distress all-too evident in his voice.
“Terrible. Just terrible.”
Our interview is coming to an end. It had only been due to last a few minutes, but as it was we spoke for nearly an hour - it simply felt like a few minutes.
For a football lover such as Kamara, I have to ask him who he thinks will win the World Cup next year in Brazil.
Regaining his composure excitement returns to his voice eventually. “I would expect the home side to win it”, he says emphatically. Why I ask?
“Look at their form going into the Confederations Cup. They were in poor form. But they raised their game for an expectant nation. “
“I think we may have seen the best of that great Spanish team. The Germans have great players and always come to the fore – and I always believe England can win it”, explaining: “Roy Hodgson has decided that England should play to their strengths, we can’t play any other way than a high tempo style – why shouldn’t we win it?” he asks defiantly.
But then like most England fans, realism sets in again these days, and he says, this time with more certainty: “Playing the way we did against Montenegro and against Poland we will always give ourselves a chance. But if it’s boiling hot and the players are tiring, then I’m not sure.
“For me the favourites have to be Brazil”.
Changing up a gear he quickly becomes more animated at the evocative names originating from that vast, football crazy nation. “That Brazilian team next year – the first time they’ve played a World Cup on home soil since 1950 and even then they didn’t win it – have a chance to become immortals if they win in 2014. They will join the greats from their past – the Zico’s of that glorious 82 side, the Rivellino’s, the Garrincha’s, the Pele’s. The 2014 side has the chance to be bracketed with those legends. That should be motivation enough”.
The wonder in his voice is infectious. I can see why his players said they would run through brick walls for him at Bradford.
”Just imagine that…” For a magnificent second Kamara has transported me to Brazil and evoked some of my heroes.
Modest as ever, Kammy tells me as the interview winds down: “I always try to be neutral, never favouring one team over another. I try to be as professional as I can be, while also trying to make it fun and informative for the viewers.
“I have been very lucky to do what I’ve been doing. I love my job. I’ve never been Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the most I had at any club was three seasons – so to spend thirteen years at Sky Sports doing something I love, well I’m so lucky, and I try never to forget that.”
With an attitude like that no wonder the legend that is Chris Kamara works as a successful commentator nowadays.
The Best of Soccer Saturday DVD is out now.
Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29
Gilette Soccer Saturday: Cheers, Tears & Jeers is out now. Click the box below to buy a copy