The nitty-gritty is still to be determined but, for now, Newcastle United are building a protective wall around Sandro Tonali. Throughout this week, the midfield player, who is the subject of investigations into alleged illegal betting activity in Italy and is facing the possibility of a long suspension from football, has been offered backing from all levels of the club as well as reassurances that his long-term future remains on Tyneside.
On Thursday, members of Newcastle’s ownership group held a video call with the 23-year-old, in which he and his family were given the club’s full support. Eddie Howe, the head coach, has spoken to an “absolutely devastated” Tonali at length, first on the telephone and subsequently in personal at their training ground in Longbenton.
With Giuseppe Riso, the player’s agent, stating that Tonali is suffering from an addiction to gambling, an “illness” as he put it, those conversations have been “emotional,” Howe said, but they have also been unequivocal.
“The most important part of this whole incident is Sandro and his welfare,” he said. “It’s very easy for people to forget how young he is, the changes he’s had in his life, coming from Italy to England, that’s hard enough to deal with and now he has this situation. We feel as a football club that straight away, it’s throw our arms around him, protect him and try and give him the love and support he needs to find solutions to the problems he’s had.
“That’s what we’re endeavouring to do with a lot of conversations, a lot of communication, with him and his family because it’s not just Sandro, it’s the people around him as well. It’s been a big effort from us and I have to say he’s handled himself superbly well. Obviously (he is) emotional but (he has) handled himself with respect and dignity.”
In other words, whatever happens as a result of investigations by the Italian prosecutor’s office and its football federation — it has been widely reported in Italy that Tonali is seeking a plea bargain over accusations of using illegal betting platforms to gamble on football matches — Newcastle’s position is clear. They will stand by their summer arrival from AC Milan, who joined them for an initial fee of £55 million ($66.76m at current exchange rates), on a five-year contract.
“We’re going to support him and back him and we see him as being part of our team for many, many years and I know that’s the same from his side to us,” Howe said. “Some things you don’t have to say. We are committed to him long-term.”
Within a close-knit playing group, the mood is similar, with senior players offering encouragement and assistance to Tonali, who is a well-liked figure in spite of his limited English and reserved personality. “The squad have really rallied around Sandro and supported him and that’s been great to see,” Howe said. “He’s very popular member of the dressing-room and everybody’s thoughts have just been about caring for him and making sure he’s OK.”
In the short-term and in spite of the difficult circumstances, Tonali is “very much available for selection,” for Newcastle’s home match against Crystal Palace on Saturday, with Howe expecting the St James’ Park crowd to mobilise around him. “I’d encourage them to show him love because he needs it at this moment,” he said. “He’s had a very, very difficult couple of weeks. He’s been dealing with a lot.”
Whether it proves to be Tonali’s final Newcastle appearance before any possible ban begins remains to be seen — his legal team have said he is fully cooperating with the authorities in the hope his position can be clarified “as soon as possible,” — the club’s pastoral responsibilities have already kicked in. “We’ve got measures in place to help him and those processes have started,” said Howe.
Understand the Tonali case
This will include sessions with Dr Ian Watson, who has been appointed as Newcastle’s head of psychology. “Yes, that’s part of what we need to do,” Howe said. “It’s something we take seriously.”
Has Tonali expressed regret, whatever the mitigating circumstances? “It’s probably better those conversations stay between me and him but it’s also important I get his emotions out to everybody and his thoughts are about the team and about Newcastle and about the situation the team and club find themselves in,” Howe said. “He’s a top lad and a top character. His thoughts are with us, our thoughts are with him.
“I understand there’s a media perception of events, but I see the person and the human and I see the pain and distress. He’s a young lad in a very difficult situation and he’s absolutely devastated.”
There is also little doubt that it presents questions for Newcastle, on and off the pitch. With Harvey Barnes injured and both Tino Livramento and Lewis Hall regarded as signings for the future, Tonali has been the club’s only summer transfer to regularly start matches this season. Howe insisted it was “too early to say,” whether it will force them into the market this January to sign a replacement. “We’ll make a decision based on the facts we have.”
While he spoke eloquently about the personal side of Tonali’s situation, there were some uncomfortable episodes for Howe during his pre-match conference, which took place in front of an advertising board featuring one of Newcastle’s three official betting partners. “My job is to coach and manage the team and that’s what I do. I think it’s best I stick to those subjects,” Howe said, albeit he talked more widely about the importance of educating young players about betting.
Are there concerns within the club that AC Milan might have known about Tonali’s position before they sold him? “That’s something I can’t comment on. I’ve got no idea. My thought process is all about Sandro and just trying to help him,” Howe said. Is legal action a possibility? “Again, I don’t know. I’m not involved in those conversations.” Are other people having those conversations? “I’m sure the club will be doing what the club needs to do, but I can’t comment.”
It went on.
Would he expect a new signing to be more open before signing a contract? “I’m not going to go there.” Would he have signed a player had he known a ban might follow? “Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? But I can’t act in hindsight. We are acting on seeing the player play, loving what he did on the pitch and wanting to signing him.” Does he feel let down? “No, I don’t deal with those emotions. I deal with the problem and then try to find a solution.”
What about Newcastle’s responsibilities? Is there a case to be made that their due diligence should have been more thorough? “That’s a very difficult one,” Howe said. “From our side, Sandro is a top, top person and top character. I’ve got no doubts on him as a person at all. But like any of us sat in this room, you don’t know everything about every person. It’s impossible to know.
“We have to make a decision based on football and signing players we think can make the team better and that’s what we’ve done. I don’t think there’s anger from the club, there’s understanding of the situation we’re in and now we have to make a really tough situation the best we can. We have to try and navigate our way out of it, support Sandro and get him back to playing football.“
And is there a sense in Saudi Arabia from Newcastle’s majority owners, the Public Investment Fund, that they have been duped somehow? Have there been awkward conversations? “No,” Howe said.
It is, Howe said, “a new one,” for him to deal with in management; he had no inkling of any issue with Tonali until receiving a call from from Dan Ashworth, Newcastle’s sporting director, during the international break. “It was a total surprise to me, to (Ashworth), to everybody,” he said.
With Newcastle seeking to progress across four fronts this season and competing in the Champions League proper for the first time in 20 years, the timing is brutal. “Football is never easy,” Howe said. “There are always challenges and things put in front of you that make it more difficult. This is just one of them that we have to try and navigate our way around. It would be Sandro’s wish and our wish that it makes us stronger, more united and tighter.”
(Photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)