‘I signed from Cardiff to Sunderland to pay off gambling debt’ – Chopra tells £750k cocaine trial how playing cards with Newcastle players got him hooked on betting

Michael Chopra on his first day at Sunderland.
Michael Chopra on his first day at Sunderland.
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Michael Chopra’s gripping gambling addiction started as a teenager playing cards with the Newcastle United team, a court heard.

The striker, who was giving evidence in a £750,000 cocaine trial at Newcastle Crown Court, said he was just 17 when he got involved in the games, where up to £30,000 would be gambled at a time.

Chopra told jurors Alan Shearer, Kieran Dyer, Titus Bramble and Craig Belamy were the “big name” players at the club when he first signed.

The 29-year-old said he got a taste for placing high stakes while travelling on the team bus.

Chopra, who has played for Newcastle, Cardiff, Sunderland and is now signed to Blackpool, told the court: “We were talking thousands, not just hundreds but a couple of thousand, anything up to £30,000.

“You would go to the bank the morning before you would travel and withdraw large sums of money.

“It was team building, everyone was getting close together. You are taking money off other players but you are having a laugh with each other.”

Chopra told the court he realised he had a problem at the age of 18, by which time he had an £85,000 debt with Goldchip, an exclusive private members bookmakers.

Chopra said he ended up paying the debt back in instalments through his wages and used a large chunk of his signing fee when he went to Cardiff to settle what he owed.

But the married dad told jurors by that time his gambling addiction had truly taken hold.

He said: “I got to a point where I would set my alarm like three or four am, betting on games playing in South America, things like that, it was taking over my life.”

Chopra told jurors he moved from Cardiff to Sunderland and used his signing fee to pay his debts.

He added: “Obviously I was playing in the Championship at Cardiff. When you go to the Premiership you earn more money and things like that, I couldn’t really turn it down.”

Chopra told jurors he started using loansharks when all other sources of credit were exhausted and he was borrowing up to £60,000 at a time, which was handed over in binbags in exchange for a handshake.

It was as he struggled to pay back the mounting sums, the loansharks started issuing threats to him and his family.

He told the court: “I had to find the money or they would turn up at the training ground or threaten me.”

Chopra said he had stints in rehab while he was signed for Sunderland and Ipswich.

He said he ended up owing cash to loansharks in Scotland and Liverpool and was threatened during a training session at Ipswich.

He said: “They came up to me and asked me for my autograph and then said to me ‘you better get yourself in the club and get that money now’.

“They said they knew what car I was driving, they said they knew what school my little boy went to, where my parents lived in Newcastle and they knew where I lived in Ipswich.

“They said until they got the money there would be physical violence used.”

Chopra said the threats made him feel “sick” and added: “I couldn’t believe I had put my family in that situation, all through gambling.”

Prosecutors claim £50,000 found in the foot-well of a Jaguar car by detectives investigating an alleged cocaine ring in 2010 was drug money.

Jurors have heard during the trial the case involves a block of cocaine being flung from the window of a moving black Range Rover which was being followed by the police, the discovery of a “drugs factory” in Washington, where £750,000 worth of cocaine was recovered, and £50,000 which was discovered inside the luxury car.

Joseph Lewins, 55, of Malvern Road, Washington, Daniel Chisholm, 51, then of Franklin Street, Sunderland, Christopher Bacon, 34, of Wendover Close, Witherwack and John Somerville, 53, of Sheringham Avenue, Kenton, all deny conspiracy to supply class A drugs.

Prosecutor Jolyon Perks has told jurors the cash was seized in a Jaguar being driven by a man who had just left Somerville’s home and was part-payment for a drugs deal.

Chopra told jurors he had given the money to Somerville, who was helping him sort out his debts with loan sharks, so it could be passed on to creditors in Liverpool.

The court heard Chopra’s bosses at Ipswich town organised a loan through the Professional Footballers Association so he could pay back debts which by then stood at around £300,000.