Football pundit Chris Kamara on losing his voice – and finding himself: ‘I thought the game was up’ – The Guardian

Tee Rasheed
30 Min Read

The former player and manager was one of the game’s most beloved figures – famous for his joie de vivre and his occasional hilarious gaffes. Then he was struck by a serious neurological condition that nearly ended his career. How did he come back from the brink?
As a TV football commentator, Chris Kamara was a one-off. Sure, he knew a lot about the sport. But that’s not why he was loved. No, he was loved for his smile and great roar of a laugh. He was loved for seeing the funny side of everything – most of all himself. He was loved for his unique Kammy-isms – for example, in one match report describing Tottenham Hotspur as “fighting like beavers”. He was loved for the word he would frequently bellow from grounds where he was reporting back to Jeff Stelling in Sky Sports’s Soccer Saturday studio. “Un-be-lie-va-ble!” or at times, “Un-be-lie-va-ble, Jeff!”
Best of all, he was loved for the things he missed. On one memorable Saturday in April 2010, Kamara was covering a match between Portsmouth and Blackburn. Stelling, then the show’s anchor, said, “We’re off to Fratton Park, where there’s been a red card. But for who, Chris Kamara?” Kamara looked bemused. Most pundits would try to blag it, but not Kammy. “I don’t know, Jeff!” he replied. “Has there? I must’ve missed that – is it a red card?’ He stared down at the pitch, none the wiser.
“Have you not been watching?” Stelling asked. “What has happened, Chris?”
By now Kamara looked like a schoolboy caught truanting by his headteacher.
“I don’t know, Jeff!” His mouth opened wide, and he laughed and laughed. “I dunno. The rain must’ve got in my eyes, Jeff!”
Stelling told him to get his fingers out to count how many players were left on the pitch. Kamara’s voice rose to a squeak. “No, you’re right. I saw him go off, but I thought they were bringing a sub on, Jeff.”
“As professional as ever, Kammy,” Stelling said. “Cutting-edge reports on Gillette Soccer Saturday!”
Back in the studio, his fellow football pundits were in hysterics. Wonderful.
When Kamara was commentating, you knew it would be fun, no matter how dire the match. Then in 2019 something happened to the voice that had been his living for two decades. It slowed down, and he developed a terrible croak. He stumbled over words. His brain failed to make the intended connections. He sounded as if he’d had a stroke. Kamara was terrified, but hid it from everybody – his wife Anne, his two sons, friends and colleagues. He thought it might be the start of Alzheimer’s disease. “It was like someone was talking through my voicebox. That would happen for maybe three hours a day, then my voice would go back to normal.”
Did Anne say anything? “No.” He smiles. “I was clever. I would talk in soundbites, short stuff. Getting involved in lengthy conversations was a no-no.” For the hours he most struggled with his voice, he’d make himself scarce on his smallholding. “When my voice was really croaky, I’d keep my mouth shut, then talk when it came back.” But it wasn’t just the voice that had changed. “I was going down to the horses and sheep, and I started losing my balance, stumbling. Things I’d taken for granted, like using the wheelbarrow, all of a sudden I was teetering wi–th it.”
It was easier for him to mask what was happening initially because football was cancelled at the beginning of lockdown. But before long the fixtures returned, and Kamara was back on television. And then he started to panic. “That’s when the reports started to not be concise. I was jumbling up the words.”
Kamara has just written a new memoir, Kammy: My Unbelievable Life. In it, he describes a match when he realised he was stuffed. He simply could not do his job any more. “My tongue felt as if it had swelled to double its size and was hanging out of my mouth. The famous Kammy smile had disappeared. I was sweating profusely. Hot, prickly heat spread on my back,” he writes. That sounds terrifying, I say. “Oh, it was. Absolutely. I was at Barnsley that day and I knew on the way my speech was difficult.” He rang an old friend who kept saying she couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. He told her it was a bad line – one of many lies he told to cover up what was happening.
In the match, when Stelling came to him for an update, he could barely speak. “My heart palpitated. I’d never known anything like it. It felt as if it was coming out of my chest. And I couldn’t get my tongue around the words.” He sounds traumatised just revisiting it. “It was so difficult. Jeff came to me and a goal was scored and I kept the commentary as short as possible.” Nobody on the team mentioned what had happened, so he thought he’d got away with it. “I thought maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is. No one said, ‘Are you OK?’ No one said, ‘What’s up with you?’ No one said, ‘Have you been drinking?’ Nothing. So I started to think maybe something’s playing with my head, so you just move on. And that’s what I did.”
In lockdown, he covered matches from the lower leagues in the north. When people did start to suggest he was struggling, he said it was because he wasn’t familiar with the players’ names, which was untrue. When asked a question, he’d say pardon to give himself time to process his thoughts and turn them into words.
Kamara is talking to me from his home in Wakefield. He looks the same as ever – big, jolly face, pencil-moustache and a grin like he’s just won the lottery. It’s only when he talks that you notice the difference.
The 65-year-old had an impressive but not starry career in football. He played more than 600 league games for nine clubs including Portsmouth, Swindon and Brentford. He started out as an attacking midfielder, then morphed into a tough defensive midfielder. He became the first English player to be convicted of grievous bodily harm for an on-pitch incident, after punching a player and breaking his cheekbone. It was very much out of character. Kamara, who had been racially abused earlier in the match, calls it the low point of his career. He never played at international level, and declined an offer to play for Sierra Leone in the 1994 African Cup of Nations (he qualified through his father).
It was something of a miracle that Kamara succeeded in football. He grew up in Middlesbrough in an age when the National Front was prominent and racism pervasive. The Kamaras were the only black family on the Park End estate, his father Albert one of the few black men in town. Albert was often falsely arrested by the police for crimes they knew he had not committed. If there was a problem on the estate, neighbours would often shout, “It’s that black family causing all the problems.”
As for Albert, he had no interest in football and only saw his son play once at school. Alan Ingledew, a football coach and mentor, took him on alternate weeks to watch Middlesbrough and Leeds at home. Albert insisted his son went into the navy, as he had done, after leaving school. He was still only 16 when he was spotted by Portsmouth’s youth team manager playing for the navy team. The National Front element of the Portsmouth crowd booed him however well he played. When he joined Swindon a couple of years later, he received death threats from Portsmouth fans and was given police escorts to the County Ground. He never let it get to him.
At the age of 36, he joined second division (third tier) Bradford City as player-coach. When manager Lennie Lawrence was sacked a year later in 1995, Bradford were facing relegation. Kamara, promoted from assistant manager to caretaker manager, made chairman Geoffrey Richmond a ludicrous promise. “I said blase-ly, ‘I’ll get us promoted’, never really believing it. But you’ve got to sell it to a chairman who’s just given you the job.” They went on a winning run, got into the playoffs and won the final to reach what was then the first division.
What were the highlights of his career? “When I was a kid it was my ambition to play for Middlesbrough and my dream to play for Leeds, so to achieve both was amazing. I won’t say unbelievable, but it was. Another highlight was taking Bradford out at Wembley for the playoff finals. I walked out as manager holding hands with my sons, who were mascots. It don’t get much better than that.” He was one of the first black managers in English football’s top four tiers. By winning promotion to the second, he became the most successful black English manager, a record that stood until Chris Hughton led Newcastle to the Premier League in 2010. In an earlier autobiography, Mr Unbelievable, Kamara said this reflected how few black managers had been given the chance to prove themselves. “There are still hardly any black faces out there managing today,” he says.
The following season, he avoided relegation with a victory in the final match, and the season after he was sacked. In January 1998, he was appointed Stoke City manager, won one of 14 matches and was booted out. Kamara had been convinced he had a lifetime ahead of him in management. But it didn’t take him long to discover how fickle football chairmen were.
That’s when Soccer Saturday got in touch. It was a new show in a format that had never been tried – for what appeared to be good reason. Who wanted to watch a bunch of former footballers staring at a screen, and Kammy reporting from football with his head turned away from the match? But it worked – and became a football institution. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ when they asked.” Why? “Because they were all legends.” He reels off the list: George Best, Rodney Marsh, Frank McLintock, Alan Mullery … “Great blokes. Bestie was the nicest bloke you could wish to meet. He really was. And they never made me feel inferior. They welcomed me into the fold and I was able to be myself with them.”
He pauses. “I always wonder what would have happened if social media had been around then. Would they have slaughtered me and said, ‘What’s he doing on there?’ like they do about some of the women these days?” Hold on, I say – there’s too much to unpick here. Why do you think you would have been slaughtered? “I didn’t have a glittering playing career like them.” Back then, he says, it would have only taken a few people to say he was incompetent rather than funny for his reporting career to have been over before it started. “It might have been too much for a corporation like Sky.”
Does he think the way women such as Alex Scott and Jill Scott are treated is pure misogyny? There is a long silence. “Erm … yeah. Yeah, in Jill’s case, and two reasons in Alex’s case.” Misogyny and racism? “Yeah.”
Kamara adored his years on Soccer Saturday. In 2000 he started to present the show Goals on Sunday (then Soccer Extra), analysing the previous day’s matches. He became a regular guest on the Soccer AM TV series as a maverick football interviewer, and his TV presence started to extend beyond football. He presented shows such as Ninja Warrior UK and Cash in the Attic, guested on Have I Got News For You and The Great Sport Relief Bake Off, and appeared as himself in Emmerdale and Ted Lasso. Then there were the ads – his presence gave an authenticity and basic humour to products such as aluminium doors and shampoo, and the controversial gambling ads. (In 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority cleared a commercial featuring Kamara and former footballers including Ian Wright and Lee Dixon after viewers complained it played on “male bravado and peer pressure” and could encourage young people to gamble.) Often all he had to do was say “unbelievable” and laugh. He even had a hit album of Christmas songs. Kammy had become an all-round entertainer, and was enjoying life to the max. Happy-go-lucky Kammy, without a worry in his head. Then the voice started to go.
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The thought of doing match reports made him feel ill. On social media people were noticing something was wrong. Some said they were worried, others ridiculed him. After one appearance on his friend Steph McGovern’s show Steph’s Packed Lunch, one tweet said, “Before getting Chris Kamara to read the Autocue, somebody should have checked if he can read.” At a match between Huddersfield and Bristol City, on his way down the gantry steps his balance went and he was convinced he was going to fall. A steward told him it “reminded me of my old man”. The comment hurt him, but again he made an excuse: he’d slipped before and was now being extra careful. That night his friend and Sky colleague Tony Gale rang and said, “Are you OK, Kammy? You don’t seem your normal self.” Another excuse: he said he was working too hard and was tired.
Perhaps the worst occasion was when he went on The One Show to promote his second Christmas album. He could hardly get a word out. He couldn’t remember the name of the album or the songs on it. On the train home, the conductor, who he knew well, asked how he was doing. Again he couldn’t get his words out. “Oh, you’ve had one or two, I’ll leave you alone,” the conductor said.
He remembers doing a Christmas show with Paddy McGuinness when “I sounded like somebody who’d had 10 pints. People were talking about it. I thought, ‘That’s fine, I don’t mind that.’ Rather than them thinking I’ve got a speech defect, I’ll take that.” He pauses. “I was ashamed I couldn’t cope properly any more, and now I apologise to every single person in the world who has speech problems or neurological problems because I understand it doesn’t define who you are.” Now he says he’s ashamed that he was ashamed of his condition.
Does he think football culture is so macho that he found it impossible to admit to the vulnerability that comes with a brain condition? “Yes, absolutely. Dead right. And I’d never done it throughout the whole of my life, whether it be racism or injuries, you get on with it. That’s how I was brought up. That’s my mentality. You’re not a victim, you need to man up, and you don’t show your feelings to the public or teammates or managers. To anyone. It’s only getting this condition that has made me realise all those years I was wrong. Totally wrong.”
He became terrified of having to talk – offscreen as well as on. And all the time he was telling people nothing was wrong. The pretence must have been exhausting. “Well, it was playing with my mind. You go crazy. The first thing when you wake up is: can I speak today? If the delivery man comes to the door, can I talk to him? The old me used to have a laugh and a joke with him. Now I’m a bumbling old man who can’t get his words out. My self-esteem was at its lowest ever point and that’s when you think of crazy stuff in your head.”
Kamara adored his broadcasting career, and he assumed that was done for at the very least. “Having played or managed for 24 years, to go into TV was happy days. All your birthdays have come at once. And all it required was for me to go on and be myself. Just go and have a laugh. So once that was taken away, it felt there was no me any more. It’s stupid, but you think, ‘Where have I gone? Where is he? I don’t like the person I’ve become.’ All those things go through your head.”
It was when he went to spend time with the animals that the darkest thoughts came. “You think you’re a burden and the family will be better off without you. That came at the height of my condition, 18 months in, when I thought it was dementia. I didn’t want to be a burden – I’d spent my life looking after them.”
How serious was he about taking his own life? “Well, it was a thought. I wasn’t thinking about how can I exit. You just think if anything happened, I wouldn’t be upset about it.” Eventually Kamara agreed to go to a doctor. First he was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, then apraxia of speech, a neurological disorder that affects the brain pathways involved in producing speech. He was relieved it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, but his first thought was he would have to quit broadcasting. Even then, he couldn’t bring himself to go public. He told himself he would somehow hold on till the end of the season, then quietly leave. Why was he so scared? “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want to be a victim.” Kamara mentions this a few times while we talk. It becomes obvious that there could be nothing worse for him than to be pitied. “My hypnotherapist, Daniel McDermid, said, ‘The day you start accepting your condition is the day you start getting better.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I accept that I’m getting treatment with you, but I can’t go public with it. I don’t want to be a victim.’ He said, ‘You’ll be surprised’ and he was right.”
He told his close friend Ben Shephard, with whom he co-presented Ninja Warrior UK. Eventually he agreed to talk about his apraxia in an interview with Shephard on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “I came out and did it with him, and it was the best day of my life from then on.” He was astonished by people’s understanding, kindness and warmth. Finally, it made sense to his fans.
He did quit Sky. When Stelling announced Kammy’s departure on Soccer Saturday, the anchor was almost in tears. Sky didn’t try to convince Kamara to stay, but many other TV shows were only too happy to hire him. He made a powerful ITV documentary, Lost for Words, about his condition last year. Earlier this year, he appeared on The Masked Singer. Now he says he’s got almost as many offers of work as he had before he developed the condition. A while ago one company told him they were going to have to speed up his voice for a commercial. “I said, ‘Yeah, do it’ but I was thinking, ‘Is this what it’s come to?’ Now I don’t worry. There’s no hiding it. They know when they employ me it’s not the old Kammy they’re getting; they get the new one now.”
When Kamara went public, he said as a broadcaster, he felt a fraud – he could no longer do the thing he was paid to do. Since then, he says, he has received such moving support. Never more so than at a Middlesbrough match that week when fans unfurled banners saying, “You’re not a fraud. You’re unbelievable, Kammy.”
Now, he says, it’s time for him to repay the faith and love that people have shown in him, by campaigning for others with similar conditions. “I want to talk about apraxia, make people aware of the condition and show sufferers that they can still live a good life, whatever struggles they face.” But, he says, it’s equally important not to sound glib: “I don’t want people to think, ‘You spent two years in denial and now you’re saying be yourself and come out about it.’ I understand all that, but I can only preach from experience. I got by because everybody rallied behind me and said, ‘We don’t care how you speak, you’re Kammy and we love you.’”
The support made him realise how lucky he is. Not everybody has it, and some people have been far sicker than him and at a much younger age. “I’m going to do everything in my power now to help kids born with speech problems. In this country, if you’ve got verbal dyspraxia you’ll get one appointment with a speech and language therapist, then probably have to wait six months or a year for the next one.” Last month he gave a talk at the House of Commons to try to boost speech and language therapy support for children who need it.
Kamara is now doing everything he can to help others and himself. Earlier this year, he went to Mexico for experimental treatment that had never been used for people with apraxia. He says it has resulted in a big improvement. His speech is still slow and flat, but it’s much more fluent than it was at its worst. It might lack the excitability of old, but some of the feeling is coming back. Crucially, he says, the brain has started to make the right connections again: even if the words take a while to emerge, the correct ones do come out.
I was told he’d be able to manage only 45 minutes speaking to me, but in the end he talks for an hour and a half, and by the end he’s almost giddy with possibilities. “I was of the opinion the game was up. I could hardly string a sentence together. The passage from the brain to the mouth wouldn’t work. I’d think of the words, but they wouldn’t come up. Now that flow, that fluency, is there.” He knows there’s a long way to go, but he’s delighted by the progress he’s made. In My Unbelievable Life, he describes himself as back to 75% of what he was before the apraxia took hold. What percentage would he say he was at his worst? “At my lowest I was zero basically. When I was down with the horses and in the fields, thinking I should quit, thinking all these terrible things, I was an absolute zero. I look back and think: what an idiot. What an idiot! How could I have had thoughts like that? Ridiculous. But I understand a lot more about mental health than I did and I realise there’s something nagging away, a part of you saying: why don’t you do something about it. They’re ridiculous thoughts!” He repeats the word vehemently, as if scraping away any last remnant of the notion.
Most important of all, his sense of joy in the world has returned. Would he consider live match reporting again? I expect him to pooh-pooh the idea, but now he seems to think anything is possible. “Well, if my progress keeps going, then yes!” And his face breaks out into a classic old-school Kammy smile.
Kammy: My Unbelievable Life by Chris Kamara is published by Pan Macmillan on 9 November at £22. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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