“My name is one of the first to come up when you Google ‘professional footballers and gambling addiction’, so I asked people to reach out to me on social media for help,” says Michael Chopra.
The former Newcastle United and Sunderland forward is getting his life back together after admitting that at the height of his addiction he was gambling for up to £20,000 a day and was being chased by loan sharks.
As his addiction worsened, he sought professional help and was admitted to Sporting Chance Clinic created by former Arsenal captain Tony Adams who said football was facing a gambling “epidemic”.
Ten years later, Chopra is changing his life.
As well as opening up about his addiction in a bid to help others, he recently returned from the Maldives where he spent time with vulnerable youth as an ambassador for the Football for Peace Foundation.
The 60-cap Premier League veteran also returns after a six-year absence and prepares for the extra qualifying round of the FA Cup.
Aged 38, Chopra joined West Allotment Celtic, a club near Newcastle, who play in the ninth tier of English football and who make the 150-mile round trip to play Penrith in the world’s oldest cup competition on Saturday .
It is the 11th club of Chopra’s career – a club that has seen him play Cardiff City, Watford (loan), Nottingham Forest (loan), Barnsley (loan), Ipswich Town, Blackpool, Kerala Blasters in India and Alloa Athletic.
As the forward – a 2003 FA Cup semi-finalist with Watford – prepares to face Penrith, he tells BBC Sport how he now completes himself by helping others.
“I will always reach out to someone who needs advice because you never know what drastic measures they might take,” adds Chopra, whose addiction became so bad that he would set his alarm clock for 3 a.m. so he could bet on games that are made in South America.
“I want to try to help.”
“You have to admit you have a problem”
It is nine years since Chopra told a court how he was targeted by loan sharks during his time in Ipswich.
“They came up to me and asked for my autograph and told me I better get into the club and get this money now,” the player said. witness in a £750,000 cocaine trial, he said then.
“They said they knew what car I was driving and they would follow me until I paid them. They said they knew what school my little boy went to and where my parents lived and where I lived in Ipswich.
“I felt sick that I had put my family in this situation because of my gambling.”
In 2013, Chopra said he lost around £2m from his addiction which started around the age of 16 and continued throughout a career of more than 400 professional appearances and 121 goals.
“I was a youth team player at Newcastle and I was earning £70 a week and there were five or six of us putting £1 or £2 into slots in an arcade,” he told Sporting Highs and Lows podcast.
“It helped pass the time while we waited for our bus to take us home. That’s probably where it all started.”
As Chopra’s wages grew, so did the size of his bets.
“Once I turned 17 I was getting £500 a week, then £3,500, then £6,000-10,000 at Cardiff – I doubled my wages at Sunderland and it started to become a big problem,” he added.
“Sunderland sent me to a specialist hospital and I was staying in a hotel around the corner from the hospital. I did the lessons at the hospital but as soon as I finished I went straight to a nearby betting shop because I didn’t want to help myself.
“It wasn’t until 2012 that I really wanted to help myself.”
Chopra is open and honest about his past and uses his story to help others.
His direct messages are open to his 35,700 Twitter followers and a day before this interview, a partner of a footballer reached out on social media with concerns about their gambling.
“Gambling is such a bad addiction. Deep inside your head it kills you, it really drains you,” he says. “You have to open up and admit you have a problem. This is the first step in recovery.
“I’m happy to be there for someone who needs someone to talk to and share my experience.”
Using football to counter extremism
Made up of scattered islands in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is known for its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, but scratch beneath the surface and all is not as it seems.
“A lot of people think of it as a paradise destination and some parts of it are, but there’s also poverty that tourists don’t see,” added Chopra, one of the best footballing talents to emerge from Britain’s South Asian community.
“I went to some islands that basically had nothing.”
In his role at Football for Peace, Chopra helped run workshops this summer on how football can be used as a building tool “resistance to extremism” in the Maldives.
In recent years, concerns have been raised that the Maldives has become a “recruiting heaven” for extremists.
“The locals are very passionate about football,” said Chopra. “I was out there to encourage young people to stay on the straight and narrow.”
“Penrith will be an eye opener”
Asked when he last acted, Chopra says: “Years ago. You have to take it day by day. That’s how I live my life now.”
He divides his time between the Netherlands – where he has a family home in Amsterdam – and, after returning to the football field, England.
Pre-season training with West Allotment Celtic helped Chopra both physically and mentally. He has lost some of the extra weight he gained after he stopped playing in 2016.
“I’ve lost about 10 kilos in about two months. The first training session, we ran 5 kilometers and I was winded by the end of it.”
At 18, Chopra played against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Champions League for Newcastle. Fast forward 20 years, and now he is preparing to play in an FA Cup Division 1 North tie at Penrith.
“It will be an eye opener,” he laughs. “I’m used to playing in the FA Cup in January – not early August.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.