On a cool, still afternoon Tottenham Hotspur moved up to fifth in the table with a 3-2 win against Newcastle United. Harry Kane broke his Premier League goal drought. Jonjo Shelvey was sent off. Before the game the new Newcastle chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, received an ecstatic reception from supporters following the £300m purchase of the club from the previous owner Mike Ashley. Outside the stadium, a van circled St James’ Park bearing the words “Jamal Khashoggi: Murdered 2.10.18”. Shortly before half-time the game was stopped so medical staff could administer emergency treatment to a fan who had collapsed in the stands.
To what extent, if any, do these events relate to each other? Watching football is about bold, primary-colour emotions: the pursuit of joy and the endurance of pain. It gives you wins and losses and a league table to tell you how you did, a songbook to tell you what to sing, an established liturgy to tell you how to feel. Talking and writing about football is about telling stories, prioritising and editorialising, finding out what matters and filtering out what doesn’t. But what mattered here, and in what order? How do you even begin to process a day of such sad and unspeakable strangeness, a day with no maps, no anchors and no real precedent?
Certainly the shell-shocked Newcastle fan in the Saudi robe puffing disconsolately on his half‑time cigarette was struggling to work out the answer. A few hours earlier, he would have been one of the gleeful thousands marching up the hill towards this greying and faded old stadium, belting out the old songs and a few new ones, hearts filled with hope and the promise of the new. A few minutes earlier, he would have seen Son Heung-min thrashing in Tottenham’s third goal. In between he would have glimpsed, through a dismaying and distant thicket of yellow high-viz jackets, a fan fighting for life on the East Stand steps. It had, to put things mildly, been an extraordinary day.
You could make some facile contrast between the crackling, reverberant energy pounding around the stadium at kick-off and the subdued, desolate silence that followed it. You could point out the dissonance between football’s tender and genuine compassion when confronted with the real‑time spectre of human tragedy and its wilful blindness to the suffering inflicted by so many of its owners and funders. You could say something glib and well-meaning about how this puts everything into perspective and how football scarcely matters at a time like this.
But the truth is, these disparate strands of the story don’t really intersect with each other at all. They all happened in the same space, but largely independently of each other, and so no single narrative can really explain them all. Football can be wild and maddening and random like that: it takes you on a joyride, and anybody who thinks they can navigate its emotional waters is deluding themselves.
If there was a certain weirdness to the fact that the football match unfolding in front of us felt like the least important thing in the world, then it was surely only a fleeting sensation.
Within a few weeks the medical crisis and its unfortunate victim will be long forgotten by most. But we’ll all still be talking about Newcastle’s precarious league position and which players they might buy in the January transfer window.
By full-time, the euphoric surrealness of earlier felt like a relic from several eras ago. Even so, the rapturous welcome offered to Al-Rumayyan a few minutes before kick-off will probably remain the most enduring image of the day: the sight of grown men opening their arms and exalting this affiliate of a thuggish autocracy as if he were some sort of god: saluting him, praising him, shaking their fists in ecstasy.
Over the loudspeakers, Jimmy Nail crooned about the river rising again. High in the Milburn Stand a green Saudi flag waved in the Tyne breeze. From a short distance away in the VIP seats, Ant and Dec looked on approvingly. A couple of minutes later Steve Bruce emerged from the tunnel. Nobody noticed. It’s football, Brian. Just not as we know it.
And yet the fans who arrived in daylight with such bullish optimism left at nightfall with that familiar gnawing frustration: “no noise from the Saudi boys”, the Spurs fans trilled as they filed unhappily towards the exit. The team is still Championship standard. The stadium is still festooned in discount sportswear logos. And perhaps most crucially of all, a reminder that this game is far too weird and confusing and capricious a force to be reduced to simple cause and effect.
Win a billionaire, buy amazing players, win trophies, feel happy. That’s the plan, anyway. But football has never really been as simple as that, and I suppose you could say the same of life as well. The Newcastle fan who collapsed was stabilised and taken to hospital. Sergio Reguilón paid tribute to the medical staff after the game.
Bruce was serenaded with chants of “sacked in the morning” as the game wound to a close. Together, Kane and Son have now combined for 35 Premier League goals, one behind the record held by Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. Newcastle remain winless and sit 19th in the table. Meanwhile, Jamal Khashoggi is still dead.