In the latest "As the Canary Flies" series looking at former NCFC players that have gone on to have careers abroad, Tom Drissi looks at someone we all took to our hearts rather quickly, Mr Kei "Heart-shaped hands" Kamara.....
Have a scroll through Kei Kamara’s social media activity and you will be awash with throwback posts to his time at Carrow Road, along with #OTBCs and green and yellow heart emojis aplenty whenever the Canaries pick up a notable result. Add to this the constant ‘come back, Kei!’ replies below his every Norwich-related upload and one would begin to think Kamara was somewhat of a City legend. No. A long-term, loyal club servant perhaps? Not at all. Yet Kei still appears to have managed to have a lasting impact and have struck a real connection with our fan base.
This is what’s interesting about Kamara’s brief and not-exactly-prolific stay with Norwich back in 2013. Rather than fans falling in love with the player they took the wonderful character to their hearts, and that character has an equally incredible story to be told.
Kei’s upbringing is nothing like the childhoods of most Premier League footballers. Growing up in a country in the midst of a civil war without his parents, fleeing to a refugee camp in Gambia and awaiting the chance to move to the USA to be reunited with a mother he hadn’t seen in a decade isn’t the sort of tale one hears too often in an interview with a footballer. Yet although Kei overcoming a great deal to attend college and score his way into MLS as a first round draft pick is a great story in itself, the details of Kamara’s early life and years in Sierra Leone have already been well covered.
As interesting as that part of Kei’s life is, in this month’s As The Canary Flies piece I’m taking a look at the weird and wonderful world of Kei Kamara AFTER Norwich.
At Norwich Kamara was a hugely popular member of the squad and was described rather adorably by Grant Holt as someone who “just lifts you up in the morning with the smile on his face”. His short stay in the Premier League also saw him become the first player of Sierra Leonean descent to score in the division.
The goal was his brilliant equaliser against Everton in a game where he came off the bench to inspire a City comeback (also assisting a last minute Grant Holt winner) in a fabulous 2-1 win at home to end a 10 game winless streak. That night on Match of the Day Kei memorably remarked; “My secret is out now, I’m good at jumping”.
However despite being excellent at jumping, his jig with Wes after an early goal at Sunderland, his dressing room popularity and several promising performances as an impact sub, Chris Hughton decided not to make his loan deal a permanent one.
Despite this, Kamara was determined to stay in English football, as both a matter of personal ambition and also because of how much it meant to a football-obsessed Sierra Leone to have ‘one-of-their own’ playing in their favourite league. Testament to how major his presence in England was to fans back home is the rather amusing story of thousands of Sierra Leoneans packing out cinemas across the country to watch Norwich draw 0-0 at Loftus Road in a game they (wrongly) thought Kamara would be playing in as his signing had been announced a few days earlier. In fact not only was Kei yet to join up with the squad but was also not even in the right country. Oh well, at least the mighty Canaries, as ever, gave the spectators their money’s worth as they witnessed that rarest of things; a clean sheet. Kei remained in England in the form of a season in the Championship with Middlesbrough, where despite a debut goal and impressive start to life on Teesside, he wouldn’t see his contract extended beyond the one, rather injury-ravaged campaign. So Kei’s dream of playing in England was over, returning to the United States in 2014.
By chance the MLS side with first option to sign him, as is the way the transfer system works stateside, was Columbus Crew, the club that originally drafted him out of college 9 years beforehand. Although Kamara struggled in Ohio back when he was a rookie (a single digit goal tally over his first 2 seasons in Ohio) there were no such troubles this time around upon his return to the Crew.
Kamara’s reappearance in the States was immediately followed by the most successful season of his professional career; the forward led Columbus (who finished an unimpressive 7th overall the previous year) all the way to the MLS Cup final after winning the Eastern Conference. And Kamara was the league’s joint top scorer notching 22 goals, seeing him match Toronto’s ex-Juventus and Italy star Sebastian Giovinco in the scoring stakes. However it was the Italian who claimed the Golden Boot courtesy of more assists.
As well as goals by the hatful, Kamara’s performances in black and gold also saw him shortlisted for the division’s MVP award. Not bad for a Championship struggler playing in a respectable league containing strong US internationals as well as the ageing but still classy likes of David Villa, Kaka and the ludicrously evergreen Didier Drogba.
Going into his second season Kamara’s status as one of the league’s best goalscorers was rewarded when Columbus gave him a new and improved contract on a Designated Player (wage cap exempt) salary. Kei even picked up in 2016 where he had left off the previous year in front of goal, however things would soon take a turn for the worse…
Fifty-one minutes into a seemingly standard MLS fixture at home to the Montreal Impact, that Columbus were already leading 3-1 courtesy of 2 first half goals by Kamara, the Crew were awarded a penalty. Kei, looking to complete the first hat-trick of his professional career, ended up in an argument with regular taker Frederico Higuain (older brother of Gonzalo), and was visibly upset that the Argentine refused to budge. Higuain duly converted with Kei notably absent from the celebrations.
However, those seemingly innocuous 30 seconds seemed to mark the beginning of a collapse by Columbus. The Crew would proceed to blow their 3 goal cushion (painfully conceding a 93rd minute equaliser) and Kamara, despite his typically cheery demeanour, did not hold back in his post-match interview. He described Higuain as “not a teammate” and bemoaned the lack of chances the Argentinian number 10 had created for him over the previous year, as well as also referring to a lack of penalties being the reason he missed out on the 2015 golden boot. The Columbus meltdown didn’t stop there, and within a week their star player was in Massachusetts signing for the New England Revolution.
What’s interesting about Kamara is how despite his happy-go-lucky approach to life there’s still real fire in his personality, and when he feels a lack of respect he has historically been quick to do something about it. Controversy has been present in his international career in the years post-Norwich too. Kamara (who turned down the option of playing for the US to represent Sierra Leone) has had his gripes with Sierra Leone’s FA and in 2015 even went on a self-imposed hiatus from playing internationally on account of their lack of professionalism, lack of sacrifices made for the players, “chaotic” structure and organisation regarding the likes of travelling for qualifying matches.
After almost a year out he did put his differences with Sierra Leone’s governing body aside to come back for a crucial do-or-die qualifier, as Sierra Leone despite having had to play home games abroad due to the Ebola crisis were somehow within touching distance of their first African Cup of Nations for 20 years. To qualify they would need to win away against reigning African Champions the Ivory Coast. Despite Kamara returning to score the equalising goal for the Leone Stars (ranked a huge 55 places below the Elephants at the time) the match ended at 1-1 in rather bizarre circumstances as Kamara connected with a 94th minute corner only to see the ball eventually cleared on the line.
However, as he and his teammates ran to the referee to protest what they believed to be a goal, the referee simply blew for full time without consulting his linesman or even appearing to give a second’s thought over the incident. Stoking up the Sierra Leonean sense of being stitched up even further was the equally questionable decision of the official camera crew in the Ivorian stadium to not show a single solitary replay of the incident from its original or alternate angles. The cameras instead panned over a very relieved set of Ivorian fans, whilst Kamara and co. were left distraught.
To end things on a slightly cheerier note, Kamara’s goal-scoring touch has fortunately followed him to the Eastern Seaboard, averaging just under a goal every other game for his new side. More recently, Kei’s latest headline-making exploits involved him receiving one of the most cringe-worthy yellow cards of all time when booked for ‘celebrating excessively’ after twerking in front of the Revolution’s home fans after scoring…
Although stateside he may now be a bigger name and on much bigger wages than when he first arrived in Norfolk from Kansas as a relative unknown, he’s still clearly the same fun-loving self-described “oversized child” that Norwich fans connected with so instantly. Never change, Kei. Never change.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @OutsideTheBig5
Tom Drissi continues with his "As the Canary Flies" series today, charting the early progress of someone super, who is known best as Norwich's number 9. He may well have scored 3 goals against the scum too.....
This is the story is of a young Englishman and his girlfriend in their late teens that did a bit of travelling. They went all around South-East Asia; they spent some time in Australia. And a few months later, they left those sunnier climes to return home with a new lease on life. Sounds like just another student gap year, but this is not that.
Back in early 2001, Grant Holt was a 19 year old playing non-league football in the north of England. Holt had almost given up on his footballing ambitions, but in the next 6 months the then defender/striker would find himself on a goal-laden tour of South-East Asia and Australia.
British players even with their money, agents and clubs to help them readjust are still to this day reluctant to play abroad. With this in mind, the bravery and adventurousness the teenage Grant Holt displayed is all the more impressive knowing those characteristics played a key role in how he performed on the pitch. A teenager, who had just lost his father to cancer, was happy to get on a plane to Perth, Australia at the call of an ex-coach from Halifax to turn out for a semi-professional team plying their trade in the Australian Football West Premier League.
Holt spent a month in Australia and in that time was all too aware that his old Halifax colleague’s outfit, Sorrento FC, weren’t ‘at a standard where he wanted to be’. However his time in Australia made him all the more ready to seize the next opportunity for adventure that would be thrown his way.
Holt’s next chance abroad came in the form of a perpetually struggling Singaporean side called Sengkang Marine FC, who were then managed by a family friend of Holt’s in the form of Trevor Morgan.
Singapore’s S-League was founded in 1996 and for around a decade was the island nation’s only professional sports league. Sengkang Marine (founded by a group of Newcastle United fans under the name ‘Marine Castle United FC’) joined the S League in 1998. However, in their first 4 seasons they struggled (including finishing bottom on 2 occasions) and were beneficiaries of Singapore’s absence of a second division to relegate them to.
However, a change in Sengkang’s tactical approach coupled with Holt’s arrival saw a real upturn in fortunes for The Dolphins. Manager Morgan thought a change in setup was required so opted for the most depressingly English tactical shake-up imaginable. In a move reminiscent of Norwich and England managerial heavyweight Mike Bassett, Morgan signed a big, physical striker in Holt and then had Sengkang adopt a rigid “four-four-fucking-two” where the Cumbrian was partnered by another big Englishman in Daniel Hill.
The tactical change had the desired effect, with Holt netting a hat-trick on his S-League debut and Sengkang recording a rare win, a 4-2 home victory against Jurong FC. Overall, Sengkang’s time with Holt yielded a mixed bag of results, including a 9-0 defeat to Geylang which Holt has since told Sky Sports he doesn’t remember: “When I was there? I don’t think so”. But considering Sengkang’s previous seasons’ finishes, ‘mixed’ results still meant a marked improvement.
A return of 12 goals in 14 matches indicated that Holt was playing well within his comfort zone and in interviews since Holt has referred to the standard of the early 2000s S-League to have been similar to that of the English Conference. His time in Singapore was also rather more comfortable financially compared to his time playing in the UK where he had worked several odd jobs to supplement the little money he was making from the game. In Singapore Holt was earning roughly $4000 Singaporean Dollars per month, “Enough to live and eat and enjoy yourself” he told the Guardian in 2012, as well as having accommodation “with a gym, a pool and Jacuzzi” all on site.
However, Holt still wanted to of make the grade back home and had a contract with Carlisle in the pipeline since before his stint in Singapore. So after only 4 or so months he found himself back in the UK. After giving up the comfortable life he had established in Singapore, Holt found his Carlisle deal falling through. Carlisle would go into administration in 2001.
Despite the initial setback upon his return to the UK, Holt would go on to prove himself and reach the top of the football pyramid. His many successes since his faraway travles may well mean his time in Australia and Singapore feel like a lifetime ago. But nevertheless, as a young man he chose adventure, and to follow his passion to the other side of the world. In a move he has since said helped his footballing career greatly as he "came back with a new hunger and a new drive”.
Many English 20-somethings come back from their months in the Far East pretending to have undergone some spiritual transformation and ‘found themselves’. What about our Grant? “We ate a lot of rice” he told Sky Sports when reflecting oh-so philosophically on his experiences in Asia. Zero pretention. I literally couldn’t love the man more.
Special thanks to Singapore Football for this piece, they tweet at @SGFootball. More information on Holt’s time in Singapore can be found here.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @OutsideTheBig5
By Tom Drissi
While City fans worry about whether or not we’ve got the goals in our ranks to return to the EPL, a quietly released youth product is scoring goals aplenty across the Atlantic and has spent his summer fielding offers from Champions League clubs across Europe…
Dom Dwyer’s story is an interesting one. In some ways it sounds all too familiar: a released academy player in the UK using their talent to at least get a college scholarship stateside. Yet in other ways Dwyer’s footballing story is as cool and quirky a tale of any Englishman playing professionally today.
Very few English-rejects-turned-college-players have gone on to have professional MLS careers, and none have managed to reach the heights and profile that Dwyer has achieved in the States.
Despite being far from a well-known figure in this most glorious part of the world, Dwyer has strong ties to Norfolk. He attended secondary school at Springwood High in King’s Lynn and the College of West Anglia. Dwyer cut his footballing teeth at the region’s finest club spending 6 years as a Canary in the early 2000s before being released in 2006 due largely to injury woes.
However if the prolific Instagrammer’s uploads are anything to go by, the forward looks back happily on his years in Yellow and Green, with no hard feelings held towards the club that didn’t believe he had what it took to make the grade professionally. Oh and when I call Dwyer a prolific Instagrammer, I mean the man has literally picked up yellow cards for his selfie-habit (in a goal celebration during a 2014 MLS game against Chicago Fire).
After being let go by City, the striker played non-League football for a couple of years before being spotted by USA-based scout (and former Chelsea goalkeeper for those who remember him) Joe McLaughlin. Dwyer, as an injury prone 18 year old in England’s 6th tier, had given up on the dream of making it professionally and speaks openly at how his move to the US to play college ‘soccer’ (*cringes*) for Texas and then Florida was done mainly in order to “get a free degree”, following a long list of UK academy-rejects turned US college scholars before him.
A successful college career saw him drafted by MLS side Sporting Kansas City in 2012 as a respectable pick No.16. Dwyer however would prove to be somewhat of a late bloomer though, and at 22 he found himself out on loan in the USL Pro (the USA’s 3rd division) with Orlando City. It was this loan move and the accompanying game time in Lake Buena Vista that saw the striker find his scoring touch professionally, and that knack doesn’t appear to have deserted him in his return to Sporting Kansas City where he has reached double digits in 3 consecutive seasons, including 24 goals in 40 game across all competitions in his 2014 breakout year.
Fast forward to 2016 and Dwyer is a true star. He’s at the top of the MLS salary cap for non-designated players, which is no shame at all considering DP status is typically reserved for ageing Europeans (Lampard/Gerrard/Keane), stars from Copa Libertadores sides (Piatti/Higuain/Urruti) or US internationals (Dempsey/Jones/Bradley). And on that mention of the US national team, further testament to the impression Dwyer has made in MLS is that he is heavily linked with a call up to the US setup upon the receipt of his American passport, which he is in line to receive in 2017.
Besides wages and a career for the USMNT in the pipeline, Dwyer’s exploits on the field have also seen the City youth product spend the past summer window linked with moves back across the Atlantic.
Perennial Greek Champions & UEFA Champions League regulars Olympiacos were most heavily linked and Kansas City were rumoured to have even accepted a bid of €4.5 million for the striker. Dwyer turned the move down, along with rejecting a transfer to big spending Wolves on deadline day.
However the Englishman made sure he’d had his fun misleading and bamboozling the media before making public his desire to stay put. These tricks at the media and rumour mill’s expense included selfies in front of British Airways flights on deadline day as well as his “off to Greece” remarks made in front of the press to teammate Benny Feilhaber in August.
Whilst Dwyer speaks openly about his desire to play in Europe one day, he rejected the opportunities this summer for family reasons. The striker married Canadian-born USWNT star Sydney Leroux in 2015 and American soccer’s power couple are expecting their first child this year, meaning Dwyer was hesitant to uproot his family in making a switch to Europe.
For now Dom Dwyer appears to be staying put and looks set to add to his impressive and ever growing YouTube reel of MLS goals, but we don’t know what the future holds. Champions League football is a possibility, and the chance to represent his adopted home at the 2018 World Cup in Russia could very well be on the cards.
I for one hope he does himself and all of us proud, and should I ever see him scoring on the big stage I won’t wait for a second before claiming him for Norwich as ‘one of our own’. The boy-done-good from King’s Lynn is, and will always be, a Canary and after a decade away from the club it’s wonderful to see that he hasn’t forgotten it.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @OutsidetheBig5
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By Tom Drissi
As discussed in How Brexit could affect City - Part 1, the ability of British clubs to recruit from Europe has not yet changed from a legal perspective.
However, even though Norwich are still able to recruit work permit-free from the continent, a slight stumbling block in the short term (with regards to this summer’s transfer market) is that players at European sides just got a whole lot more expensive.
The calibre of player a promotion-pushing, yo-yo side like Norwich typically recruits would likely have a release clause between 6 & 10 million Euros. But since the ‘Leave’ vote such release clauses now require between £500,000 to £1 million more than they did pre-referedum.
Although it is worth noting is that the short term effect of currency fluctuations on the transfer market actually works both ways in the transfer market.
Our weaker £ makes our players more affordable to European buyers, and their release clauses (listed in Sterling) now cost continental clubs fewer Euros than pre-Brexit.
Brexit could also actually make for an interesting summer with regards to the transfer market in that it increases the incentive for Alex Neil and the club to begin promoting from within and giving academy products a chance in the first team.
With European based players now more expensive, and the signing of home-grown players from other clubs often representing dreadful value (Jordan Ibe linked to Bournemouth for £15 million being a laughable example), then Alex Neil and the board could deem it worthwhile to blood some youngsters in the upcoming season.
The combination of Norwich’s relegation along with such a huge change in Britain and therefore the Canaries’ relationship with the rest of the world will likely make for an interesting summer and few seasons ahead.
In the long-term, the type of agreement that can be negotiated in time between the UK and the EU over footballer’s work permits will have a huge say over how Norwich recruit players at home and abroad in the future.
However, unfortunately for Norwich and all British clubs is that the present uncertainty may be long-lasting as striking special deals with the EU over footballers is understandably quite far down the list of renegotiation priorities for the Home Office.
Norwich City FC, much like the rest of Britain, finds itself in a rather uncertain environment and how we as a club fare in the future could be largely down to forward-looking post-Brexit decisions made by the City board in the coming weeks.
Over to you, Delia.
By Tom Drissi
June 23rd, the day the British electorate voted, for better or worse, to leave the European Union.
As stressed by political pundits on both sides of the debate, the decision was to have wide-reaching impacts on all aspects and sectors of British society, and it would appear Britain’s national game will be far from immune to any such changes.
While economic turmoil, diplomatic uncertainty and the worst performing Sterling in recent memory (Raheem and the GBP) are all of huge importance, I’m sure the real question on everyone’s mind, of course, is how Brexit could affect the mighty Canaries...
Before I begin I should really point out nothing has changed YET in legal terms (all that ‘triggering Article 50’ stuff that nobody quite understands). No sudden changes to work permit restrictions on EU players have come into force, nor will any of the first team squad signed under the EU’s freedom of movement laws be retrospectively forced to apply for visas or work permits.
However, just because we can all rest easy in our beds that the Home Office aren’t swinging by Colney to deport Wes Hoolahan or Martin Olsson any time soon, it is still the case Brexit could have a significant impact on Norwich’s future squads and recruitment strategy moving forward, as well as more immediate influences in the upcoming transfer window.
A useful thought exercise to see how significant changing post-Brexit work permit laws could be in the future is to see how significant a role EU footballers have played in Norwich squads of recent years.
First of all, it should be noted superstars from Europe or elsewhere have been and will still be able to move to major English clubs for big fees and not have to worry about Brexit or obtaining a work permit because they typically satisfy the ‘highest calibre’ of player clause in the Home Office’s regulation.
However, clubs and players further down the pyramid such as Norwich, that don’t exclusively recruit established internationals from top ranked nations, could struggle in the future to see their foreign transfer targets granted the legal documentation required to even lace their boots up in the UK.
For sides like us, the EU’s laws allowing the player pools of 27 other nations to be scoured for talent without the looming issue of work permits are of huge importance. But just how reliant is Norwich’s non-British recruitment on the European Union and its labour laws?
Unfortunately for the Canaries, it appears Norwich’s recruitment from abroad is almost exclusively dependent on the EU’s freedom of movement laws in place for workers and footballers alike.
Over the past 4 seasons Norwich’s first team squads (typically around 30 players per season) have been composed of a base of around 16 to 20 British players and 10 to 12 non-UK national players.
What is striking (and worrying post-Brexit) about the make-up of the foreign contingent in Norwich’s squads in recent years is that practically every single foreign player we have signed since 2012 has been acquired by the club through use of the EU’s freedom of movement laws.
In fact, of the nearly 100 players to have been registered as first team members by Norwich since 2012, only 1 didn’t carry either a British or European Union passport.
This shows when Norwich scouts leave the UK and search abroad, they operate almost exclusively within the EU. Therefore the Canaries might have to seriously re-optimise their scouting networks.
For the record, the crazily small figure of just 1 non-British or EU players since 2012 mentioned above consists of Kei Kamara (Sierra Leonean & American dual national). The number seemed a bit low to me initially. However, every counter-example I tried to think of only ended up being disproved. For example, Jonas Gutiérrez and Luciano Becchio didn’t count as non-EU players as both, as is common practice among South American footballers, carried Italian passports.
Secondly, it turned out that Nigeria international Joseph Yobo had been at Everton for so long that he had gained British citizenship by the time he joined us on loan. Simeon Jackson (Canadian and Jamaican dual national) also has a British passport, while the likes of Seb Bassong, Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe, Youssouf Mulumbu and Dieumerci Mbokani all carry French or Belgian passports. And finally, while Timm Klose and Alexander Tettey aren’t technically from EU nations, their home countries of Switzerland and Norway are signed up to the EU’s freedom of movement laws, meaning they were therefore brought to Carrow Road under the same rules as other European imports.
All in all, Norwich has recruited almost exclusively within the UK and European Union in recent seasons, and what City need to do with their European-based scouts amid the short-term uncertainty and long-term likely reduced access is a really important question.
However, one potential positive of this could be if Norwich scouts in the face of uncertainty turn their attention inwards and begin to scout more extensively within the UK.
Not only would a future with more local, home-grown players be welcomed on the terraces, but were Norwich able to nurture some talented young Englishman into the first team then the transfer fees received from any eventual sale (including the infamous ‘English player premium’) could prove to be a very profitable business model for Delia and Co. whatever league we’re in.