FOOTBALL: The Cole pursuers may get off lightly

Embarrassment all round is clouding the issue of Chelsea's alleged illegal approach for the Arsenal and England left-back Ashley Cole, and may lead to the matter being dropped with a private word of warning to the west London club about future recruiting activities.

The Premier League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has been in contact with both clubs, but will be reluctant to pursue the matter unless Arsenal insist. There is clearly division within Highbury about the case. Last Monday, after the allegations had first been aired, Arsenal's old-school chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, said: "The rules are very clear on this matter. If the club is presented with evidence that those rules have been contravened, I am sure we will take the matter further."

But by Friday the more pragmatic manager, Arsene Wenger, said he wanted to forget all about it. Wenger claimed to have spoken to Cole but, extraordinarily, not to have asked him whether he was at the meeting.

He may have felt the answer would have proved too embarrassing, and is likely to be disappointed that after his captain Patrick Vieira's long dalliance with Real Madrid last summer, another of his leading players might have been consorting with rivals.

Whether or not Cole was present, it would be very much in his interests, and his agent's, to know how much Chelsea might offer him, as a weapon in his negotiations over a new contract with his current club. Arsenal are reported to have offered pounds 55,000 a week, still less than many Chelsea players.

Punishment could theoretically include deduction of points, which Arsenal and Manchester United must conclude is their only hope of catching the champions-elect at the top of the Premiership. But the Premier League set a precedent by letting Aston Villa off with a reprimand after finding them guilty of an illegal approach earlier this season to James Beattie, who later left Southampton for Everton.

Villa's manager, David O'Leary, described the charge as "a farce", because "every day I see a manager talking about a player he wants".

An Arsenal supporter working as a waiter at the Royal Park hotel in west London has sworn an affidavit that he served coffee to a group including Cole, the agent Pini Zahavi, the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, and the club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon. Yesterday, a second Arsenal fan, a taxi driver, confirmed that he had seen Cole arriving at the hotel.

Meanwhile, the Premier League have said there is no chance of next season beginning a week early, on 6 August, so that players can be guaranteed a full four weeks between the end of the domestic season and the start of the World Cup.

"Clubs have massive overseas commitments and can't unpick them," a spokesman said yesterday. "It's eight or nine months too late to be talking about that. But we're still committed to helping, and are working overtime to try and fit all the fixtures in."

Officials have privately expressed surprise that the Football Association are seriously contemplating playing the 2006 FA Cup final in midweek, although no firm decision has been made.

Peter Corrigan, page 18

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