Agent in dock as clubs seek scapegoat in Cole row

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The Independent Football

A familiar scapegoat will be in the firing line when the final act of the Ashley Cole "tapping-up" saga begins today. Jonathan Barnett, Cole's agent, is likely to be implicated by both clubs when the Premier League's independent commission of inquiry hears from the protagonists.

While Chelsea are expected to argue that it was Barnett who instigated their meeting with Cole, it seems Arsenal will intimate to the inquiry that the agent was motivated to do so by their refusal to pay him a facilitation fee for renewing Cole's contract.

It was reported yesterday afternoon, in a story which appeared to have emanated from inside Highbury, that Barnett had demanded £750,000 from Arsenal for helping to arrange Cole's proposed five-year deal.

Such a practice may seem immoral but it is not illegal - Manchester United paid Ruud van Nistelrooy's agent, Roger Linse, £1m-plus for arranging his contract renewal. Nevertheless, Barnett angrily denied there was any truth in the claim, telling The Independent: "I don't respond to fairy-tales. They did not even bother to phone me. It is completely irresponsible journalism. It is just scandalous what people are allowed to write without even checking their facts. Of course it's come from Arsenal. There may be people there who don't like me, that's their prerogative. All I care is that Ashley Cole likes me."

The report claimed that talks were well advanced when Barnett made his request. After this was unanimously rejected by the Arsenal board of directors, talks became deadlocked. Arsenal would not comment yesterday.

Chelsea will tell the three-man panel, chaired by the 71-year-old former High Court judge the Rt Hon Sir Philip Otton, that Barnett approached them. Chelsea claim that at the subsequent meeting, in the Park Lane Hotel on 27 January, no terms were offered and no negotiations conducted. They claim they were seeking information about the mood at Highbury.

Cole is considering arguing that the case should be thrown out as preventing a player speaking to other clubs infringes his human rights. Barnett may argue that he only expected to meet Pini Zahavi, another agent often involved in Chelsea's transfers, and was surprised to see Jose Mourinho and Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's manager and chief executive respectively.

Cole has been charged under Rule K5, governing approaches from players to clubs; Chelsea were charged under Rule K3 (approaches from clubs to players); Mourinho was charged under Rule Q, governing managers' conduct. Neither Barnett nor Zahavi were charged as the Premier League has no power to discipline agents. However, it can make representations to the Football Association and Fifa respectively (Zahavi is licensed in Israel). Evidential files have already been sent to these bodies.

The hearing is expected to last two days with Mourinho and Kenyon seeking to give their evidence first as both are booked on to a flight tonight to join the rest of the Chelsea squad in South Korea, where they are playing a friendly match at the behest of their new South Korean sponsors.

Cole hopes to fit his evidence around his training commitments before Saturday's FA Cup final against Manchester United. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, expects contract talks to resume once the hearing is over.

The main issue for the panel, which also includes David Dent, the former secretary of the Football League, and Malcolm George, a former high-ranking policeman, is to decide who instigated the meeting. They can decide "on the balance of probabilities".

If found guilty, Chelsea could face a points deduction but a financial penalty is more likely. Cole could be suspended but, as that would penalise Arsenal, a fine is more probable. Mourinho could be fined. Barnett and Zahavi could lose their licences to practice, but may instead be fined.

Meanwhile John Shittu, the Nigerian agent of John Obi Mikel, the teenager who signed for Manchester United but was quoted as saying he wants to join Chelsea, faces an inquiry into his role in the transfer, the Nigeria Football Association said.

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