James Lawton: Pitiful punishments prove the game has no order or shame

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The Independent Online

Several times the Premier League spokesman said that his bosses hoped that the deterrent value of their action would bite into those who had been found guilty of flaunting their belief that the rules of football are not worth the paper they are written on.

Several times the Premier League spokesman said that his bosses hoped that the deterrent value of their action would bite into those who had been found guilty of flaunting their belief that the rules of football are not worth the paper they are written on.

It was a breathtaking performance. It made a mockery of the idea that football has governance. It does not - it has a gang of businessmen who, by their actions yesterday, suggested they would not know a sporting value, a point of principle, if it mugged them in a West End street - or a luxurious hotel.

That is, of course, precisely what happened when Arsenal's Ashley Cole went to the meeting where his agent Jonathan Barnett and Chelsea's key adviser Pini Zahavi had arranged for him to meet Jose Mourinho and the Stamford Bridge chief executive Peter Kenyon.

Yes, everybody knows that tapping-up is part of football. It has gone on down the decades - one famous manager once invaded the Cup final banquet of a rival club to make a move for their star player - but never before had we seen something so blatant, so arrogant.

It was so shameless in its implication that only money counted, that a key player like Cole, developed down the years by Chelsea's rivals Arsenal, had merely to run into a hitch in contract negotiations, had merely to pick up the phone for his agent to deliver him to the moneybags across town.

What did this say about respect for rivals in a League which is supposed to be the envy of the world game?

It said that it did not exist. It said the devil could take the hindmost - and all the fans who are lured into the belief that the players who represent them, and receive fabulous rewards, at least share a little of their own passions and loyalties.

But of course this did not prevent the Premier League dressing up its feeble stab at authority.

Deterrent? Action? What a truly pitiful organisation this is. It runs a league which cannot foster genuine competition beyond three or four clubs and then when it has a chance to remind its most powerful member, and reigning champions, that they are part of a league, and that this involves certain decencies of appearance, if not behaviour, what does it do?

It fines Cole less than a month's wages, which while not putting anything like a stop to his life of luxury is enough for his lawyer to launch an appeal, while talking about the enduring slave-master relationship in football. This slave, of course, made his run for freedom because Arsenal apparently reneged on an agreement to up his wages to £60,000 a week. In a misguided show of power which does not exist, the Arsenal directors tried to peg him to a mere £55,000.

Cole's lawyer will argue that his client would not risk such sanction in the real world for talking to a prospective employer - but then when was football a part of the real world? Not, certainly, when it was pinning the men who filled the stadiums to groaning capacity to a maximum wage of £20 a week - and not now when Rio Ferdinand demands £120,000 a week and Cole shows his contempt for all those who have cheered him at Highbury.

The fines of £300,000 on Chelsea and £200,000 on Jose Mourinho are pitiful.

There was only one meaningful penalty for Chelsea. It was to handicap them for next season's campaign - a six-point deduction would have carried the force of natural justice, given their cynical willingness to so damage the campaign of one of their two legitimate challengers. Instead we had the palsied compromise: a suspended three-point deduction, to be enforced only if Chelsea committed a similar offence in 2005-06.

This means, of course, that any future meeting between Kenyon and Mourinho and a putative Chelsea star might have to occur in a rather more secluded place, though not maybe Kenyon's apartment, where Sven Goran Eriksson was photographed in the process of being tempted away from the national team.

In the post-Bosman world there is a limit on the disciplinary powers of the football authority. It knows how easy it is to make work for the lawyers in the European court, but where is the will to impose values; a code of conduct which might just suggest a desire, if not the capacity, to make the word league not seem so out of place at the top of English football?

League implies awareness of the need for co-operation - a sense that a truly competitive football competition needs to be conscious that ultimately it will always only be as strong as its weakest link.

Yes, of course it is true that Chelsea were not breaking any ignominious ground when they went with their largesse to the hotel to see Cole. They were reinforced by a long and ruthless tradition. But just as in the cases of Eriksson, and Mourinho's shocking intrusion in the life of the Swedish referee Anders Frisk, they did it with a gut-wrenching belief that whatever was good for Chelsea carried its own validity.

Yesterday the Premier League had the chance to strike back at such a philosophy of sporting Doomsday. It could have deducted points. It could have said that even for this organisation a line had to be drawn.

But it rolled over. It said that the lack of leadership in football was just about total.

Foul play: Footballers' hall of infamy

1990: ARSENAL docked two points, MANCHESTER UNITED one and each fined £50,000 after brawl.

1994: TOTTENHAM fined £1.5m for illegal payments to players.

1995: Manchester Utd's ERIC CANTONA banned for nine months and fined £20,000 after kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace fan.

1998:PAOLO DI CANIO pushes over referee Paul Alcock at Sheffield Wed. £10,000 fine, 11-match ban.

1999: PATRICK VIEIRA earns six-game ban and £45,000 fine for spitting at Neil Ruddock.

2002: Manchester Utd's ROY KEANE gets a five-match ban and a £150,000 fine for admitting in his autobiography he meant to injure Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland.

2003: ARSENAL players fined £265,000 for intimidation of Ruud van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford.

2003: Manchester Utd defender RIO FERDINAND suspended for eight months and fined £50,000 after failing to attend a drug test.

2004: Seven-month ban and £20,000 fine for

Chelsea striker ADRIAN MUTU after positive test for cocaine.

2004: JOEY BARTON fined £90,000 by Manchester City for cigar-throwing incident at players' Christmas party.

2005: LEE BOWYER fined £250,000 and handed seven-match ban after on-pitch scuffle with Newcastle team-mate Kieron Dyer.

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