The making of Chris Kamara: How ex-footballer went from lads and dads’ hero to prime time national treasure
As a football player and later a manager, Chris Kamara forged a successful if, by some standards, unspectacular career in an unfashionable era.
England recognition never arrived, and his biggest victories came outside a top division that had not yet become the millionaires’ playground of today.
More than two decades since he left the game, however, Kamara has never been more recognisable, in-demand and well-loved.
The 62-year-old is a regular on prime-time television, in demand with advertisers for household-name brands and now has a burgeoning music career.
How on earth did that happen? The answer makes for a fascinating case study in how to go from a “hero for lads and dads” to something approaching a national treasure.
“If I walked down the street today, someone would say ‘Unbelievable, Jeff’,” says Chris Kamara. “It depends where I am, what situation. If I’m at a football ground we’re talking hundreds, could be thousands. It’s the first word on their lips.”
Kamara is explaining, with characteristic happy-go-lucky charm, what it’s like to be him.
The catchphrases that made the former football player and manager a cult hero on Soccer Saturday, the Sky Sports show he has worked on for two decades, follow him wherever he goes. Some people would loathe it. He is genuinely delighted.
It’s not just “Unbelievable, Jeff” that set Kamara’s star rising. While his excitable manner won him friends, his occasional gaffes made him loved.
His best-known moment of broadcasting came 10 years ago, when he somehow managed to miss a player being sent off in a game he was watching. His baffled, apologetic response to anchor Jeff Stelling’s questions went viral. “It’s been seen by over 20m people,” he says.
Falling into television at Sky Sports
Kamara fell into television after leaving his role as manager of Stoke in 1998. As an industrious midfielder, he had an itinerant, 20-year playing career that took in nine different clubs, including Leeds, where he won the second division title, Brentford, Swindon, Sheffield United and his native Middlesbrough.
By contrast, his stint in coaching was brief. Seeing how much he enjoyed broadcasting, his wife Anne encouraged Kamara to pursue TV. “That’s probably the best bit of advice I could have got.”
It wasn’t all clowning about. Kamara also took on co-presenting duties on Sky’s Goals on Sunday show, a run that lasted 14 years until the show was halted this year. It showed his more considered side as he led analytical discussion of the previous day’s action.
He would even arrive at Sky’s west London studios at 4:30am every Sunday to watch each game and select which highlights to discuss on the programme. “I had a Soccer Saturday persona and a Goals on Sunday persona,” he says.
How Martin Offiah showed the way
Kamara credits his viral blooper with catapulting him into the mainstream, but there were other factors at work, too. New TV opportunities for retired sportspeople were emerging on shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and, later, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Rugby league great Martin Offiah was a trailblazer, his 2004 stint on Strictly unlocking a host of new offers.
“Off the back of that this whole world of bookings opened up on television. And once the bookings open up, the household brands come as well,” says Kamara’s agent Simon Dent, who also works with Offiah. “It really opened my eyes as to what was coming down the line.”
Dent believed Kamara could follow a similar path if his unassuming, likeable presence was placed in the right environment.
“He has such an amazing personality, he hasn’t got an enemy in the world. He’s the nicest guy you could ever meet. I needed to find a way to get that across,” Dent says. “It was really about putting him in as many situations as possible where people could see his personality and let it shine through.”
Kamara began with the odd panel show or game show, but in 2015 his prime-time breakthrough came when he landed co-presenting duties on Ninja Warrior.
“That was the opportunity we’d been waiting for,” says Dent. “It was a big ITV, Saturday night entertainment format which took Kammy away from just being the hero for lads and dads, but really put him into households. It opened up this whole new audience for him.”
“I didn’t think for one minute that I’d cross from football to ordinary television and Saturday night prime time shows,” says Kamara. “I was quite happy doing what I was doing. Things kept coming to me. I love a challenge and hopefully making a success of it. And whatever comes my way, if I can accept it I will, and give it the best shot I can.”
What makes Kamara so popular?
Ninja Warrior helped to open the floodgates. He has since appeared on programmes ranging from Have I Got News For You to Emmerdale and fronted campaigns for bookmaker Ladbrokes and brewer Greene King.
Effervescent, slightly chaotic, but courteous and unassuming, it’s easy to see why Kamara is so well liked. Dent attributes it to energy, positivity, empathy and gratitude. Although rarely tongue-tied, Kamara is less forthcoming: “I don’t know the reasons for my popularity but I think it’s because I don’t take myself too seriously.”
He doesn’t mind being a figure of fun. “All these other shows, 99 per cent of them are fun shows. I go to those shows hoping to entertain, and if I can, then great. That’s how I look at things.”
Kamara doesn’t bring it up but when asked to trace the origins of his sunny outlook, he puts it down to overcoming a dark period in his early life.
“It’s got to be my upbringing,” he says. “It was so hard, being brought up as the only black family on our estate and one of the only black families in Middlesbrough. People talk about racism today. In the 60s and early 70s, before I left home to join the Navy, it was pretty horrific then. So, [after that] nothing could be that bad in my life that I would suffer from it.”
Fame has allowed Kamara to now pursue only the work he enjoys. He turned down a lucrative book deal this year because he wanted to do other things, says Dent.
Some jobs come more naturally than others. “I think it’s fair to say you’ll never see Kammy promoting a financial services company, but as the face of a bookmakers or a beer, you’ve got a very happy man.”
Another type of offer also crops up with regularity. “We get at least two requests a month for him to go on stag dos that are fully paid up trips, anywhere from Vegas to Benidorm,” says Dent. “Unfortunately, that’s just not possible.”
Music, Kamara’s second passion
One of Kamara’s other passions is music. He cites Elton John and Gilbert O’Sullivan as his favourite artists, and used to frequently sing at West End venue Cafe de Paris’ cabaret night Kitsch Lounge Riot.
While at Leeds, he even claims to have invented the initiation ritual of footballers performing a song for their team-mates when they join a new club. “All of a sudden I’m in front of the lads, some of them I haven’t even been introduced to, singing Your Song,” he recalls with glee. “I think that was the first. It’s sort of ballooned from there. Now most clubs do it.”
An invitation to appear on BBC show All Together Now led to Kamara singing Your Song again, only this time to a national audience. That performance prompted the head of label Silva Screen Records to make contact. Two years on, he is about to release And A Happy New Year, the follow-up to 2019’s top-10 debut Here’s To Christmas.
“I love singing,” he says. “People tell me it’s better than the first album.” A single, a cover of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, dropped last month, although the pandemic forced the cancellation of a planned 21-date live tour.
Kamara can certainly sing, yet there was still some surprise when the label showed interest. Having tried in vain to get Kamara in front of music industry types before, Dent did not want to raise his client’s hopes, and both men wondered if the call had been a hoax.
“For the first two months of exchanges we were convinced it was a hidden camera show,” he says. “We were going to these incredible offices with all these really cool people in them. Eventually I had to call them and say, ‘look guys, I really need to know if this is a wind-up’. They made it very clear that it wasn’t, and the rest is history.”
No to Strictly, but jungle an option
Goals on Sunday may be gone, but Kamara is as committed as ever to Soccer Saturday. Now 62, his back is in no fit state to accept offers to go on Strictly, even if it didn’t clash with the football season. I’m A Celebrity is on the agenda if they still want him once his days at Sky are done.
“I’ll do the jungle,” he says. “I can’t get the time off [now], and I don’t want to be like Harry Redknapp, over the other side of the world, while football is going on here. That’s still my first love. I would miss that.”
Until then, Kamara will be happy with his lot: being loved for doing the things he loves, endless imitations of “Unbelievable Jeff” from passers-by or not.
“It’s great having a catchphrase, not a problem. There’s no downside to being me,” he says. “People smile when they see me. I wouldn’t say it’s a gift, but it’s a nice thing to have.”
Other ex-footballers with more glittering CVs have sought out Dent, meanwhile, wanting the Kamara treatment. It’s not that simple, he explains.
“One of the biggest problems high-profile sportspeople have when they retire is that the public only ever want to talk about the cup final in 85 or an England game at the Italia 90 World Cup. To them that’s an old life, but they’ve got nothing in their new life to show.
“The great thing about Kammy is that no one ever talks to him about Stoke against Brentford in 1980. They want to know about Rochelle [Humes] on Ninja Warrior. Football helped him get to where he’s got to, but his own personality and drive has taken him to the next level.”