It was most assuredly in managerial meltdown territory – either then and there upon the full-time whistle or in the press conference afterwards. Perhaps it even merited a strongly worded club statement, decrying the demise of refereeing standards.
Put yourself in Eddie Howe’s shoes. You have watched your Newcastle team put bodies on the line throughout a second-half siege at Paris Saint-Germain, protecting a 1-0 lead courtesy of Alexander Isak’s 24th-minute goal.
You are on the brink of one of the greatest European results in club history, one to set up progress to the Champions League last 16 against the odds. Because Ici C’est Paris and there on the bench you have no options owing to an injury crisis. Your 11 heroes have played from start to finish. And then, in one moment, one frankly absurd penalty decision, it is snatched away – the victory and with it control of the team’s destiny with regard to qualification.
The temptation to make like, say, Mauricio Pochettino or Mikel Arteta is strong. Both of those managers have been unable to bottle up their fury with officials this season and there have been other offenders. It feels as though bad behaviour is on the rise. Has the clampdown on managers had any real effect – beyond the yellow cards, charges and touchline bans?
Howe resisted. Everybody knew what he wanted to say, which was basically what the TV pundits said about the decision to penalise Tino Livramento for a handball deep into stoppage time when a close-quarters cross hit the side of his body and deflected on to the back of his left arm. Kylian Mbappé converted from the spot for 1-1.
Howe heard Jermaine Jenas and Ally McCoist use words such as “disgrace”, “cheated” and “robbed”. He said that he shared the sentiments only he was “not allowed” to say so himself. It was part of a masterclass in restraint and composure; dignity, too.
How did Howe feel when he saw the PSG players crowd around the referee, Szymon Marciniak (again), demanding that he liaise with the VAR? Marciniak would book another of them for dissent; this time, the substitute Gonçalo Ramos. Previously, after the complaints surrounding the non-award of a penalty against Lewis Miley for handball, he had cautioned Gianluigi Donnarumma. The home crowd did not need any further incitement from their players but they got it all the same.
“I can’t remember how many times it happened [aggressive PSG penalty appeals],” Howe said. It was actually three – the first followed an Anthony Gordon challenge on Achraf Hakimi. “You sort of fear that, yeah, due to numbers, one is going to go against you. Which you shouldn’t really feel. Each decision should be taken on its independent moment.”
Howe admitted that he felt a sense of injustice. He described the award against Livramento as “not the right decision”, “poor” and “hugely frustrating”. But it was all remarkably measured, the tone never threatening to reach agitation point.
“I’m not a great one for seeking explanations [from referees] at the end of the game,” Howe said. “I don’t think it’s the right time to do it. I don’t think it looks good.” Was he struggling to control his emotions? “Yes, of course,” he said. “But I have to control myself. That is my job and it doesn’t do any good to lose control of your emotions when I speak.”
Howe is like ice. It was easy to make the case for this having been the biggest game of his career. It turned out to be the ultimate showcase for the evenness of his temperament and it is no great stretch to see how it generates buy-in from his players.
What Howe did so well was to acknowledge the blow of the PSG equaliser but to contextualise it, to paint a broader picture. Which took in the awareness that PSG had deserved something from a tie in which they hogged 72% of the ball and took 31 shots to Newcastle’s five. Luis Enrique’s team created a host of massive chances. Had they won, Newcastle would have been out.
In a sense, Howe’s preparations for the final group game against Milan at St James’ Park began in the aftermath of Paris. He wanted to talk up the strength in adversity of the collective performance; essentially to highlight to his players what they can do, what is possible, how qualification remains on.
Howe believes that his team will beat Milan, which they must do, and he wants his players to believe it, too. Newcastle also need Dortmund to avoid defeat at home to PSG which, given how the French side have struggled away from the partisan rage of their own ground in this season’s competition – P2 L2 – is hardly out of the question. Dortmund need a point to ensure that they finish top.
It was a positive night for Newcastle in Paris, Howe’s glass half-full because of the high proportion of colossal individual performances, starting with Nick Pope in goal – he made five superb saves. It is unfair to single out others, particularly in defence, but how about this for a set of statistics from Bruno Guimarães, who excelled in the No 6 role: four tackles, three interceptions, three clearances, four blocked shots.
“It will take a little bit of time for the emotion to turn to a positive, but I think it has to because of what we’ve given,” Howe said. “We are still in the competition, we are still fighting. It could have been different, PSG did miss chances. We are desperate to stay in and show a better version of ourselves because I don’t think people have seen that yet. There is a lot more that we haven’t shown. We’d love the opportunity to do it.”