Fighting Like Beavers On The Front Line Of Football
by Chris Kamara
Harper Sport, £15.99
Reviewed by Barney Ronay
From WSC 283 September 2010
Mr Unbelievable is a mess. It is, structurally and tonally, a confused and uneven affair. It is without doubt unbelievable – an unbelievable dog's dinner. Having said that it isn't a particularly boring book, or at least not uniformly boring – open its pages anywhere and you find yourself assailed, bothered, nudged and jabbered at. Mr Unbelievable has one constant: the sound of uneasily giggling professional banter, the banter of a man who appears to be laughing so hard he has tears in his eyes, but who you feel might, at any moment, jab you in the eye and ask you what's so funny.
There are two interesting things about Chris Kamara. The first of these is his current professional status as the in-house court jester of Sky's Premier League coverage: gabblingly watchable, a conscientious name-dropper, at all times self-consciously "larger-than-life". For the first 95 pages of Mr Unbelievable you settle wearily on the idea that this is a book about Sky's Soccer Saturday, on which Kamara regularly appears and says "unbelievable" a lot. Chapter One begins with a format-description, followed by a gurgling mash-up of unnecessary anecdotes ("Sam Allardyce is good for a beer in his office... José took it in good spirits"). Chapter Two features a surreally extended transcript of an on-air exchange between Kamara and Jeff Stelling. "My popularity as part of the Sky gang never ceases to amaze me," he blurts out at one point. Indeed.
And still it goes on, a commendably energetic blur of directionless self-aggrandisement ("half-way through his set [Robbie Williams] looked over and shouted 'Chris Kamara, do the Rudebox!'").
Until finally, we get to where most football autobiographies start – the bit about playing football. Immediately there is a juddering gear change as Mr Unbelievable suddenly becomes both recognisably a book and also quite absorbing. This is where the second interesting thing about Kamara comes in – the bit about being footballer in the late 1970s and 80s. Kamara is of mixed race (his father was from Sierra Leone) and he doesn't shrink from describing the experience of growing up as "the only black people in Middlesbrough".
He describes having bananas thrown at him and is open and unconciliatory about how upsetting this was. He recalls not being served in pubs or allowed into nightclubs and calmly recounts the abuse he received as "the only black face in the crowd at Elland Road". Not only does Kamara have a real story to tell, he also calms down finally. He comes out of it well too. An anecdote about being casually insulted by Princess Margaret ("'Where are you from?' 'Middlesbrough'. She looked surprised. 'No, where are you originally from?' 'Middlesbrough,' I repeated") is recounted with just the right level of weary disdain.
There is a glimpse here of a far more interesting book – the book Kamara hasn't written, but which occasionally rattles its chains and hammers at the windows of Mr Unbelievable. Kamara's dad, the austere and self-possessed Sierra Leonean, is the most interesting person in here. He gets no more than a few paragraphs. And, by the end, the portrait that emerges of a relentlessly giggly, simultaneously boastful and self-deprecating TV-infused caricature, albeit one who remains oddly likeable throughout, has an air of show business pretence that clunks against the book's (strictly rationed) personal moments. The clue is, after all, in the title.