UNLIKE a number of his predecessors, Eddie Howe has not had to face many awkward press conferences as head coach of Newcastle United.

This morning, though, as he fielded a barrage of questions relating to Sandro Tonali’s alleged involvement in illegal gambling in Italy, the Magpies boss must have wished he was anywhere other than the media suite of the club’s Darsley Park training complex.

Maybe it was the backdrop draped behind him, promoting gambling company Fun88, that helped create such an uncomfortable environment. Maybe, in the head coach’s defence, it was the fact that, with Italian investigations ongoing, there were simply questions that Howe could not answer.

Either way, it felt like one of those parliamentary hearings where senior MPs are dragged in front of their peers to spend an hour desperately trying to deflect queries that have the potential to cause considerable damage.

Howe, who could easily have been a politician in another life, such is the sharpness of his intellect and ability to avoid potential pitfalls, handled the situation adeptly. Ultimately, though, he still left the stage with plenty of questions left unanswered.

Would you have expected a new signing to have told you about potential issues in his life before signing a contract? “I’m not going to answer that question.” Have you and the club been let down by Tonali? “I don’t deal with those emotions.” Newcastle have three prominent betting partners, should gambling ads be banned in football? “They are not decisions that I make.” Is it fair that Newcastle will be made to suffer for something that happened while Tonali was playing for AC Milan? “That’s a difficult one for me to comment on.”


In fairness, Howe was much more forthcoming when it came to the need to support and protect Tonali and his family, no matter what the outcome of the ongoing Italian police investigation, which looks increasingly likely to result in a ban from all football for around a year.

The Newcastle boss is at his most sincere when he is discussing the need to be there for his players. The unity of the dressing room, and the strength of the spirit within the camp, have been two massive factors in Newcastle’s success under Howe in the last couple of years, and whatever happens from this point, the Magpies boss is clearly determined that will not be wrecked by Tonali’s misdoings.

“We had a conversation on the phone first, and then on the day when I saw him (Tonali), it was emotional,” said Howe. “He is a young lad in a very difficult moment, and a difficult situation. When you see things behind this arena, you have a totally different perception of events.

“I understand the media’s perception of events, but I see the person, I see the human. I see the pain and the distress, so it’s a very different way of seeing the same situation. That’s why my thoughts are always with the player and making sure we look after him.”

Howe was also quick to point out that Tonali feels devastated by the situation in which he has found himself, with his agent, Guiseppe Rosi, openly admitting earlier in the week that his 23-year-old client is a “gambling addict” who now faces “the biggest fight of his life”.

“He loves the game, and he is absolutely devastated,” said Howe. “His thoughts are with Newcastle, and his thoughts are with us and the team. Amid all those emotions, our thoughts are with him. Hopefully, between us, we can make it work.”

That said, though, some awkward questions will not be able to remain unanswered forever. While Howe might be focusing his attention on ensuring Tonali’s wellbeing, other senior figures at the club have already begun an investigation into the exact chain of events that led to the Italian authorities raiding the national team’s Coverciano training headquarters just over a week ago.

What did Tonali know before the police came calling? Perhaps more importantly, what did AC Milan know, and did it play a part in their haste to usher Tonali, previously regarded as the club’s star player, through the exit door in the summer? Italian sources claim Milan officials are adamant they have done nothing wrong, but with a £53m asset potentially doing nothing for the next 12 months, Newcastle’s sporting director, Dan Ashworth, and chief executive, Darren Eales, will surely be assessing all legal avenues that could potentially be open to them.

“I’m sure the club will be doing what the club needs to do,” was about as far as Howe was willing to go down that road, but as the legal process in Italy reaches its conclusion, so the Newcastle hierarchy will have to do whatever they can to protect their highly-paid asset and look to recoup what will almost inevitably be multi-million pound losses.

For now, Howe can justifiably claim to be solely focused on protecting Tonali. At some stage, though, there will have to be a day of reckoning for all involved.