'The one man who has done the damage is Mike Ashley': Ex-Newcastle United striker delivers takeover verdict

As a Newcastle United player, Michael Chopra once played against Barcelona.

Sunday, 19th April 2020, 12:30 pm

That night at a sodden Nou Camp more than 17 years ago is a fading memory on Tyneside, where Champions League football is a distant dream following years of under-investment.

More often than not it’s been able survival since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007. The club has suffered two relegations under his controversial ownership, and fought many more relegation battles.

And Chopra the United fan has found it hard to watch at times.

However, the club, 13th in the Premier League when football was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, is on the brink of a £300million takeover which could transform its fortunes over the coming years.

A deal has been struck by financier Amanda Staveley – who is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and David and Simon Reuben, the billionaire property investors – and is now with the Premier League, who are running their owners' and directors’ test.

The prospective owners have outlined their plans for the club in a lengthy submission to the Premier League. Amnesty International, meanwhile, have raised concerns about the proposed deal, which they have labelled “sportswashing", over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

However, Chopra, a boyhood fan of the club he went on to represent and a long-time critic of Ashley, is “excited” by the prospect of wealthy and ambitious new owners.

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley.

“I’m excited,” said the 36-year-old, who made his first-team debut at Newcastle under Sir Bobby Robson and went on to have spells at Sunderland, Cardiff City and Ipswich Town.

“I remember when my dad used to take me to games when the Premier League first started. Going to the games was exciting. I remember going to the Liverpool match away and getting beat 4-3, but you weren’t disappointed about the result, because it wasn’t a classic game.

“You go to games now and see people falling asleep and Newcastle defending for their lives and trying to get a point or scrape a 1-0 win. It’s not exciting.

“I think that’s down to one man. The one man who has done the damage is Mike Ashley, and I think I speak for a lot of Newcastle fans when I say I’ll be glad to see the back of him.

Michael Chopra.

“As a fan, you want what’s best for the football club, and what’s best for the club is Mike Ashley not to be in charge.”

Chopra, now still works in football and is now based in Jakarta, Indonesia, touted interest from Saudi Arabia in Newcastle last summer following the controversial departure of Rafa Benitez, who could be lured back to St James’s Park.

“I think it was July I mentioned about possible interest from a consortium in Saudi. A lot of people probably laughed at me, but, as time went on, people could gradually see I was speaking the truth,” said Chopra, who was critical of United head coach Steve Bruce after an early-season defeat to Norwich City.

“Things have progressed as they should have done. Fingers crossed, the takeover should happen.

Amanda Staveley.

“You’ve got to give credit to Amanda Staveley, the Reuben brothers and PIF, as they’ve put up the money.”

European football should be the target should the deal be ratified by the Premier League, according to Chopra.

The club has only qualified for Europe once under Ashley, who showed little interest in a Europa League campaign which was caught the imagination of the club’s fans and was ended at the quarter-final stage by Benfica in 2013.

“When I was at the club, even in the youth team in the late 1990s, being around the first team was exciting,” said Chopa. “You’d enjoy going to training. Driving to matches, the hairs on the back of your neck were sticking up. You weren’t fighting in a relegation battle.

“When I was there Freddy Shepherd was the chairman. He was ambitious, trying to do what’s best for Newcastle United and the city. He had top-class managers that knew how to get the best out of players. We were fighting for the league. We were always in the European spots.

“We’re not a massive club like Manchester United, but we’ve got a big fanbase and we deserve to be challenging for a European spot at least. Why can’t we do what Wolves are doing?”

Chopra believes that the club, which has been stripped back in the Ashley years, can tap into a global fanbase under new ownership.

“As a Newcastle fan, for the past three, four years when January comes, there’s been talk of a takeover, then nothing materialises,” said the 36-year-old.

“It was just another waiting game, and then the papers have gone to the Premier League. Newcastle United can massive, a big club, in terms of fanbase.

“In terms of owners from Saudi Arabia, you could have all of Saudi Arabia following the club. I’m in Jakarta. The fanbase in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur is massive. They’ve got a lot of followers around the world.

“If the club does it properly, it can tap into the markets in Asia and the Middle East. The revenue that they can generate is massive, and can only benefit the club.”