By Susan Gardiner.
I don’t know about nominative determinism, but when Mr. & Mrs. Chopra of Newcastle-upon-Tyne named their new son Rocky back in December 1983, they could not have known quite how boulder-strewn his life would turn out to be.
Michael Chopra will not be the most fondly remembered player ever to have graced the deteriorating turf at Portman Road. Long before his arrival at Ipswich Town his life story had been well-documented in the tabloids. Suffice it to say that we knew what we were getting when Paul Jewell signed him: a talented striker who had never fulfilled his obvious natural ability on the football pitch largely due to personal problems and an addiction to gambling.
Jewell’s predecessor, Roy Keane, had also tried to bring Chopra to the club. We’ll never know how that would have worked out. Keane’s tough approach to players may have been better for Chopra than Jewell’s laissez faire approach. In an article in the Daily Mirror on 28th November 2009, Chopra said that Keane had “rescued” his career when he was at Sunderland: “I owe Roy a lot. He was a massive help to me when I had some off-field problems at Sunderland. If I had a problem I knew I could go and speak to him. All I had to do was knock on his door. He was the one who told me check into rehab and sort myself out. I did that and came back a better player. After everything he did for me, I’ve got a lot of time and respect for him. I will always be grateful for the help and support he gave me. I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”
Paul Jewell – who, let’s face it, has had his own off-pitch issues – did give Chopra his support, as the Telegraph described after the player checked in to the Sporting Chance clinic as he once again battled with his problems. It was later revealed that the club had made Chopra a loan of £250,000 to pay off his creditors. This is an aspect of Ipswich Town – even during the difficult period when Simon Clegg was Chief Executive – that many supporters, myself included, feel is important, part of what makes us special. It’s possibly the kind of thing that Bobby Robson – famously caring and supportive of his players – would have done, although I suspect there was an aspect of Robson, the coal miner’s son with a strong work ethic and a steely determination underneath the soft-spoken charm, that would have viewed Michael Chopra with a very beady eye indeed.
His reasonably high strike rate at Cardiff City raised expectations among the Town faithful who had long been suffering from goal starvation. The thought that we now had a player who could actually place a ball in the opposition’s net, rather than just over the bar, or into the side-netting, perhaps raised those expectations too high. In addition, the Paul Jewell era will not go down as the greatest in Town’s history and although Chopra put a few goals away (18 in 78 appearances) he failed to achieve what had been hoped for.
Predictably, it was Chopra’s behaviour away from football that lost him the support and sympathy of the fans. Despite the immense goodwill shown to him by the club in making him that substantial loan, he appears to have been deep in trouble connected with his gambling problems. In October 2012, the British Horse-racing Authority charged him (and others) with involvement in corrupt betting practices, including offering bribes. Still supportive, ITFC allowed Chopra to make this statement about the case, but in January 2013, he was found guilty and banned from involvement in racing for ten years.
It was by this stage clear that Chopra’s problems with gambling were even more deep-seated and intractable than many Town supporters had realised. Once again, however, Chopra did little to help himself. Instead of keeping away from social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, where he would inevitably receive abuse from disgruntled fans and keyboard warriors, Chopra seemed to be unable to understand his responsibilities as a footballer using such media – as Gavin Barber pointed out in When Saturday Comes in March 2013.
On Twitter, he answered his critics by posting this photograph of a bag full of cash:
Perhaps worst of all, he used social networking media to verbally abuse a young female sports journalist because he disliked something she’d reported in the course of her work. (He called her, bizarrely, a “prick.”) The journalist complained to the club, but to date has not had any kind of formal acknowledgement or response from ITFC.
The club remained either supportive of the player or silent on the matter – although it has taken action against players and fans for offensive posts on Twitter and Facebook before and since. From taking a generally sympathetic approach to Chopra’s problems, many fans were beginning to lose patience with him. No doubt the fact that the player wasn’t performing on the pitch didn’t help either.
Following this and several other incidents involving Town players, Turnstile Blues wrote a letter to the club in which we expressed our concerns about some aspects of the players’ behaviour off the field and suggested ways in which there might be better education and pastoral care given, particularly to younger players. The letter wasn’t specifically about Michael Chopra so I am only including a short extract here:
“We are a group of season ticket holders and long-standing supporters who wish to raise our concerns about the behaviour of some players at Ipswich Town Football Club. For obvious reasons, we won’t be making any reference to individuals or commenting on current legal proceedings, but we’re sad that, in recent years, some people associated with this great football club have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Generally, professional footballers have an extraordinary life. They receive, from a young age, the adulation of fans and also great material wealth in some cases. …
“We feel that players should receive education and training in the following areas: media training (in particular, the sensible use of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter), how to cope with success – including managing money – and conversely, how to cope if they have to leave the club or professional football altogether…
“Recent comments made by some players on Facebook and Twitter suggest that these areas are not being addressed. There does seem to be a wider systemic and long-standing problem about some footballers’ attitudes to women. It’s not just an ITFC issue, of course, but Ipswich Town is the club we love and we want continue to be proud of.
“There are some excellent local charities which can provide such training. We would really like to see the club tackle these issues, preferably with the involvement of the PFA.”
We sent the letter to ITFC in March 2013 and are still waiting for a reply. While we applaud the club’s initial attempts to provide support and help for Michael Chopra, we think that there are times when players cross rather obvious lines and their behaviour becomes unacceptable and question whether that support should be continued in those circumstances.
I’m sure that the majority of Town fans wish Michael Chopra well at Blackpool and in the future and we hope that he will get the help he needs to address his problems but overall, it is probably best for all parties that he is no longer a player at Ipswich Town Football Club.