RR: Hi Michael! Thanks for sitting down to discuss your time at the club with us. Nice easy one to begin with, who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club and why?
MC: Kenwyne (Jones) was good for me personally - but I’d say someone like Kieran Richardson or Andy Reid. You might look at the likes of Djibril Cisse and the other lads they brought in the second season, they had undoubted quality but you just knew what you’d get from the likes of those two.
Kieran had qualities from being brought up at Manchester United. He wouldn’t have played for them as often as he did if he wasn’t genuine quality. I’d have to go for one of him or Reid, definitely.
RR: Looking at the time you joined the club, it was a huge surprise to see you even linked with the club due to your Newcastle connections. You’d had a good season with Cardiff and moving to the club was a risk, but one that you took. What convinced you to move to the club?
MC: I was on pre-season in Portugal and I got a phone call - it was Roy Keane. I was thinking “why’s he ringing me?” but nonetheless we had a chat. He said he’d watched me the season before, he liked the way I played and thought I could bring something to the team. I obviously did well in the games beforehand against Sunderland and he saw something he liked.
Keane said “There’s one thing, I know you’re a Newcastle fan. I’m not going to force you to come, it’s your decision. Take a couple of days to think about it. I know it’s a big decision for you.”
I took those few days, spoke to my family and rang him back. I told Roy I thought I had enough balls to take the move on, I had nothing to lose and on the back of the season I’d had at Cardiff, I was confident in my ability to go to Sunderland score goals - that’s all I wanted to do. You had to put aside who you support, what had happened previously when I was at Newcastle and so on and take on what was a massive opportunity.
It was a big season for Sunderland and I wanted to be part of the team that kept them in the Premier League.
RR: Did you have reservations at all?
MC: No, I didn’t have any reservations really. Obviously it was a case of “what if I don’t do well straight away? Will the fans get on my back?” That was about it.
Truth is, on the back of the season I had with Cardiff, my confidence was sky high and I fully believed in my ability to go to Sunderland and put the ball in the back of the net.
RR: Did Roy Keane have anything to say on the move, did he have any words of advice given how huge of a character he was and how ballsy the transfer was for yourself?
MC: He just said “it’s going to be a hard decision for you, but no pressure on you if you come. Take your time to adjust to the Premier League. Get to know the way the team plays, integrate with the lads and adapt.” He said he’d done his research on me, that the players like me and he thought I was a good lad - but ultimately he felt I could do a job for the club.
I’d had the likes of Sir Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer guide me in the early part of my career and I thought Roy Keane could take me on to the next step. I looked through the other managers in the Championship and the other managers in the lower level of the Premier League and I thought there was no one better to learn from than Roy Keane.
There was no one better to learn from as a player in terms of experience. I just thought “go to Sunderland, enjoy it and learn from a player who’s won everything.”
RR: Fast forward a few weeks and you had an absolute dream debut, bagging a last minute winner on the opening day against Tottenham after coming on as a late substitute. What are your memories of that day? Do you feel that goal helped the original controversy of the move to be forgotten about?
MC: I was disappointed to be on the bench because I’d started a lot of games in pre-season. I’m a striker, so I was sitting on the bench just hoping to get on and get that one chance.
With me, there was something about Roy and the way he could boost me. There was about fifteen minutes to go and he called me over and as I’m getting ready to come on he just looked at me and went “you’ll score today.” He seemed to just know when I was going to come on and do well.
For me it was a dream come true to score that goal. I’d moved for £5 million and I had to put any doubt the supporters had in me out of their minds and I managed to do that. I wanted to come on and score for Sunderland and one goal managed to help win the game.
We were top of the league for a few hours! It was brilliant. There were no big ego’s in the team, all the lads really backed each other up.
RR: Let’s talk about your first derby match, a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light. You played out of your skin. Many fans forget how well you played that day. Did you think your time at the club would have been viewed differently had that shot that hit the bar went in the top corner instead?
MC: It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but I was desperate to score that day - you could see it.
If you score, you’re the hero, if you miss your motives are questioned. It’s very fine margins. The shot hits the bar and I’m naturally disappointed, but the big thing was - as a team - we didn’t lose and when you’re trying to stay in the Premier League that’s the most important thing.
The fans look forward to those games, but the players are the same. The fixtures come out and you’re thinking “when do we play Newcastle?” because these games are huge and you want to win it for the fans. You want to give the fans the bragging rights on Monday morning.
Roy drilled it into us how important that game was, we were under no illusions. On a personal level it’s a shame that didn’t go in, because maybe I would be viewed differently. But if you look at the goals I scored for the club that season, you can see I wanted to do well. I wanted to be a winner for Sunderland Association Football Club.
I think we gained points from almost all of the goals I scored baring Reading away, so I was pleased I could contribute to the team and keep Sunderland in the Premier League, which was the aim that season.
RR: You scored a vitally important goal away to Aston Villa which sent us on a three game winning streak and virtually ensured we’d survive the drop. The team spirit in the camp seemed impeccable that year. How good was our team spirit around that period?
MC: Everyone got on. We had the belief in our team and we worked really hard for each other. If one of the lads got into a bit of trouble on the pitch, you knew there was a lad behind you ready to back you up. It was really closely knitted.
That game against Fulham during that run was another one of those times Roy gave me the look and said “you’re going to score today.” He just seemed to know. Hearing things like that from people like Roy Keane just builds your confidence so much.
It was amazing, the feeling of having someone like him behind you.
RR: In the summer, Roy Keane signed the likes of El-Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and Djibril Cisse and that team spirit seemed to dissipate. How badly did the change in personnel affect the dressing room?
MC: It’s been well documented that Diouf had a run in with Anton Ferdinand - that sort of thing was always around the changing room. The team spirit which we used to have the season before, it takes a lot to break that but when players like that come in with - in short and no disrespect - egos, it disrupted it.
The egos they had was just like ‘they were bigger than Sunderland’ and that does affect the dressing room, even one as strong as ours. I criticise them, but we stayed up and we achieved what we set out do.
You had to improve the squad, but for me the likes of Diouf, Chimbonda and Cisse were not ‘Sunderland players’. They had some great performances - we beat Newcastle that season at home with Kieran’s free kick - but when they going gets tough, that’s when people are stood up and counted. I’m surprised Roy brought them in and in the end, he didn’t last much longer after that.
RR: There’s been a lot of talk around that missed chance at St. James Park. Did it hurt you that people questioned your professionalism and said you’d missed it on purpose?
MC: Of course it did. I had to leave the club the next day with the amount of stick I got.
Going into the game, I’d barely played and had only managed to score twice - both against Middlesbrough - and after that I had barely played. When Roy left, Ricky Sbragia took over and some weeks I wasn’t even getting on the bench, I just don’t think he fancied me at all. If you compare that to the season before when I scored on my debut, I was getting the confidence from Roy Keane, scored volleys down at Birmingham with my weaker foot - it was totally different for me personally.
As a striker, you play better with confidence and that season I just had absolutely zero confidence in myself because of how the season was going for me. I’m running towards goal and I try to square it to Kenwyne and he just doesn’t get to it. My confidence was really low.
It hurt me [that people questioned if Chopra missed on purpose]. It really affected me that people thought that of me. It hurt because if you look how hard I worked and the way I performed for the club the season beforehand, I wasn’t sure how people could question my commitment to the club. That’s why I had to leave. I knew if I went back to the club and played at the Stadium of Light, I’d be crucified and I didn’t think that was really fair. That’s football though, the fans have their opinions and are allowed to voice them however they see fit.
RR: If it’s the season before, do you take it down and tuck it into the corner then?
MC: Yeah, 100%. Definitely. The year I was having, I wouldn’t have tried to square it - I’d have wanted to be the hero and win the derby for Sunderland.
Ask any striker and they’ll tell you that confidence is massive when it comes to scoring goals. It’s vital.
RR: Your move came literally a day later, was that move back to Cardiff in the pipeline for a while before it happened?
MC: When Roy left, I didn’t think Ricky fancied me as I said before. Dave Jones is one of my best mates in football, I still speak to him now in fact. I got a text from him and he was asking if I thought they’d let me go out on loan.
Once that moment happened, I listened to the fans on the radio and read what was being said in the papers and I knew I couldn’t go back and play for Sunderland. It was devastating to be honest because of how well the season had gone for me and the team the season before.
RR: Since you’ve moved, there’s been friction between yourself and sections of Sunderland support due to the way you departed the club, yet in hindsight you scored some important goals and helped establish us in the Premier League. Do you have any regrets about how things worked out in the end?
MC: I do have regrets, but like you say it was all just banter. I was a football player, but I am also a football fan and I love that football banter. Me and Grant Leadbitter used to wind each other up in training - me a Newcastle fan and him being Sunderland through and through. Come the weekend though, I’d be sticking the ball in the net for Sunderland and he’d be setting me up.
But yes, I do have regrets about how I left even to this day. I look out on the weekend for Sunderland’s results. I played for the club and it was a big time in my life and it’s sad seeing where they are at the moment.
I spent time at Sunderland that I enjoyed and I don’t enjoy seeing them struggle like they are now. Yes, I’m a Newcastle fan, but like any fan I want to experience the derby games - that’s what it’s all about.