Leeds United: My Whites playing days - Chris Kamara INTERVIEW

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Footballer turned Sky TV pundit, Chris Kamara, helped United to win the Second Division Championship in 1990, but he tells Lee Sobot it was a bittersweet experience.

He’s a hugely popular pundit for Sky Sports, an ambassador for major charities and soon-to-be an Olympic Torch Bearer – Chris Kamara’s career after football has been some success story.

In his own words, typically he admits it’s been “unbelievable.”

His playing days weren’t bad either, though, and while it was only one season, that solitary campaign at Leeds United was considered the best of them.

Kamara, who lives in Wakefield, hung up his boots back in 1995 after a 20-year career that spanned nine clubs starting with Portsmouth and ending with Bradford City.

There is actually now a new name on that list with Kamara having twice stepped out for Welshpool Town this season as part of a Sky Sports feature but of all the clubs he has played for, it was at Elland Road where the six-foot-one star was at his happiest.

Signed from Stoke City in 1990 by Howard Wilkinson, Kamara made 20 appearances the following season to help the Whites win the Second Division championship and only two seasons later United were to add the First Division championship trophy to their cabinet as well.

Injury

By that point, a disappointed Kamara had been sold to Luton after losing his first-team place initially through injury but there is no denying the joy Kamara’s fleeting Leeds affair brought home.

Reflecting on his time at Elland Road some 21 years ago, Kamara told the YEP this week: “As a player, Leeds was the best time of my life.

“When I was a young boy kicking the ball around the streets of Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough were always in the second division and Leeds were always in the top division.

“Middlesbrough weren’t on Match Of The Day and you couldn’t support Sunderland or Newcastle in those days so you supported the closest big team to you and that was Leeds.

“My ambition was to play for them and to play for Middlesbrough and I managed to do both. To get the opportunity to play for Leeds when I did – they were top of the old second division – and then win the championship was great. It was a dream come true.

“We got promoted obviously which was great but then unfortunately in my second season I suffered a bad injury at Coventry and I was out for eight months and that was the worst period of my career – being at a club that I so wanted to be at but being unable to play.

“In the end I was gracefully sold on as I was a year older by the time I got back and that was probably the worst season in my career but I don’t blame Howard Wilkinson for that.

“He was trying to build a football club but it just meant that overall at Leeds it was my best and my worst time.”

In all, Kamara made only 20 appearances for the Whites with the majority of the defender/midfielder’s career appearances coming for Brentford and in two spells at Swindon Town.

Kamara’s last professional appearance came in 1995 for Bradford City who he then went on to manage for the following three years but for Kamara’s last semi-pro outing you need only go back to this Wednesday for Welsh strugglers Welshpool.

Kamara was sent to play for the Spar Mid Wales League outfit after Sky Sports’ Gillette Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling had angered the club by mocking their miserable results and Kamara was pleasantly surprised with his fitness levels.

Asked how his mobility was at 54, Kamara laughed: “Whoever said I was 54 – that must be a misprint!

“But I was surprised actually how easy it was to fit back into it and it makes you wonder whether players could still play either professionally or semi-professionally.

“But you try and earn as much money as you can and it’s all well and good saying you could have carried on playing as you need to earn a living after football.

“Playing semi-professionally wouldn’t keep you going with the life that you had made.”

What’s not in doubt is that Kamara has certainly made it to the big time since stepping out of the game as a player and the Teesside-born star is now one of the main faces of Soccer Saturday where his ‘unbelievable Jeff’ comments are a regular feature around the country’s various grounds.

Kamara admits jobs don’t get much better than the one he does now.

“Working for Sky Sports has been phenomenal,” he said.

“I can remember when I was younger and On The Ball was always the one.

“Obviously there was Match Of The Day and then there was On The Ball which became a bit of an institution and then Saint And Greavsie for a while but this programme has been different.

“Before it started, if you had asked the man in the street they wouldn’t have believed it if you said that people watching football matches would be one of the main programmes that you watched.

“To have been involved in something that has become an institution has just been fantastic.”

There is, though, now so much more to Kamara’s life with the former footballer now an Ambassador for both Marie Curie Cancer Care and the Special Olympics Great Britain Organisation.

Through climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a team of Football League ambassadors, including Brendan Rodgers, Aidy Boothroyd, and Steve Gibson, Kamara helped raise £385,000 for the Cancer charity while his recruitment to the Special Olympics cause came after a chance meeting with fellow ambassador Lawrie McMenemy during the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

Kamara will also be an Olympic Torch Bearer this summer with the 54-year-old charged with bringing the iconic item from Doncaster to Grimsby and while the popular footballer’s playing days are now behind him – the professional ones at least – an action-packed life is burning brighter than ever.

Reflecting on life since he packed in the game, Kamara pondered: “My life has been fantastic since I packed in playing and management with working for Sky and all the other things I have done in between.

“And I think the one thing that’s important with being in the privileged position that I am in is giving something back.

“Working for Marie Curie has been a pleasure with things like climbing Kilimanjaro which raised a lot of money and it has all been a pleasure because I understand the hard work these people put in and they get peanuts.

“There is no way they can ever get paid the money that they deserve as they are not funded by the Government and they are relying on individuals like myself to help fund them.

“The Special Olympics thing came about in a special sort of way really as I was sat in a cafe in South Africa just about to come home when Lawrie McMenemy who is an ambassador for the Special Olympics happened to be walking by.

“They had a match – a Special Olympics match – two hours before the Germany-Argentina match on the main pitch and I was saying ‘what are you talking about? There’s no way they would allow it.’

“He said ‘I’m telling you, there is a game. Do you want to play in it and do you want to help me coach?’ I said I would, so I rang my wife up and said I’m staying out to play in this game before the quarter-final match between Argentina and Germany. I got really into it and it opened up more opportunities.

“I’m also an Olympic Torch Bearer as well and I will be carrying the Torch from Doncaster to Grimsby. It’s an honour to carry the Olympic Torch and I have to say I really appreciate all the things that have come my way.

“My life was amazing when I played and brilliant when I managed and to coin a phrase it is unbelievable now.”

Andrea Radrizzani.

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