It started with a ripple and then spread like a virus, the Gallowgate End rumbling and rousing itself, supporters straining to their feet and applauding. Walking towards them, a few steps in front of his team-mates — part of them but now apart, a deliberate act of separation on their behalf — Sandro Tonali clapped in return. His name boomed around St James’ Park, which is ferocious in most things, including its adoration.
The first to get there, Tonali lingered. The rest of Newcastle’s players and staff stood behind him, figuratively and literally. When they began to move, he stayed a few seconds longer, willing for the moment to last, drinking it in, for those cheers and chants to echo and tumble down the months ahead. Then the spell broke and he turned towards the dugout, Kieran Trippier draping an arm around his shoulders and whispering in his ear: just listen to them, Son.
So much in Tonali’s life, professional and personal, is flecked with doubt. Under investigation into alleged illegal betting activity back in his native Italy and facing the possibility of a lengthy suspension, the 23-year-old cannot know with any certainty when he might play again after yesterday (Saturday), particularly with his legal team pressing for an early resolution. He cannot know what his life will feel like without football and how he will cope.
But if he didn’t already, Tonali understands one thing beyond question: he knows what it is to be loved and for that love to be unconditional. He knows the club he joined this summer for an initial £55million ($66.9m at current exchange rates), from AC Milan, the team he supported as a boy, is now his home, however “lost” he might have felt in his early days.
After his long arrivederci, he knows they will be waiting for him. The realisation appeared to humble him.
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His lone approach to the crowd had been Eddie Howe’s idea.
“It came to me as we were starting our walk that I wanted him to be at the front, to see the love closer up,” Newcastle’s head coach said. “It’s just a big thank-you from me to our supporters because that reaction, that reception at the end was incredible. And it was emotional.
Class team. Class support. pic.twitter.com/LW5YlFB2nS
— Charlotte Robson (@charlottehope) October 21, 2023
“As I said on Friday, he’s a human being, he’s going through a very emotional time and the supporters reacted in the way I hoped they would and I could feel the love between him and them. That will do him a world of good. We don’t know what’s ahead of him, but he’ll feel much better about everything tonight.”
This was a day of strength and a day of solidarity. Three goals up against Crystal Palace at half-time and winning 4-0 in the 69th minute, which is when Tonali stepped onto the pitch to replace Bruno Guimaraes, it was a supreme response to a week of distressing headlines.
Crisis? Only the one which grasped hold of Palace’s left side, as balls were flung in and Jacob Murphy, Anthony Gordon, Sean Longstaff and Callum Wilson thundered goals. “We fell woefully short,” opposing manager Roy Hodgson said, and it was an understatement.
Newcastle will be just fine. Tonali’s absence, if and when it is confirmed, will be felt keenly because he is a player with genuine star quality, someone capable of lifting them to another level — or keeping them there — and there will naturally be moments when injuries bite, but the resilience which has grown in them since their takeover a couple of years ago now has deep roots. Adversity is their friend. They rally around each other — a Tyneside quality.
For Tonali himself, difficulties stretch in front of him.
“The hardest time is ahead,” Howe said. “Because immediately you get a lot of attention and people are talking about the situation and he’s had love today. That’s difficult to maintain over a long period of time. Who knows what’s ahead, but it’s great for him to know that he’s got the support not just of the senior management of the club and the manager but also of the fans. They’re the most important people.”
Internally, Newcastle’s coaching staff knew that Tonali felt vulnerable, that he had concerns about how he might be received yesterday, but those concerns were blown away.
The Gallowgate usually swirls with banners before kick-off, but on this occasion there were only two, one in the corner celebrating the work of Show Racism The Red Card and then, placed slap-bang in the middle, another: “Forza Tonali.” That monochrome minimalism was powerful.
There was more: cheers when the teams and substitutes were announced and Tonali’s name was read out; a standing ovation from the Leazes End when he first went to warm up in the 28th minute, yellow bib across the chest. At that point, reaching the end of his run and clapping in return, he must have accepted that things would be OK. They sang his song — “Sandrooooo Tonali…” — and he turned and acknowledged them again.
There were no doubts from Howe about involving him against Palace.
“He very much wanted to play and perform, I’m sure,” he said. “For me, there was no decision to make in the sense of would I or could I play him, no part of me that thought, ‘Oh, he’s not ready to play football’. It was just, ‘Yes’. Then we had to introduce him at the right time and make sure it was right for the team. He played well when he came on. Hopefully, it’s a big step forward for him, moving forward with his life.”
Stationed just in front of the back four, he was deep and self-contained over those final 20 minutes or so; the scoreline did not require gilding, simply good sense. He got through it.
In the dressing room afterwards, “he was normal Sandro,” Howe said. “He’s very level. Very rarely do you outwardly see the emotion, but you know it’s in there. He’s a private guy and keeps things in check really well. I’m sure he’s massively boosted by that today. I’m sure it’s made a huge difference to him.”
Long after the playing stops, the roar will still reverberate in his ears.
(Top photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)