Eddie Howe has always had a stubborn side. During his tenure at Bournemouth, he held an 8am press conference on Christmas Day and was unafraid it might make him unpopular or appear emotionally unintelligent.
In a very different, rather more important context, the Newcastle manager picked up on that ability to sink in and resist people’s pleasure after the 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. Given that Newcastle is under Saudi control and the Gulf Kingdom has just executed 81 men, he knew he would be questioned about Riyadh’s deplorable human rights record.
Howe accepted that his refusal to respond to such requests would prompt suggestions that he was complicit in sportswashing and duly blocked a barrage of human rights questions.
He did not apologize on Wednesday as he explained his stance to a slightly more sympathetic media audience at the training ground and revealed he was conducting research on Saudi politics, history and culture.
“It’s not uncomfortable to be asked about geopolitics,” he said. “I understand you have to ask and I have no problem with that, but it’s my right to answer in whatever way I think is best for me and for Newcastle United. We have a game at Everton tomorrow and all my energy must be directed towards this; otherwise the team will suffer.
“My specialty is football. That’s what I know and as soon as I stray from that into an area where I don’t feel qualified to have a huge opinion, I’m going into dangerous territory so for now I’d rather stick to what I think I know.
It’s safe to assume Howe is unlikely to begin debating the nuances of Islam’s ongoing Sunni-Shia rivalries and their role in Saudi Arabia’s controversial intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis anytime soon. in the tragic civil war in Yemen. Likewise, don’t expect him to go down the likely path of a perhaps more savvy, high-profile manager and appease critics by condemning the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or lamenting the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. saudi.
“I have certainly read about the topics I am asked about and will continue to do so,” he said. “I’m obsessed with work and part of modern management now is knowing what’s going on in the world.”
Not that he is a stranger to international news. “I was a footballer with a slight difference,” Howe said. “I was 19 or 20 at Bournemouth, getting on the team bus with the Times under my arm and getting very strange looks from my team-mates. I come from a family where these things bother me. ‘were imposed and I was quite interested in world politics, but now that I manage free time, it’s such a scarce resource. That doesn’t mean I don’t keep up to date, but it’s something that is slightly out of my life; I’m going to have to devote more time to it.
Another manager might have reiterated Bobby Robson’s view that football and life are ‘all about shades of grey’ and reminded everyone that Saudis pour hundreds of millions of pounds into projects regeneration on Tyneside while creating a professional women’s team.
Howe, however, prefers to limit nuance to tactics steering Newcastle away from relegation danger and, unsurprisingly, such tunnel vision characterized his decision to take the job at St James’ Park.
The 44-year-old is adamant geopolitics has not entered the equation. “I was watching the stadium, the fan base, the team,” he said. “That had to be my goal.
“You meet the brilliant people behind the scenes – Amanda Staveley [a director and minority shareholder]Mehrdad [Ghodoussi, Staveley’s husband]Yasser [al-Rumayyan, Newcastle’s chairman] – with whom I have an excellent relationship. A great trust has been established between us. And, of course, Newcastle belongs to people [Saudi’s Public Investment Fund] who the Premier League allowed to own a football club. On my side, that’s all.
“I have since reviewed my decision based on the people I have met and I am very proud to lead this club. It is a very special place. I am extremely proud to represent this club, the supporters and the city.
Surely Staveley and Rumayyan should answer questions related to Saudi Arabia? “I had discussions with them about various things,” said Howe, who is taking Newcastle to a training camp in Dubai after facing Everton. “Would I like them to go out and talk politics? No; they will do what they think is right.
He feels that some ethical debates are best left outside the locker room door. “I haven’t had any political discussions with my players,” he said. “It’s not to say that I wouldn’t have them or discourage them, but if I go to a team meeting I will discuss how to improve the defense at the far post or the one-on-one duels. .
“Football has to be our number one priority. Playing in the Premier League is hard enough without any other thought.
“Players are learning about all parts of the world is a positive thing; I have no problem with that, but my players have to focus on football.