Football: Kamara's secret depths

Bradford City's manager has buried his hard-man image and built his First Division side's passing game around Chris Waddle's subtle skills. Phil Shaw met him as he prepared his players to face Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow
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During two decades as a midfield enforcer, the intensity of Chris Kamara's tackling came to be feared by those who carried the flame for football's finer arts. In his first full season as manager of Bradford City, he is confronting people's preconceptions with similar zeal.

Ten years ago this month, the man now striving to make Bradford a bastion of the beautiful game became the first player ever to face police proceedings for an on-field incident. Kamara received a four-figure fine for breaking an opponent's jaw, and, by his own admission, had run up "a terrible list of bookings and five or six sendings-off" before retiring.

By an unhappy coincidence, the Bradford board recently started legal action against a Huddersfield player. Gordon Watson, making only his third appearance after Kamara bought him from Southampton for a club-record pounds 550,000, had a leg broken in two places in a challenge by Kevin Gray.

Although Kamara was so incensed by the incident that he had to be restrained by his players, he sees no contradiction or hypocrisy in his apparent change from poacher to gamekeeper. There was certainly no macho posturing about the altercation that put him in the dock in his Swindon days. He paid a heavy price, both financially and in terms of his reputation, but that was then and this is now.

If he had built Bradford in his own image as a player, tomorrow's sell- out home tie against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup's fifth round would have been the definitive clash of styles. Instead, it promises to be a purist's delight, with Chris Waddle among those upholding Kamara's improbable principles against David Pleat's side.

The match has added intrigue because Pleat, whose teams are the antithesis of route-one or rough-house football, deemed Waddle surplus to requirements. Last autumn, First Division Bradford took him in at Valley Parade. He remains there after spurning the post of player-manager at West Bromwich, his renaissance providing a stylish symbol of Kamara's conversion.

At least it looks like a U-turn to the outsider. Kamara, whose gentle eloquence and wry humour further belie his image, argues that it is football which has changed, not him. "I've always thought it was a beautiful game and that the ball should be passed around," he says. "I also believe you can create goalmouth excitement without resorting to the long-ball game."

It is as if Kamara has rekindled an adolescent passion. While some regard it as gaucheness, he was not displeased when one newspaper described him as "39 going on 13".

Yet he offers another, pragmatic, reason for eschewing the cynical methods of his past. "Some of the things I did on the pitch, you couldn't do today because of the rule changes covering things like the tackle from behind," he says, the honesty as brutal as a whack on the shin. "Nowadays you need people who are skilful rather than physical in the English game.

"I spent the best part of 20 years trying to stop people like Chris Waddle from playing. Now I'm convinced that good touch and loads of movement are the way forward."

Bradford's squad reflects his faith in flair (as well as a judicious exploitation of the Bosman ruling while funds went into ground improvements). It includes a Dutchman, two Portuguese (one of Brazilian origin), sundry Scandinavians and the pass master who once kept Paul Gascoigne out of the England team, Gordon Cowans. Kamara makes no secret either of his interest in re-uniting Waddle with Peter Beardsley in City's claret and amber.

It appears to be a classic case of "do as I say, not as I did". But while the former dockyard apprentice from Teesside was a ball-winner, with all that term implied, he always felt there was a more constructive player trying to get out.

The catalyst proved to be a transfer from Stoke to Leeds in 1990. The bookings dried up, the skill began to show. At 32, Kamara made his debut at the top level as an emergency left-back, subduing Tony Daley without recourse to ruggedness. He went on to enjoy a trouble-free run, never playing the sore thumb among sophisticates like Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister.

"My only regret is that I didn't play for Howard Wilkinson earlier. I would have achieved more and played even longer if I had. At other clubs I was with, the players were always anxious about money, about making ends meet. So to go somewhere as well organised as Leeds, where almost the only thing you had to worry about was playing on a Saturday, was fantastic.

"Howard was my dream manager, somebody I'd been crying out to play for. He encouraged me to cut out the reckless challenges - fined me for them - and it worked well for me. He's so meticulous. If anyone was made to be FA technical director, it's him."

From Lou Macari, at Swindon, he learned that managers do not have to court popularity to earn respect. At Sheffield United, Dave Bassett was strong on squad spirit. Serving under Lennie Lawrence at Middlesbrough and Bradford was equally instructive. "He's got a great knowledge of football but is also incredibly laid-back, which I envy," Kamara says.

Then there was the shrewd strategist who bars Bradford's path to the quarter-finals. "David Pleat probably did more for me [at Luton] than anyone apart from Howard. He only had to see a player once to work out all their strengths and weaknesses."

Kamara is grateful, none the less, that Pleat saw fit to free Waddle. "Chris should still be playing top-quality football week in, week out. The bigger the stage, the better he is, as he proved in the fourth round at Everton. But he's also been superb at places like Wycombe and Grimsby."

Waddle, a cult figure with supporters, is obviously enjoying his football again. And, as if to prove that Kamara is not the only one breaking new ground, the man Marseilles' followers christened "the king of swaying hips" even scored, Wimbledon-style, with a far-post header against Huddersfield. At Goodison Park, he embarrassed Neville Southall with a majestic chip from 35 yards.

One theory as to why the bigger clubs ignored Waddle is that they doubted his capacity, in his 37th year, to sustain his impact on a game. It may also be that some managers were afraid to bring in a charismatic figure who might have ended up replacing them.

What if 21st-placed Bradford end up being relegated - surely Waddle's presence offers an instant solution for the chairman? "Of course it could happen, but I can't worry about that," Kamara says. "I have to do what's best for the club.

"But I believe in my ability. I promised my chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, promotion last season when I took over, which we achieved despite starting from mid-table. You must stick by your beliefs. To me, signing someone of Chris's class is never a gamble.

"Results weren't good before Christmas, but I can assure you we won't be in the bottom three at the end of the season. We've been playing the best football this city's ever seen - all that was missing was the firepower, which is why the chairman put up the money for Watson."

Lofty claims. To substantiate them Kamara points to a near doubling of attendances since last season, easily the biggest rise in all four divisions. As proof of their Premiership potential, he cites last May's invasion of Wembley by 30,000 Bradfordians for the play-off final victory over Notts County.

Ending the season in triumph made a welcome change, Kamara explained. As a player with Luton, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, he was relegated from the top section three years running. "They say that Coventry used to pay clubs to sign me," he says with deadpan delivery.

Mention of Luton's demise reminds Kamara of his return to Elland Road in their colours. Eric Cantona had just scored his first goal for Leeds and the man from Yorkshire TV pressed Lee Chapman, who once played in France and had offered to act as an interpreter, to ask him about it.

"So Chappy turned to Eric and said [slips into Inspector Clouseau accent]: 'Ow duz eet feel to ev scoored yeur feurst gol?' Not surprisingly, Eric was speechless."

Much as Chris Kamara would love to leave his own manager that day, David Pleat, lost for words, Bradford will not set out to beat Wednesday at any cost. "Football's about winning and I'm a winner, but you also have to set standards and entertain people," he says, a man of conviction in more senses than one.