Up, Close and Personal with "The Tyneside Indian" Michael Chopra

Arijit Mukherjee  |  Tuff-Questions  |  1 Year Ago

Michael Chopra, born and brought up in Newcastle, seen it all in the English Football while being consistent in the highest level of the Mecca of Football, England and scored more than 100 goals in the Premier League. This isn’t what defines the Kerala Blasters man aptly though. Michael, as we know him is straight forward man(A typical Brit) with some passionate thoughts about doing something really good for Indian Football. The Striker extraordinaire Michael Chopra speaks to Jersey in a candid interview sharing his career moments and plans going forward. 


Now let’s sit back and enjoy a whirlwind series of question-answers with the man who has seen the insights of world football closer than anyone else…


Jersey: Firstly Michael, How did it all start for you at the Newcastle Academy?

Michael: Let me correct you, we did not have academies at that time; it was a Centre of Excellence. I went to the Newcastle Centre of Excellence when I was nine years old and we used to train once a week for two hours, but you know that it was all about playing football and we use to enjoy every bit of it.



Jersey: you debuted for the Newcastle first team right after 2000 season and being the first Brit-Indian playing for such an iconic club. Was there a kind of pressure or level expectations attached to it, quite frankly it was unheard of?

Michael: Well, I was the first player of Indian heritage to play for a top club in the English League. Well, people do talk about the pressure of playing as the first Indian and so on, but quite frankly as a young player I never thought about it. I just wanted to do my best on the pitch and prove my worth at the top level. I just wanted to concentrate on the game.



Jersey: When you made your debut, you had the privilege of playing with the great Alan Shearer, how was that experience when you first went into the dressing room and how did you soak into the atmosphere?

Michael: Well, firstly I was in awe of these great names, though by 16-17 I was good enough to be a part of the first team. It was not just Alan Shearer, there was Gary Speed, there was Steve Harper, as well as Shay Given, and lots of big names were in the team at that time. When I first broke into the team that season, Newcastle finished second and was challenging for the title and was playing in the Champions League as well. Basically at that period of time Newcastle was playing perhaps at their best. It was a dream come true as I was going to Juventus, Barcelona and for me coming from Newcastle it was an absolute dream being a part of that exciting era of Newcastle United.



Jersey: Take us through your Champions League debut at Nou Camp against Barcelona, how was that experience all about?

Michael: Well, my debut was indeed against Barcelona and they were at that time the best team in Europe. It was not just that, it was at the Nou Camp, it was 15 years back and at that time half way down the tunnel they had a chapel for the players to pray before they went onto the pitch. It was simply breath-taking.  It was a great experience for a little boy like me to be a part of that occasion. 

I had never been to Barcelona before. People go to Barcelona for stadium tours, but the first time I went there, I went to play and sitting on the bench seeing Patrick Kluivert, even seeing Luis Enrique there at that time was an absolute treat. Then actually to be given a chance to get on the pitch as a substitute was simply a dream come true for me with all these great players.

Jersey: Ok, Michael now getting back to the English Football. You had your first break in the first team against Everton in the League Cup and you lost in the shoot-out, how was the experience on your debut?

Michael: Well, It was actually a relief, I was ready long back. I personally believed that I was ready one year before I made my actual debut. I believed I was ready at the age of 16 but coming back to my debut, it was special making my debut at Saint James Park in front of 50-52,000 people. It was special. I learnt a lot, the game indeed went on to penalty shoot-out, you know many of the star players were not ready to take the penalties and I being a home-grown player decided to take a penalty, though I missed. I remember Alan Shearer coming up to me after the game and saying— Don’t worry about it. At least you had the nerve and passion to take a shot when the players who have been paid 10-15 million pounds were not ready to take it.  I know Alan Shearer had missed a penalty against Sunderland a month back and he said to me, imagine how that felt. So, it was a wonderful gesture from such an icon and I really appreciated that.



Jersey: After the initial years, like couple of seasons you were loaned out a lot of season and had gone to Watford, Nottingham Forest and all. You were performing regularly and you were quite a buzz here in India as well for a while now. So, how difficult was to cope wit the feeling of getting loaned out so often and were you on a mission to prove a point to win back your place in the first team in Newcastle?

Michael: Well, it was my idea to get loaned out to these clubs. It was not the clubs decision. At that point I was more focussed on getting regular football and I wanted to play more so I went up to the manager and asked him if I can leave and learn more about football by playing more than sitting on the bench. And it was the right decision I felt as the Championship was much more physical than the Premier League and as a 17-18 year old kid I learnt more playing in the Championship. I had to do it and prove myself that I was ready for Newcastle and Premier League. I wanted to score goals and show people what I was made of and I did.



Jersey: After a couple of season you got sold to Watford, I guess?

Michael: No, I was sold to Cardiff, well when I left for Cardiff in 2006, Alan Shearer was going to retire and we had Michael Owen all ready and as a club Newcastle had to spend big to get some big name striker to fill up Alan’s boot and they went and got Obafemi Martins. So, I knew that I will not get regular football and though Newcastle offered me a new contract, I decided to reject it and go out and find a place where I could get more football and prove myself. So., I went to Cardiff for half a million. I had one of best season straight away and scored 22 times in 42 games that season. I was respected all the more and I think I did enough to be considered as a brilliant goalscorer.

Then the very next season Roy Keane the manager of Sunderland signed me for 5 million pounds and though they were our rivals as professionals, I decided to go there and play in the Premier League.



Jersey: You were always known as a Newcastle boy, so how was it signing for Sunderland? How did your Newcastle fans receive it as?

Michael: Well, I had mixed reactions. I was an all and through Newcastle fan from the day my dad took me to the stadium for my first game. I had also scored against Sunderland at the Stadium of Lights a season before I left for Cardiff. 

Well you know what, it was hard at times but I think what it made it easier in the very first game of the 2007 season against Tottenham we were drawing 0-0 and I came in as a substitute and deep into injury time around the 93-94 minute mark a cross came in and I scored and we won. It was at the Stadium of Lights and immediately the fans took to me and I became a striker and not a Newcastle boy anymore. I also scored a goal in the second match as well which made it easier for me.



Jersey: You had one of your best seasons in the Premier League with Sunderland and Roy Keane at the helm of things. So tell us how was it working with Roy, as he was known as fiery, passionate and a leader from his days with Manchester United?

Michael: He was the same as he was as a player. He was a fighter and a passionate guy and wanted to win football matches for Sunderland. I actually quite liked working under him though some guys may have some problem with him but I shared a great relation and I think he was a good manager. 

Moreover, he had a gut feeling about me, he used to predict when I will score and tell me later on after the match that he knew I would score. He had won everything for Manchester United and I learnt a lot from him.



Jersey: What went wrong with Roy at Sunderland as his stint was not for a very long time?

Michael: Looking back now, Roy Keane being the captain of the Republic of Ireland when he went to the World Cup and he had some issues with the training pitches and he had a word with a lot of the players and one of them was Niall Quinn. They had a bitter fall-out and when Roy became the manager at the club, Niall was the chairman of Sunderland. So Niall and Roy never took to each other at the club and Roy never stayed long at the club.



Jersey: How was your experience with Cardiff?

Michael: Obviously it was a great experience, especially the manager Dave Jones and his transfer policy, he was brilliant. He used to buy players on the fringes of the Premier League next to nothing and then sell them off for millions. I think he made around 25-30 Million pounds for the club by just selling players.  Cardiff was brilliant as a football club and as a city and they were passionate about football. We had a team who were always playing for promotions, we were always there and thereabout. When I left the club they played in a FA Cup and League Cup final which was a great achievement for a Championship Club. Moreover when I was there we were in the Championship play-off and were 45 minutes away from getting promoted to the Premier League.  It would have been a dream come true at that time and they eventually made it two three seasons later and we always had 25-30,000 supporters at the stadium. They always appreciated my effort for the club and the goals I scored for them.



Jersey: Michael, you have represented England at the Under 16, 18, 20 levels. At that point of time there was a buzz that you would be the next into the English national team, but for some reason you couldn’t make it, what went wrong?

Michael: Actually I have represented England all way through right from Under 15 till Under 21. It wasn’t a case of anything going wrong. It was just that I was playing at the Championship and not many players get picked from the Championship into the National team. Moreover the competition was very tough, we had Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Jermaine Defoe and Wayne Rooney coming in. They were all top class talents. I went really close at one point of time but they decided to pick someone else from the Championship.



Jersey: Alright, so on that note let me put it like this, so can we safely say you always too much of competition at the top level in Newcastle and England during your era and you were a bit unlucky?

Michael: Yes always throughout my career, when I made my debut with Newcastle with top class talents they had then later Patrick Kluivert also came in and it was the same with the England team. I mean look at the talent the manager’s had at their disposal. But, looking back would I have been the same kind of player if I wouldn’t have practised with Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Patrick Kluivert, I really don’t know as I learnt so much training with these world class players.



Jersey:  Tell us, there was a rumour that Mohun Bagan wanted to sign you, was that actually true?

Michael: I think you were talking about the rumour which happened in 2007-08 when I was in the Premier league and do you think anyone will leave the Premier League in his prime and come to India? Realistically, why would I have left? But going back there was only rumour and nothing concrete from anyone from India.



Jersey: There was another rumour, that that AIFF wanted you to play for India, was that true?

Michael: Well, let’s make this clear, I know a lot of fans here in India say that I refused to play for India at that time.  When they contacted me and I did came down to Dubai to meet the then manager Bob Houghton and the rest of the team, so basically I started the process from my end to play in right earnest in 2011, but people do not realise it is complicated to play for India when you are a PIO. For me to play for National team, I have to have an OCI card for five years and then apply for an Indian passport and let go of my British passport, it is not that simple. I did start the process and I just completed my five years last year when I could apply for an Indian passport and I did have a chat with Stephen Constantine about it and he said realistically my chance of playing for the Indian team is very slim and I should not let go of my British passport. So, though I wanted to and there are lot of players in Europe who want to play for India but due to the Government of India rules which do not allow dual citizenship and most players are not willing to let go of their original passport with the current world situation. So, until the government change the rule and let players play for India with OCI though the Indian National team has progressed but would never go to that next level of these guys are not allowed to play.



Jersey: So let me reiterate, just like many of us Indian football fans you also believe that AIFF should request the Government of India to make some amendments and let the footballers of Indian origin play for India?

Michael: I think they have to, I have a life-time visa and I can always be in India and so that way I should be allowed to play in India as I can do all other things here in India and be here for ever. With an OCI card I am literally Indian so why cannot I represent the Indian National team? I don’t understand it; it does not make any sense.



Jersey: Let’s now talk about your sting at ISL. How has been the experience playing for Kerala Blasters and coming to India?

Michael: Well, the experience has been great. I have never been to India before I came for the ISL, so it was a great experience. I actually underestimated the ISL and the Indian players. I accept that and hold my hands up. I did not train properly and thought it would be easy and performed poorly.

So last season I was more prepared and I trained with the DSK Academy and was fighting fit before I played for the season and I think people saw glimpses of the Michael Chopra who played in the EPL when I played in 2016. I got an injury while playing against Goa. I had a thigh tear and so though I tried to play crossing the pain barrier and so I took rest in the middle of the season and did not contribute as much for the team after the Goa game. The season was very short to make a proper recovery and I could not continue.



Jersey: How has been the experience with the Kerala fans and their passion for the game?

Michael: I think what is good about the fans in Kerala is that they come to watch the football match. They do not have any team in the I-League so all the fans from across Kerala comes to see the Blasters matches and to see the superstars. It is special to have 60-70,000 fans throng to the ground. It is special to see them all in yellow two hours before the game and we players talk about it in the bus and we appreciate it though we do not express much but that is special when we have got from the fans. It’s a shame that we could not deliver the trophy, I have played twice for Kerala and have missed in the finals on both occasion, hopefully I will be third time lucky and repay the support and passion of the fans in equal measures.



Jersey: Why did you not come for the second season after playing in the first?

Michael: Well in the second season Peter Taylor was the manager and he was getting in all League Two and conference players from the UK. See if you are not good enough in the UK they would not be good here, all sub-standard players and basically I did not decide to associate with a club whose ambitions are not to win!! See what happened that season after the high of the finals in the first season they finished last the next season.



Jersey: Right, and you got back right to the finals again in the third season?

Michael: Well, see the players we got last season, we had Aaron Hughes who had just finished playing in the Euros, we had Gordon Stack who has played with the Invincible for Arsenal. We had a good team with a great manager who has seen it all in the world of football.



Jersey: Yes, let’s get to Steve Coppell. He is a hugely respected manager across English Football, What did he bring to the table at the Kerala Blasters and how has been the experience?

Michael: It was a great experience. I knew Steve from our time in England, I have played against his team a number of times back in the UK. I knew what to expect from him and how he would play. People see him as a quiet man and he is a quiet man who will not go shouting at people, but he is very intelligent man and knows about everything happening in the team though he keeps quite. He is an excellent man manager and hopes that he is retained for the next season as well as he will take the team to next level and make it a better unit with his knowledge and experience.



Jersey: Let’s wade into the Big Controversy ISL vs. I League, many of us want an open league with promotion and relegation, let us get a player who is entwined with Indian Football now and has played at the very top. What’s your view on this topic?

Michael: Me personally, they need to scrap the I-League and get the system of a proper ISL-1 and ISL-2 in place. I know people talk about all the money coming into the ISL ,but I think let’s get two or three teams from the I League into the ISL and you have to have two tiers and have promotions and relegations. You have to give the teams something to fight about; you have to give ISL-2 teams a fair chance to compete with the teams in the top league. You look at the I-League Minerva and Mumbai are the bottom teams and I don’t think they will be relegated look at Aizawl’s case they were relegated last year and they played the top division this year. This does not happen in any other part of the world this happens only in India. The people who run the leagues should take a proper decision on this. 

Me personally I do not agree with the draft system why don’t they assign all the Indian players to all the clubs and then if they perform well let other clubs come and buy them next year. Make the Indian League exciting make it something which people talk about. Somebody in Europe can come and buy them and that is the only way clubs can earn money and survive. They also have to have a cup competition just like the FA Cup in England. Where every team in India and can compete on the same plain everyone gets a chance to face the top teams. So you will have a small team from the Mizoram League get a chance to play against Kerala or Chennai. Why not people who run football here in India think like this and make it more interesting, this is how it happens everywhere in the world.

Why don’t they follow the best league system in the world the English League system? They should have a tiered league and it drives me crazy as they don’t get the basics right. I know it is about the money but you have to think about the football clubs and give them a fair chance to survive. This cannot be a fair model to make Indian Football popular around the world. English League and a FA Cup format will make it very exciting.


Jersey: Well Michael, Lets know about Michael Chopra the person, how has life treated you, we know you have gone through some troubles?

(Michael interrupts) Michael: But I would not like to talk about any of my problems. Back in UK, people have asked me about them for the last three years and I don’t discuss them in public none of my personal problems.



Jersey: That is ok, what I meant was How is Michael Chopra as a person away from the glitz and glamour of the football world what does he do apart from football?

Michael: Well, at this point of time Michael is a pretty boring person. I finish my programs with Ten Sports and then I come back home and just like playing FIFA and Call of Duty on PlayStation. I like to watch football and read a lot. I do a lot of research on this games I cover, I read a lot of articles on coaching on the internet to prepare myself for my life after. At one point of time I have to retire maybe this year or next and then I want to be a coach so I prepare myself. I try to make myself a better person every day.



Jersey: Tell us Michael at the fag end of your career how does it feel when you look back at your career?

Michael: I think as a footballer, I have achieved a lot; I have played in the EPL, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League, and Champions League. I have played in India!! So looking at it, I have fulfilled my dreams I have actually lived my dreams right from debuting with Newcastle. Looking back I have got to appreciate what I have done. Not many people get the chance to live the life which I have lived. I have scored more than 100 goals in the toughest league of the world. I have also scored 9 Premier League goals. So people cannot take that away from me. I have achieved many things and I appreciate that about me.



Jersey: Tell us Michael, did you ever get offers from other leagues in Europe and did you ever think about moving to another league?

Michael: Yeah!! I had offers from clubs in Germany, Italy as well as the US. But in that time I was playing in the EPL and all the top players playing in that league. We had great players like Bergkamp, Henry playing for Arsenal. We had Kluivert playing for Newcastle. I also played against Ronaldo when he was in Manchester. So, why would I leave the top league and go to some other league did not make sense to me. The money may be more nowadays but back in my time, it had all the greats and I wanted to prove my potential on the biggest stage.



Jersey: I had a question in mind, I know you want to be the manager but do you have any plans of contributing more to Indian Football or what more do you want to do as you have such vast top class experience?

Michael: I want to help the Indian kids; I want to share my experience and whatever I have learnt from my coaches and peers back in England. I have plans to set up my academy here and I am already in talks with Renedy Singh and Bhaichung Bhutia and we have big plans for Indian Football. But the AIFF needs to change they have to go grassroots; they need to have facilities for the young kids to play. It’s not about making money in India, it is about letting the kids have proper facilities. You look at these soccer schools across India springing up like mushrooms, bottom line is will these schools send the kids to the clubs abroad, No!! They take money from the parents and they are funding them. If you are a PSG or Arsenal academy why are the clubs not funding it? I find it strange that the parents are funding the foreign trips of the kids abroad. What I want the kids who come to my academy when it is ready the kids will have exposure across Europe and make it the best academy in India. With the right investor and the right sponsors behind me I know I will deliver the best academy as I know how the best academies work in Europe, I know I will get the best young players and get the best English coaches from England and without disrespecting anyone the Indian coaches are not good enough they need to understand the game more and the practical side of it. 

It’s not about just getting the A license or B license, you have to continue to learn. I at my fag end of my career I still try to learn and better myself then why does not these coaches wanting to learn more? Why are they not going to the best academies in Europe and learn more train with the best?  Why don’t they come to the ISL clubs and learn from Steve Coppell and Materazzi?

People talk about having the IMG Young Champs but what is the purpose are these kids going to play in Europe after this, I don’t know. 



Jersey: Let me ask you people here pay to play football in an academy, India is a vast country and how do you plan to get about this change in mentality and get kids to be at the right academy, is it not going to be tough?

Michael: Yeah I know it is going to be tough, but you know I am lucky, my kid is nine years old and he is at the right age to be in this academy. He loves football and he was in the Newcastle Academy before and now he is in the Sunderland Academy. On a Wednesday or a Sunday when he plays for a local team he need to pay but that is for a Sunday club for a local league and they have to buy trophies and coaches but that is a nominal sum and he does not have to pay when he trains for the professional academies. If you have the talent you should be brought into a club and he should not pay for it. But if you have to pay week in and week out to play football that is wrong. I think a lot of these soccer schools are basically robbing people they are taking money from the parents and they do not want to do it for the right season.



Jersey: Another hypothetical question for you, suppose you get an offer from Mohun Bagan or East Bengal would be open to shift to Kolkata?

Michael: Yes surely why not, I would love to play in Kolkata if an offer comes across. I am here in India for the last three months, trying to set-up my academy as well as working for Ten Sports, if I was not serious about football in India I would have behaved like the other foreigners who came to India just to make money and then disappear. If these players were so passionate about Indian Football, why are they not here now? Why do they come only for ISL to make big money and then leave? Come back a year later? Why not stay back in India?  Why not play for these I League clubs? I see so many players just come to India to make some easy money. Me personally I am willing to reach out to all the talents and the academies in India. People just have to reach out to me; I sincerely want to make a difference. I want to share my experience.



Jersey: Another hypothetical question for you Michael, suppose some people have started an academy in some part of India and they ask Michael Chopra to come visit their academy and help the kids it may not be some fancy school or five star academies, will Michael Chopra still visit and share his vast knowledge of the game?

Michael: I will be open to that. Michael Chopra who has played at the highest level learnt from the best and the European greats, I would willingly share my knowledge. Even to IMG if they ask me to help I would be more than willing also I would share my experience and knowledge to AIFF. Not just that I am working on a project with Renedy who is the FPAI president and we would visit England and look at how PFA works there and lets replicate the model they follow and also help the footballers for their after football life. Hopefully I will be a part of the FPAI soon and pass on the knowledge to the other professional footballers in India.



Jersey: Let’s ask you another different question, you have worked with some of the best managers in World Football, Who do you think is the best you have worked with?

Michael: The best manager I played under is Sir Bobby Robson. It’s just not me who say that,  Jose Mourinho says that, Alan Shearer says that even Sir Alex Ferguson says the same. Word really describes the greatness of the man. He was the best. I am eternally grateful to him as he was the one who gave me my debut at Newcastle and I learnt so much from him. He had managed the Great Brazilian goal-scorer Ronaldo at Barcelona and he used to make me see his drills to improve as a footballer. He was by far the best I have ever worked with.



Jersey: One last question, for you who would be the best player you have played with?

Michael: The best player I have played with will be Alan Shearer the Top Premier League goal-scorer and the experience was surreal to say the least, we use to have shooting competition between us and to see him from such close quarters and myself also being a striker I have learnt so much from him right from technique as well how to carry yourself, so for me he was the best player I have worked with.



Jersey: Thanks a lot for your time, Michael, it was a long session, it as a pleasure talking to you and best of luck for all your future ventures. 

Michael: No problem, thanks a lot it was a pleasure. Bye!!




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