Michael Chopra highlights Sunderland fixture after coming out of retirement

It’s often said that footballers are a long time retired.

Wednesday, 6th July 2022, 2:00 pm

And it seems as if Michael Chopra, still in his 30s, has already been a long time retired

When Chopra hung up his boots, the dust was just settling on the Brexit referendum, Barack Obama was still President of the United States – and the world was still years away from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Michael Chopra responds to Steve Bruce's digs about his Newcastle United career ...

That was almost six years ago. Now, Chopra’s ready to lace up his boots again – for non-league club West Allotment Celtic.

The former Newcastle United and Sunderland striker retired in late 2016 after a second spell playing for Kerala Blasters in the Indian Premier League.

Back then, the idea of returning to England dropping down the divisions didn’t appeal to the striker.

“I thought it was the right time,” said the 38-year-old, who scored three senior goals for Newcastle. “I finished playing in India, and I didn’t really want to come back to the UK and start dropping down the leagues, and going to places like Colchester or Scunthorpe on a cold Tuesday night.

Michael Chopra celebrates scoring for Sunderland against Middlesbrough in 2008.

“I didn’t fancy it. I just decided that was it, and have done my own thing since then. People have always said why did I retire so early, and it was probably because I wasn’t really enjoying it.”

Yet Chopra – who has been working for the Football For Peace charity – is ready to make his comeback in the Northern League with Allotment, who are managed by his friends Gary Somerville and Jay Bates.

“I was working quite a lot for the charity in the UK,” said Chopra, who went on to have a prolific spell at Cardiff City after leaving United in 2006. “I came over in March, and my mate Gary was saying to me ‘just come along, see what the standard’s like’.

Former Newcastle United striker Michael Chopra speaking about football in India during the Soccerex Global Convention 2014.

“This was in March. I quite enjoyed watching it. There were some decent, technical players. Come the end of the season, we went to an awards thing at Ramside Hall for the league, and he said to me ‘do you not fancy playing next season?’.

“I said I’d not kicked a ball in six years and have put on 10 kilos. He said ‘why don’t you come along to pre-season and do some running?’. I went to pre-season, great set of lads, treated me no different to anybody else.

“We did a 5k run on my first day, and a bleep test, and it was tough. I said to them I’d try to get as fit as possible.”

Chopra – who had a spell at Sunderland during Roy Keane’s time as manager at the Stadium of Light – is now looking forward to the new campaign, though he knows he’ll be a marked man.

Michael Chopra celebrates scoring for Newcastle United against Sunderland in 2006.

The club’s second game is at home again Sunderland RCA – and he's expecting some close attention.

“Straight away, I was asking Gary and Jay when the fixtures were coming out, and you were looking at some of the fixtures you want to play,” said Chopra.

“I think we’ve got Sunderland second game, no doubt I’ll be getting kicked all over, but that’s football. It doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 38, you’ve got to enjoy these moments.

“I’ve got myself into pretty good shape, I’ve lost nine kilos. Hopefully, I’ll soon be back to where I should be.

“Obviously, with the reputation and level I played at, you’ll get some players that’ll want to kick you. I’m well experienced, I know if somebody’s going to go in hard on you.”

Michael Chopra, second left, at a Football For Peace event in the Maldives.

Chopra will combine playing with his work for Football For Peace, which aims to use the “unique power of football to deliver global social change to serve people and the planet”.

“We try to help as much as possible in deprived countries and cities,” said Chopra. “I was in the Maldives. There was a programme that the Commonwealth had put on. They were working alongside the charity.

"It was all about safeguarding for the kids, and trying to keep them on the right pathway through education and football programmes. It’s a great charity.

“I go down to Bradford. We’ve opened the Mesut Ozil Centre, which is trying to help Asian kids get on the pathway to being professional footballers.”

Newcastle-born Chopra, the first British Asian to play Premier League football, has followed his boyhood club’s fortunes closely since leaving St James’s Park in search of first-team football.

And, after hanging up his boots, he was vocal critic of the club’s direction under owner Mike Ashley – and the appointment of Steve Bruce as head coach.

Bruce left the club shortly after Ashley sold up to an ambitious consortium led by Amanda Staveley last October. Under new head coach Eddie Howe, the club finished 11th in the Premier League following a remarkable mid-season turnaround.

“I think every Newcastle fan was pleased to see that (Bruce's departure) – and also pleased to see Mike Ashley gone,” said Bruce. “Thankfully, the season they had last year was unbelievable.

"Maybe the new owners and Eddie Howe didn’t think we would be so high up the table, but it just shows you, when you put the right team and management together, it just shows you how well the club can be.”

The future looks bright for United. The club has already recruited three players – Sven Botman, Nick Pope and Matt Target – at a cost of almost £60million this summer, and the club is looking to further strengthen Howe’s squad ahead of the new campaign.

Chopra played against Howe – and his teams – during his playing career, and he’s backing the club for a top-eight finish.

Asked for his view about the new campaign, Chopra said: “Very excited. It’s amazing. They’re not just doing what Man City were doing and splashing the cash. They’re not getting held for ransom, especially with the Botman deal. They could have over-spent on him. They bided their time.

"It’s the same with the French striker (Hugo Ekitike) from Reims. They could have over-spent on him. He was delaying and delaying, so pull out – and rightly so. Nobody’s as big as Newcastle United.

"I believe that they’ve got a great chance of finishing in the top eight next year. Eddie’s a great manager. I played against Eddie as a player, and I’ve played against his team when he was a manager at Bournemouth and Burnley.

"He’s very tactical. He sets his teams up very well, and you can see that from last season. Hopefully, they can see that progress.”

Chopra, like tens of thousands of United fans, is now wondering just how he will get a season-ticket, such is the demand for seats at St James’s Park.

"It just goes to show you that when Mike was there and Steve was manager, they had to give away 10,000 tickets,” said Chopra. “Unbelievable.

"You look at it now, even I’m struggling to get a season-ticket. That’s how hard it is. They’re becoming the club they used to be in the Kevin Keegan days when you had 2,000 people going to watch training, and a 15,000 waiting list for season-tickets. That’s exactly what it is now.

"The history of Newcastle isn’t like that of the Man United’s and Liverpools – but we’re a big enough fanbase. And when you get the fans behind you, it only helps the players.

"When you’ve got 52,000 Geordies behind you, it does make a difference.”

Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe.