Glenn Moore: Cole's commitment clouds questions of loyalty and liaisons

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The Independent Online

The Chelsea programme, for once, was strictly uncontroversial. Introducing the Arsenal team it said of Ashley Cole, under "need to know": "Scored against Manchester City and Aston Villa earlier this season."

The Chelsea programme, for once, was strictly uncontroversial. Introducing the Arsenal team it said of Ashley Cole, under "need to know": "Scored against Manchester City and Aston Villa earlier this season."

Need to know? No one cares. What we need to know about Cole is what he was doing in the Royal Park Hotel on 27 January with Jose Mourinho and Peter Kenyon. And who will he be playing for next season? Not since Alan Kennedy scored Liverpool's winner against Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final has a left-back been the focus of such attention. Even Roberto Carlos usually operates in the shadow of Ronaldo, Beckham, Zidane and company. Cole, though, was being closely observed by the supporters, and coaching staff, of both sides.

The home fans chanted "Chelsea's No 3". The visiting support looked on sullenly. For them it was a no-win evening. If Cole played badly it was proof his head had been turned. If he played well, he wanted to impress Mourinho.

Arsenal left-backs have a pedigree in this fixture. One reason Chelsea came into the game without winning a League match against Arsenal at the Bridge since 1995 is that Nigel Winterburn and Silvinho both scored critical, sensational, late goals here.

Cole kept a lower profile. As Arsenal controlled the first half he occasionally sprinted upfield but, with Thierry Henry absent, Arsenal's attack was less dependent on the left flank and there were few opportunities to shine.

Instead it was Robert Pires who caught the eye. Striking the crossbar one minute, clearing off the line the next, the 2002 Footballer of the Year was everywhere. The French international has had a quiet couple of seasons since his injury but he has come back into form. Who knows, perhaps he will soon receive an invitation to dinner from Mourinho and Kenyon.

And if he did? Tapping up is nothing new. The only difference with Chelsea is the blatant nature of their alleged approaches. Traditionally it is done with a phone call or through an agent, an international team-mate, or a journalist.

It is this apparent arrogance which grated with Arsène Wenger but Arsenal's position on the moral high ground is shaky. There is something unsettling about the way they have scoured the youth academies of Europe to lure players such as Nicolas Anelka, Arturo Lupoli and Cesc Fabregas from the clubs which first discovered their talent. It is a free market, they will argue, but in that case Cole has the right to talk to Chelsea, and Chelsea to him. Few of the 40,000 at Stamford Bridge labour under such employment restrictions.

But football is different, it is argued to employment lawyers. If players were on three months' notice there would be no identity to clubs, team-building would be impossible. The rich clubs would sign everyone.

Or would they? The post-Bosman reality is that players, and their agents, already have the upper hand. Witness the moves of Sol Campbell and Wayne Rooney. Yet Henry and Patrick Vieira have stayed at Highbury, prizing contentment above (further) riches. Ashley Cole may yet do the same.

Certainly last night he did not look like a player torn by split loyalties. He never hid from the ball, he never shirked a challenge, one crunching tackle on Joe Cole reverberating around the ground. Maybe he will go to Chelsea, but there are no guarantees for him. For every Frank Lampard there is a Scott Parker, or Hernan Crespo. And it could be the making of Gaël Clichy.

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