Ashley Cole escaped with an apology yesterday for the dissent he showed towards referee Mike Riley at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night; next season a player displaying such disrespect towards officials could cost his club points.
The Football Association was privately furious at Cole's rudeness towards Riley and disappointed that the Chelsea left-back was not dismissed. Cole, having committed a terrible tackle on the Tottenham defender Alan Hutton, turned his back on the official when being cautioned as if to say, "You want my name? It's on the back of my shirt. Read it yourself".
Cole yesterday apologised to both Hutton and Riley but, to the FA's anger, television coverage of the incident had already undermined their championing, on Tuesday, of their Respect initiative, aimed at improving players' behaviour towards officials.
Riley laughed Cole's dissent off but the FA feels the player should have received a red card for the tackle and another yellow for the dissent. As it is, he is likely to evade further punishment as, under FA guidelines, players do not incur further sanction when the referee has seen the offence.
"The referee saw the incident and dealt with it," an FA spokesman said. "We cannot re-referee matches." Neither will Chelsea face any punishment for the conduct of their players, including captain John Terry, in the aftermath. In his match report Riley made no mention of the apparent attempts to intimidate him.
However, referee recruitment is at an all-time low because of the abuse officials receive at parks level. The FA accepts this is a direct result of dissent flourishing in the professional game and is determined to reverse the trend.
It is understood Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive, and Lord Triesman, the new chairman, regard this as a personal challenge. Both accept, after discussions with players, managers and clubs, that mid-season is the wrong time to crackdown, but they are determined to act next season.
"We are absolutely committed to improving the culture of behaviour in the game at all levels," the FA spokesman said. "The issue of respect is central to the long-term health and success of the whole game. This process has started at grass-roots but we will be doing everything we can to bring the professional game with us. The whole approach is about trying out physical measures to help protect referees from abuse and to help young players develop free of aggressive and competitive parents and coaches."
Points deductions are being considered. Referees will be told to stand up for themselves and promised backing if they do. It is acknowledged that previous crackdowns have fallen away as soon as a big-name player misbehaves but Barwick and Triesman are determined that will not happen this time.
As well as apologising, Cole, whose conduct has faced scrutiny in the past, admitted that he needs "to work on and control" the "disrespect" he shows towards match officials.
It is understood Cole's admission, on Chelsea TV, followed pressure on the 27-year-old England international from the club, who have taken a dim view of his actions and wanted him to apologise.
Chelsea hope the statement, an unusual move by a high-profile Premier League player, will draw a line under the incident which tarnished the exhilarating 4-4 draw with Tottenham.
Cole, having watched replays of the incident, said: "I apologise to anyone I offended, and of course Alan who I tackled. It was not malicious. I did not mean to go in hard that way.
"It was high, but I tried to read the ball and get the ball first. He was a little bit too quick for me. It was not malicious and I am a little disappointed with what people are saying, that I meant it.
"Of course it was a bad tackle at the time but in the heat of the moment you want to win the game and win every tackle. As I said, I am sorry for Alan, but it was never meant."
Cole added of his conduct towards Riley: "I'm an emotional person, things can happen on the pitch very quickly but I didn't mean to disrespect the referee. I recognise this is a part of my game that I need to work on and control."
His contrition should go some way to dampening down the storm. Chelsea were fined £30,000 and warned about their future conduct after being charged with failing to control their players during the defeat to Manchester United in September, and were fined £40,000 for the poor behaviour of their players in the match against Derby County in November.
Cole's case was aided by Hutton, who refused to blame him for the tackle. The Scot, who in February 2005 broke his leg when playing for Rangers while making a bad challenge, said: "I knew it was high but so was the ball... I've probably done a similar challenge in my career. He said he never meant it afterwards and that's fine by me."
It is understood Riley claimed that his view of the tackle was partially obscured which explains why he only issued a caution. It was his first game back in the Premier League after being "rested" following mistakes he made during Fulham's 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers earlier this month. It is felt Riley handled the game at White Hart Lane well and will therefore referee tomorrow's match between Reading and Birmingham City as planned.
The draw has damaged Chelsea's title challenge and Avram Grant's prospects of holding on to his job. Three times they threw away the lead, with the game ending chaotically as Grant appeared, once more, to be tactically out of his depth. Towards the end, Didier Drogba ran over to the bench and seemed to question a substitution. Perhaps tellingly, Joe Cole called yesterday for the squad to show unity.Reuse content