'Can't look past the penalty, for me," said Eddie Howe. The Newcastle manager was still brooding on the injustice he had suffered when Trevoh Chalobah got away with a clumsy challenge on Jacob Murphy in the Chelsea penalty area.
Unfortunately for Howe, several of the journalists present were looking far beyond the Chalobah non-penalty, toward the distant spires of Riyadh.
“Yesterday in Saudi Arabia 81 people were executed in the largest mass execution in years. There were a lot of Saudi flags fluttering in your section there today. What do you think of that as a fact when they are bankrolling your football team?”
“I’m just going to answer questions on the game and on football. I’m still bitterly disappointed from the defeat so I think that’s . . . it’s only right that I stick to football.”
Did Howe mean that he was so frustrated about the game and the decisions that had gone against Newcastle that he might blurt out something he’d later regret about the Saudi judicial system? “I prefer not to speak”, indeed.
There followed some talk about Kai Havertz elbowing Dan Burn before the conversation circled back towards the mass executions.
“In a wider sense, how do you feel sitting there after a match having to deal with questions like that . . . questions that are so far off your pay grade, how do you feel about it?”
“I’m here to manage the football team and coach the football team, so. I’m well aware of what’s going on around the world but my focus is on trying to produce a team to win football matches and get enough points to stay in the league and that’s all I’ll talk about.”
“He’s your ultimate boss, Mohammed bin Salman.” (The Saudi Crown Prince chairs the Public Investment Fund – PIF – that owns Newcastle). “You work for him ultimately, so you can understand why we do ask these questions?”
“I don’t know what to answer to that, I’m gonna talk football. That’s all I’m concerned with.”
“Do you never reflect on these questions – given how the club has been used, how football has been used politically – these are fair questions precisely because of that?
“I think I’ve made my position clear.”
After that, Howe made his position clear on some other issues, including injuries, illnesses, refereeing decisions and whether Thomas Tuchel had disrespected Newcastle by over-celebrating Havertz' late winner (Howe gave him a pass).
You wonder how the man some are already calling “Beheaddie Eddie” will look back on these exchanges in his old age. Would it really have been so hard to say he was at least moderately against the idea of mass executions?
Maybe Howe fears that if he starts answering these questions his position as Newcastle manager could quickly become untenable. But that is actually a reason to answer the questions rather than to hide from them. If you can’t offer a plausible defence of why you’re doing your job, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
If Howe does indeed 'trust the process' at Newcastle, the least he could do is say so
A week earlier, Howe had been asked whether he was troubled by the similarities between Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia’s war in neighbouring Yemen – not from the moral point of view, but from the practical one. “It’s a Saudi-owned club, and Saudi Arabia is involved in a war in its neighbour. And Russia’s involved with a war in its neighbour, and being sanctioned for that. So does that mean, you know, Saudi Arabia could be looked at as well, which would affect, you know, whether you could buy players, or. . .?”
Howe gave his now-familiar non-answer: “I’m a football manager, and I’m coaching the team to try and get results, and that’s what I’m gonna comment on.”
If he wanted to give an honest answer, Howe could have pointed out the key difference between Russia and Saudi Arabia, from the British point of view. The UK’s sudden objection to Russian billionaires and their money is not moral, but political. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the UK considers Russia a hostile state on whom it has declared economic war, while Saudi Arabia remains, for now, a gallant ally.
Far from condemning the Saudi war, the British government has sold them billions of pounds worth of weapons with which to fight it. Weekend reports indicated that UK prime minister Boris Johnson plans to travel to the kingdom in the coming days to beg them to increase the oil supply so that prices might come down. A lot would have to change before sanctions on the PIF could start to seem likely.
But things can and do change, as Chelsea know. They can hardly ever have felt more established than they did a few months ago, when the Saudis bought Newcastle. By comparison Tuchel’s European champions were now old-money aristocrats; the crying of American-owned “self-financing” clubs at the arrival of another petrodollar-fuelled rival was a bonus. And then, just when they seemed to have made it, Putin launched his war and Chelsea’s superclub era was dead in the water like Jay Gatsby.
Newcastle are poised for their own stint as Carmela Soprano FC. We know they're not the only ones. In recent days, the Premier League's German coaches have had more interesting things to say about the English scene than the likes of Howe. "Did you care, really?" asked Jurgen Klopp when the Abramovich issue was raised at a recent press conference. "Did anyone really care when Roman Abramovich came to Chelsea? Did anyone really care when Newcastle got taken over? Do supporters really care? It is a question. It is pretty obvious where the money is coming from. Everyone knew it, but we accepted it. That's our fault."
“At some point, we need also to trust the process,” Tuchel reflected yesterday. “For example, we need to trust the process of the league as to who owns a club. . . Maybe as well you need to trust the process that you work for a company that is not doing the morally and ethically wrong things. At some point, we need to trust. Maybe we need to ask questions about the process of how this goes. Maybe it’s an ongoing process and it will never end. It just reminds us to be aware and conscious about it, and not look away.”
If Howe does indeed “trust the process” at Newcastle, the least he could do is say so.