Football: Players right to talk to suitors, says Eriksson

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SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON was drawn into the dispute over Chelsea's alleged illegal approach to Ashley Cole yesterday when the England coach defended the rights of contracted players to speak to rival clubs about potential transfers.

The Swede's comments are likely to cause disquiet at the top of English football's hierarchy where the alleged approach to Cole by the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and his manager, Jose Mourinho, has already become the subject of a Premier League inquiry.

Eriksson was speaking in the build-up to tonight's England friendly against the Netherlands and was reluctantly drawn into the debate over the ethics of "tapping up" players when he was reminded that Chelsea officials have had at least two meetings with him over the last 18 months. As has been his instinct during almost four years in charge of England, Eriksson came down in support of his players.

When the Swede was asked whether he thought that the controversy that the alleged meeting on 27 January at the Royal Park Hotel in London had caused, he replied that he did not believe that it would affect Cole's performances for his country.

Eriksson said: "No, I'm not worried, because as a professional football player, it must be your right to listen if there are some other works [sic] available. They are professionals. It's the same in your situation. We don't live in a dictatorship, we live in a democratic country. I think it's important, but normally it's not a problem."

Less than three weeks from the four-year anniversary of his first match in charge of England, when asked whether he felt Cole should have shown more loyalty towards Arsenal, Eriksson replied: "Loyalty, yes, is important. But contracts end and that's life. I don't want to comment. I don't know I have an opinion on it - I might but I will never tell you. It might be the biggest issue, but I'm not involved. He was one of the best in training. I have known Ashley for many years and I have never had a problem with him."

A Premier League spokesman responded to Eriksson's comments yesterday by saying: "The professional footballer under contract does not have the right to speak to another club without the permission of his current employer. The Premier League rules are clear on that and there is an ongoing inquiry into this matter. If it's proven that the rules have been broken then the guilty parties are liable to be punished. We are not getting into a row with Mr Eriksson, we are just pointing out the rules."

When asked about the Cole saga on Sunday, Eriksson first had explained his stance on speaking to players over potential transfers. "Of course I have professional experience of this - agents have a big role to play in buying and selling players," he said. "Normally in Italy as a club manager I would first contact the agent if I wanted to buy a big player and secondly I would contact the club. It would be much better if chairmen spoke to chairmen about these things but if a player is not interested in coming, then what's the point of contacting the club?"

The Premier League yesterday sent formal requests to Chelsea and Arsenal, asking for the clubs' "observations" on the matter. They have 14 days to respond. The League will

then almost certainly appoint a three-man commission to carry out a thorough investigation.

The Cole saga has put Eriksson in a difficult position because it has set his approach to his career in football management against the letter of the law as defined by Premier League regulations. The Swede has never been reluctant to discuss his future with potential suitors and was released from his contract at Lazio to take over the England job at the end of 2000.

Since then it has been alleged by Sir Alex Ferguson that Eriksson informally agreed to take over at Manchester United before the Scot postponed his retirement plans in 2002. It has been a source of embarrassment for the England coach that he was photographed attending a meeting at Roman Abramovich's apartment in the summer of 2003 and again at Kenyon's home 11 months ago.

Eriksson was awarded a new deal by the former FA chief executive Mark Palios last year, is understood to earn about pounds 4.5m a year and will be kept under contract until the end of the 2008 European Championships. Eriksson said: "I'm happy to be here. I always said I'm proud to have the job, very proud - honoured."