Chris Kamara: One-on-One

'Mr Unbelievable', Chris Kamara, answers readers' questions back in December 2010 on everything from his playing days to his cult status as a presenter.

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In Chris Kamara’s first ‘unbelievable’ revelation in a series of many during his interview with FFT, he claims he was once a transfer target for Manchester United.

“It’s true,” he says, relaxing in a salubrious west London hotel. “I was at Swindon and my manager Bobby Smith said, ‘Big Ron’s coming to watch you.’ We were playing in the 1980 semi-final of the League Cup against Wolves, but I had the flu and didn’t play so well. I’m not saying that’s the reason he didn’t sign me, but Ron went back to his old club, West Brom, and signed Remi Moses instead.”

Kamara is surrounded by a buzz of football activity in the hotel foyer, with the current West Brom squad sipping Diet Cokes on the eve of one of many London away trips this season, while Jeff Stelling and his Soccer Saturday panellists plan tomorrow’s show over a pint at the bar. Kamara, meanwhile, is discussing the show that has afforded him far more fame than his career as a reputable midfield enforcer and his stints as a gaffer with Bradford and Stoke.

“I’m more famous now than I ever was as a player or a manager, even though I played in the Premier League and managed Bradford to a play-off victory at Wembley,” he smiles. “That’s the power of telly, though. I’m probably more recognisable than 99.9% of the players in the game because I’m in people’s front rooms.”

Judging by FourFourTwo’s bulging inbox of readers’ questions for ‘Kammy’, he’s pretty popular, too. Over to you...

What made you go into the Royal Navy as a kid, Kammy?
Aidan Robinson, via email
Well, my dad was in the Royal Navy, so he forced me to go in. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous now, but that’s how it was when I was young. My dad ruled the roost and he was a bit wary of me and my brother being in Middlesbrough and ending up on the dole. Even though I had a chance to sign for Boro as an apprentice, he wanted me to get out of the town, so I did. I was a ‘stoker’ in the navy – I worked in the engine room, and never left dry land – but I played football all the time. We competed in inter-forces matches and I was only 15, playing against men, but I did well. I remember we had a friendly against the Portsmouth youth team and I scored a couple of goals which got me spotted and I signed for the club.

How early in your life did the ’tache start? And how do you keep it in such good nick?
Jimmy Weeks, London
[Laughs] I can’t ever remember being without a moustache, although I’ve seen some pictures of when I was at Portsmouth and didn’t have it. I’ve had it for almost 30 years now and I keep it in good nick just by shaving it. I’m not flash enough to have a trimmer!

Is it true you made your Pompey debut as a striker, coming on to partner George Graham?
Tommy McManaman, via email
It is true, yeah. I was scoring lots of goals for the Portsmouth youth team which was why I ended up playing as a striker with George. Ian St John was the Pompey manager at the time and they were short of players. The club didn’t have a lot of money, so they couldn’t buy anyone. He knew I was really a midfielder, but he picked me upfront for the first team. When I scored in my second game against Bolton, Ian thought I was going to be a goalscoring sensation! [Laughs] I remember Sam Allardyce was playing in that Bolton team, as was Peter Reid. Big Sam gave me a lesson that day. The ball came towards us and he clattered into the back of my head. I saw stars and it left a massive bump, but Sam jogged off with an angelic look on his face.

What was it like playing for your favourite club, Leeds?
Michael South, Royal Tonbridge
It was fantastic. It was my ambition to play for Boro because they were my local club but Leeds were the side I supported as a kid. It was my dream to play for them. That team of the ’70s was the one I remember the most: I loved watching Allan Clarke, Johnny Giles and Peter Lorimer. It was awesome to go there and get promotion to the top flight in my first season. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

You probably don’t remember it like I do, but Swindon being one game away from a League Cup final was one of the most exhilarating and horrible moments I’ve had as a fan! After beating Wolves in the first leg of the semi, did you already have one eye on Wembley?
Siwan Moriaty, Blackpool
Yeah, I was disappointed because I should never have played in the second leg at Molineux. I had flu but I didn’t tell anybody. These days a club doctor would have taken a test and spotted it straightaway. I remember I didn’t have a great game, but we still should have gone through. We scored a perfectly good goal and it was disallowed. Basically everything that could have gone wrong for us did. The only reason I played that day was because I’d bought about 20 tickets for friends and family and thought, “I can’t bottle out of this now.”

Drinking to a win over Arsenal with Swindon team-mates Andy Rowland and Alan Mayes

How bad was it to be a black footballer in the 1970s and ’80s?
Aneet Nijjar, Leeds
It was shocking in the early days, but it was different then: you had to live with it. Some racist fans used to chuck bananas at the players and I even played with some racist players. I would get in the team bath and then one or two – I won’t name names – would get out. The game has thankfully moved on now. Certainly talking to the next generation of black players, like Ian Wright, has made me realise that they appreciate what we went through. There were a few black players around in those days like Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham, but we had to put up with a lot.

Did you ever receive a brown paper bag from Lou Macari when he was your manager at Swindon?
Vincent Wager, via email
[Laughs] I did receive a brown paper bag, but I’m not allowed to say who it was from! I actually got a brown paper bag every week as part of my wages. What happened was when I signed from Brentford, I was on quite a few quid and it was more than Swindon could afford. I was actually dropping down from what is now League One to League Two. What the club said was that they’d set up a co-operative society alliance with the fans. They could pay the shortfall from my wages out of that and it would come in pound notes. That’s the way it worked and a few of the other players had it too. It’s just a shame that it got Swindon relegated from the Premier League.

My dad’s a West Ham fan and reckons Frank McAvennie was ‘done’ by you in a tackle against Stoke. What really happened?
Marvin Rose, via Twitter
It’s a shame because there have been so many lies and false recollections of that incident, mainly from Frank himself. Basically, it was an innocuous challenge and if you don’t believe me, it’s on YouTube and you can make up your own mind. It was one of those things that you see from time to time where a perfectly good tackle injures someone. Poor old Frank got a bad injury but nobody knew at the time just how bad it was. I certainly didn’t know and the other players on the pitch didn’t know. Frank then threatened legal action, but nothing happened.

What was Vinnie Jones like as a room-mate at Leeds? Scary? Or just a pussycat?
Alan Hall, London
The thing about Vinnie was that once he got ‘the eyes’ you knew he could go if you upset him. On a team holiday to Majorca I remember I had to pay off the local coppers because Vinnie had sorted out some lads who had started on him when he was drinking on the beach. I think he still owes me! But he was a good lad and I enjoyed rooming with him. Now I’m amazed when I see what he’s done for himself in Hollywood. I’ve had a great career as a player, manager and doing the TV stuff but his career has been a bigger fairy story than mine.

Who was the hardest player you ever played with, Chris?
Dave Croghan, Lewisham
Terry Hurlock at Brentford. Vinnie was the hardest man I knew, but Terry was the hardest footballer. As far as he was concerned, there were no rules on the pitch and he was always getting into scrapes. I came up against him when he played for Millwall, and even though we’d been team-mates, we both went for each other in a tackle which ended up in a punch-up. The ref sent us off, but after the game we had a beer and a laugh about it. Then all of a sudden, Terry’s old man came out of nowhere and threatened to thump me! Thankfully, Terry managed to calm him down.

You were part of a really good Leeds team with Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, Lee Chapman and Gary Speed: what was it like to play in such a team?
Ami Ibitson, Luton
It was a team that I never wanted to leave. I was part of that team and played a few games until I picked up an ankle injury. Howard Wilkinson wanted me to get fit so he could sell me. He thought I was getting too old and injury-prone, and when I got fit again I played two league games and a cup game before leaving. I expected that Leeds team to do well because I was watching them play all the time, and I was chuffed when they won the league. They had great players; they also had Vinnie, David Batty, Mel Sterland... and Eric Cantona came in later, who was brilliant. I loved it there but I would have liked to have played more.

I heard a rumour that Graham Taylor once called you up for England. What happened?
Jon Edwards, via Bradford
Yes, I was called up by Graham Taylor, and at first I thought the phone call was a wind-up! ?He wanted me to play in a friendly behind closed doors against his first XI at Lilleshall. ?I ended up playing alongside Ian Wright, Gary Lineker, Merse and John Barnes. I even scored ?a goal, knocking one past Chris Woods. ?I thought I might get a call up to go on the plane to Sweden, but it didn’t happen.

How did you enjoy playing for your home town club in 1993 – albeit rather briefly?!
Dan Boswell, Southampton
I had the opportunity to play for Middlesbrough before, under Bruce Rioch, but I turned them down and signed for Leeds instead. When the chance came around again, I jumped at it. Boro were in trouble at the time, at the bottom of the Premier League. Lennie Lawrence was manager and it was my ambition to play for them, so I loved it, even if it was only for a few games. Sadly, Boro were potless. Lennie tried to sign me but they couldn’t afford it, even though it was only £30,000 or something.

You were relegated with three successive teams in the 1990s. Did you start to think you might be a jinx?
Darren Johnson, via Twitter
Well, I was relegated with Luton and Sheffield United, but I was only on loan at Boro so that doesn’t really count! It was disappointing, though. It was horrible to get relegated with Luton on the final day, especially as we were 1-0 up at half-time, but we froze in the second half and lost. ?The Sheffield United one was the worst, though. We started the last day of the season in 16th place, we were safe at 4.20pm and then we still got relegated. Results just didn’t go our way.

How did you react when it was announced there had been rumours of match-fixing involving the Wimbledon vs Everton game that helped to put Sheffield United down?
Kevin Liffen, Ipswich
We heard that rumour at the airport. What ?a story! Dave [Bassett] told us he’d heard talk that the game was fixed but no one believed him. It turned out later that John Fashanu, Hans Segers and Bruce Grobbelaar were caught up in a match-fixing scandal and this was one of the games mentioned in the case.

"Oi, Shearer! Get up, yer tart"

Did you know you were going to retire from playing at Bradford? And did you always plan to go ?into management?
Jackie Addison, Cardiff
I always planned to go into management and coaching, that was for certain, but I think ?I retired a season too early. Lennie Lawrence asked me to be player-coach when he was Bradford boss, so when he was sacked, the chairman Geoffrey Richmond made me manager. The reason I stopped playing too early was because the chairman wanted me to give up my playing contract. It’s easier to sack a manager than it is a player-manager because the playing contract is unbreakable, so you go back to being a player and you end up hanging around and they pay a lot more for you.

Kammy, did it feel odd bossing around your former team-mates as Bradford gaffer?
John Bowen, Warwick
No, not at all, because I was caretaker manager to begin with. It was a natural progression and that made it easier. The players don’t know how long you’re going to be there for, so it’s an easier transition than it is being appointed immediately. I moved into it and was successful, so I got their respect straight away. If you’re appointed and things don’t happen, like when ?I became Stoke manager, you’ve got a battle on your hands.

I loved being a manager. When you win it’s even better than being a player and when you’ve got a whole city behind you it feels fantastic. I was comfortable telling the players what to do. Obviously there were some who didn’t like it, but I got rid of most of them!

What kind of gaffer would you say you were?
Pat Dixon, via email
I was a football person and I wanted my teams to play good football – it was as simple as that. I had good days tactically and bad days. I remember signing Chris Waddle, who was still a fantastic player. We’d drawn Everton in the FA Cup and I’d noticed in games that their keeper, Neville Southall, liked to play ?a bit like a sweeper. I told Chris, “If you get the ball on the halfway line, try to smash it over his head.” Anyway, he had a go and the ball flew over big Nev and into the net. I ended up doing a forward roll and ruining my suit!

I’ll never forget our [Bradford's] play-off win in 1996. What are your memories of that promotion campaign?
Pete Lombard, London
It was great because we had to wait until the last couple of minutes of the final game of the season to get in the play-offs – Carl Shutt got us the winner against Hull City. But then we had a massive downer when we lost to Blackpool in the home leg of the semi. We bounced back though. ?I showed the players an advert from the Blackpool programme before the second leg: they were already advertising coach trips to Wembley, which really fired the players up. Once we got to Wembley, �I always felt we were good enough. I’d seen Notts County a lot that year and I knew we were the better side. We won 2-0 and it was a great day. That win has to be the highlight of my career.

Why did you leave Bradford, Kammy? Were the troubles with Geoffrey Richmond really that bad?
Joey Voce, Liverpool
He sacked me, and I think it was inevitable because of the problems we had [Richmond wanted Kamara to sack a member of his coaching staff]. But if it hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be where I am today. ?

I didn’t help myself at a party after we’d survived relegation from the First Division. I had a party at my house with plenty of booze and ?a jazz band. I remember getting on the mic to sing along to George Gershwin’s Summertime, but I changed the lyrics to: “Summertime, working with Geoffrey ain’t easy, he wants to pick the team and sign the players as well, but until that morning when he comes in and sacks me, all I can say is 'Geoffrey, please don’t pry!'” ?I think it really offended him and that was the first nail in the coffin.

Did you really believe that changing your name by deed poll to Chris Cabanga might help England to win the World Cup?
Tom Stamirowski, via Twitter
Yes, I did. I was paid a couple of quid to join the campaign and it was decided that if they got 40,000 people to sign up on Facebook then ?I would change my name. I never believed for one minute they’d get 40,000. Cabanga means ‘imagine’, so loads of people were imagining that England would win the World Cup, but it didn’t help in any shape or form!

Now you’re a TV star, Kammy, would anything tempt you into management again?
John Allen, Petts Wood
Nothing. I’ve been too well looked after by Sky and I’ve been here longer than any football club I was at. Sometimes at a club – because of results or the people you work with – it becomes difficult. But now I wake up every morning and ?I look forward to work. 

What’s it like being born on Christmas Day? Is it annoying? Do you get fewer presents?
Aaron Patel, via Facebook
It’s a nightmare! When I was a kid we didn’t have that much money, so to get one present for Christmas and one for my birthday on the same day was a bonus. Nowadays, it’s all ?about the kids on Christmas Day. I actually ?hate the fact that for an hour on Christmas Day we have to have time away from them playing with their presents for me to open mine!  

Interview: Matt Allen. Portrait: Richard Cannon. From the December 2010 issue of FourFourTwo.