‘Today is a good day and, thankfully, I’ve consistently had good days lately,” Chris Kamara says as we near the end of another emotional week for him. Kamara, the former footballer who became a cherished presence on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday and various television programmes which rely on his good cheer and exuberant character, is struggling to overcome the debilitating impact of apraxia of speech.
This neurological disorder grips the usually garrulous Kamara in a way which means that, sometimes, he suffers “a complete brain fog” and cannot voice his thoughts properly. Words get confused or lost and there are occasions when his speech slows and slurs. Today, however, Kamara speaks fluently for an hour. The difficult moments, and the tricky words, are rare as he reflects movingly on his life and work.
We laugh a lot, too, because the knockabout memories are irresistible. But Kamara is at his most powerful when explaining how he confronted racism while growing up in Middlesbrough and when working in football. Calmly, and without bitterness, Kamara recalls a harrowing period when, as a young footballer, the National Front hounded him and issued death threats.
But first his new reality will be felt on Sunday afternoon. As the Premier League season’s final fixtures are played, it will sink in that his 24 years on Soccer Saturday are really over. Kamara won’t be alongside his great friend Jeff Stelling as he adjusts to the fact that his time at Sky has ended. The 64-year-old stresses that the decision was mutually agreed and there is so much TV work still rolling in despite his battle with apraxia. It is a battle Kamara is convinced he is winning.
“It’s coming together,” he says. “I’ve been throwing the kitchen sink at it so I have oxygen chamber treatment, a speech therapist, a normal therapist and microcurrents going through my body. I do Zing exercises, which is mainly for stroke [victims]. We don’t know what’s working, but one of those actually is so I’ll keep doing it until I’m 100% back.”
When I ask if he has had darker doubts, Kamara says: “Of course. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have loads. I went for walks during the pandemic and came back and said to my wife: ‘I’m quitting. I can’t do this any more.’ On shows like The Chase, where I couldn’t talk easily, I’m watching a shadow of myself. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. But thankfully we’re just about to come in on that rollercoaster and get out smiling.”
Kamara first conceded he was in trouble when he was interviewed on The One Show in December 2020 and struggled to speak. His wife, Ann, insisted he be tested for dementia and Alzheimer’s but the brain scans were clear. It was only when Kamara saw a specialist in Leeds that apraxia was confirmed. Kamara remembers that “the specialist said: ‘It won’t get any better, it’ll only get worse. We’ll contain it as much as possible.’ But we’ve had so much improvement that, if it continues, it’ll be back to normal.”
Nothing is certain but Kamara shrugs cheerfully. “I’ve had such a great life I wouldn’t change anything. Playing for 22 years, managing and coaching for two years, 24 years on TV. It’s been brilliant. The worst illness is dementia or Alzheimer’s because you won’t know your family when you’re dying. But with apraxia I’m one of those who says: ‘Que sera…’”
He looks up when I say his progress sounds encouraging. “Absolutely. Hopefully a full recovery is on the agenda. Let’s not forget it’s just a few months since I went public. I had professors, neurologists, all sorts coming forward. The help has been amazing and it’s working.”
Kamara’s trademark sayings on Soccer Saturday – from “Unbelievable, Jeff!” to his typically honest “I don’t know what happened, Jeff” when he missed a key moment – are part of the programme’s enduring appeal. It seems poignant that we will never see Kamara reporting again on a match, whether it is Tottenham against Arsenal, where he praised Spurs for “fighting like beavers”, or Portsmouth hosting Blackburn, when he failed to notice that a player had been sent off.
“Once Jeff did that tribute for me I knew that was it,” Kamara says. “I’m officially at Sky until the end of the season but I won’t be doing another game. It was a great tribute and then Jeff had that tear in his eye and his bottom lip went and mine did too. You couldn’t top that now. I would ruin that by coming back for an encore. My two sons came over to watch it and they had tears in their eyes, in between laughing.”
Kamara made his Soccer Saturday debut in “the 1998-99 season with Rodney Marsh, George Best and Clive Allen. People were thinking: ‘What’s he doing with those megastars?’ But I was always able to get on with people. Then, in 1999-2000, the producer said: ‘Instead of people watching people watching telly, we’d like to send you to a ground.’ That’s how Kamara-cam started.
“My first game was Oxford versus Walsall. We got there about 12 o’clock and set up as Jeff was crossing to me for team news about 2:20. Two o’clock comes, we’re set up and the cameraman from Central TV came and said: ‘You’re in my spot.’ I said: ‘But Sky have got the rights to the Football League now.’ He wasn’t having it: ‘I’ve been here 29 years. That’s my spot.’ I then got word that they’re coming to me early at 2:05.’”
Kamara pulls a face in mock terror before detailing how the cameraman kept trying to walk in front of him to ruin his commentary. He had to restrain the man physically while talking live to Stelling. “I never heard from the producer for a week,” Kamara recalls. “It seemed all over. I got to Saturday morning and I’m thinking I messed it up. I’m watching Soccer AM and they show that clip of me holding off the cameraman. People loved it and on the Monday I got a call from the producer. He said: ‘We had a busy show last week so I didn’t need you, but you’re on from this week.’ It lasted 24 years.”
That clip of his spat with the cameraman showed the potential of Kamara’s live reporting. “The funny side of it, yeah,” he says wryly. The more serious side of Kamara reveals an early life clouded by racism. “I joined the navy [aged 16], instead of being a footballer, and that was because of racism. I was told: ‘You’ve got no chance playing in Middlesbrough being that colour.’
“We were one of the first black families on our estate and I first noticed it when I was about six and went to the local shop with a note for 10 Woodbines for my mum and 20 Capstan Extra Strength for my dad. I’m waiting to be served and this woman walked in and said: ‘I want a loaf of bread.’ The shopkeeper said: ‘This little fellow’s first.’ The woman said: ‘His lot should go back to where they come from.’ I thought: ‘I only live four doors away from you.’”
Ian St John was managing Portsmouth when he spotted Kamara playing for the navy. He offered him a professional contract. “Portsmouth had about 200 National Front supporters back then. Not only did they boo me when I was running off, they booed me on. Imagine that – from your own fans.
“When I left to join Swindon, my first game was against Portsmouth. Police intelligence got in touch on the Friday to say the National Front were planning to knock me off. I got called into the deputy inspector’s office, and I was only 19, and he said: ‘You’ll need a police escort for the game against Pompey.’ I went: ‘Don’t be daft. It’s just a threat.’ He said: ‘It’s more than a threat. Police intelligence has picked this up.’ I had to go to the game in an unmarked car with two police officers. Anyway it was fine and, would you believe it, I scored the first goal.”
Of course, being Kammy, he returned to play for Portsmouth again in 1981. But of his first spell with Pompey he recalls: “On the final day of the 1975-76 season, we played Sunderland away. They needed to win to get promotion to the old First Division and we needed to win to stay in the Second Division. We lost but, as virtually every team did in those days after playing in the north-east, we stopped at the fish and chip shop in Wetherby on the way back. The kit man goes to get the fish and chips and we all piled over to the pub next door. But the barman said: ‘We don’t serve his kind in here.’ I walked outside and the lads brought me a pint out.”
Kamara’s sad smile soon brightens. “It’s different now. Last year I put on the Christmas lights at Wetherby. As soon as I got the offer I said to my wife: ‘I’m doing it. No matter what I’ve got on, I’m cancelling it because this is great.’ To turn the lights on in Wetherby, with 6,000 people there, was emotional.
“Without all this I wouldn’t be where I am today. History is so important. You can’t erase it. Getting my opportunity at 16 to play professional football was amazing. The Pompey crowd, apart from those 200 National Front supporters, were fantastic towards me. Of course when I was at Sky, the most iconic moment came at Portsmouth with the sending-off that I missed. It was one of those things where I could have tried and bluffed my way through it but I told the truth and over 25 million people have watched it on YouTube.”
After Kamara reels off his exhausting work schedule on various upcoming ITV shows I wonder if he does not feel worn down by fame. “Not at all. Of course people say: ‘Unbelievable, Jeff!’ every single day. My wife gets annoyed occasionally when we’re in a restaurant, but I don’t mind. I’m a people person. They say never meet your heroes but I met Elton John and it’s not true with him. What a diamond fellow. I hope it’s the same for me. I hope no one will ever say: ‘I met that Chris Kamara and he was a knobhead.’”
Kamara remains a diamond – and his struggle with apraxia has not diminished his shine. “People have been so kind,” he says. “ITV had the opportunity to use someone else but they said: ‘Kammy, we just want you even if you’re 50%.’ I want people to watch a programme where I’m at my best so I’m worried my performance isn’t going to be up to scratch. They keep saying: ‘Don’t worry. You’re fine as you are.’ I must have done something right for that to happen.”