Arsenal's board were facing a dilemma over Ashley Cole's future last night because of the dangers of officially reporting Chelsea for an alleged illegal approach and the potential risks involved in not reporting it.
The problem was sparked by a spate of fresh evidence that Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho, does indeed covet the England left-back. The Sun reported that it had obtained sworn affidavits from witnesses, including an Arsenal fan, who had seen Cole attend a secret meeting at a London hotel with senior Stamford Bridge officials, including Mourinho and Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon.
This revelation, five days after The News of the World first claimed Chelsea had tried to "tap up" Cole, was followed by Mourinho confirming his interest, if not the meeting. In an interview with the Portuguese newspaper, A Bola, Mourinho said: "Ashley Cole is the best English defender". He added: "We'll buy two [players in the summer]. One left-sided defender, because I only have one - and another player. The defender has to be good to join our squad." Yesterday, Mourinho described Cole as "one of the best left-backs in the world".
If Chelsea's alleged meeting with Cole took place, it would have been in clear violation of Premier League rules and could theoretically lead to a heavy fine for Chelsea or even see them docked points. Chelsea have declined to comment on the allegations while Kenyon's reaction to being grilled on the subject earlier this week was to squirm and decline a chance to deny the claims.
The Premier League made it clear yesterday that they will not investigate unless they receive a formal complaint for Arsenal. "And we haven't heard anything yet," a spokesman said.
Publicly, Arsenal say they are deciding what to do. Privately, the Highbury hierarchy acknowledge that an official investigation could have drawbacks, not least having Cole dragged in front of a commission to explain his own role. Arsenal also want to retain Cole's services beyond his current deal, which expires in 2007, and any action that might implicate Cole or his agent, Jonathan Barnett, in improper behaviour, would do them and the club's reputation no favours. Barnett had made an outright denial about the secret meeting but backtracked yesterday, saying he would neither confirm nor deny it. There are figures on the Arsenal board who want Chelsea held to account. The rationale is twofold: to punish a wrongdoing and send a message that such behaviour is unacceptable. Arsenal's chairman Peter Hill-Wood said: "If the club is presented with evidence that those rules have been contravened I am sure we will take the matter further." But there are doubts at Highbury that there is any conclusive evidence of enticement.
Arsène Wenger has received verbal confirmation from Cole that the player wants to stay at Highbury, which is good enough for him. Last night the French manager admitted he would not push for Chelsea to be punished with a points deduction even if they are found guilty of tapping up Cole.
"No, I wouldn't like Chelsea to be docked points," he said. "I want to win the championship on the pitch and not to deduct points an an artificial way.Do we take the matter further? I feel that is something that has to be discussed by the board.
"If [Chelsea] want to buy the player they can call us and ask if we want to sell him or not. Of course the answer is not. It is as simple as that. This story won't go away but there is not much more I can say about it.
"At the moment our goal is to get Ashley concentrated on the next game and not on this whole story. As a footballer you have to deal with different kinds of situations. It is a situation that keeps you busy but doesn't help us a lot. Situations like this have happened before."
Wenger was referring to Aston Villa's illegal comments about James Beattie while he was at Southampton last August, which resulted in a mild rebuke for the Midlands club.
The Frenchman claimed he has a clean record. He said: "You meet an agent and he offers you 50 players in half an hour so I cannot say that I have never talked about a player under contract - but I don't think that is illegal. I have never spoken to a player without his club's permission."
Hot Cole what they have said...
'Ashley Cole is the best English defender.'
Jose Mourinho interviewed by Portuguese newspaper A Bola
'We'll buy two: one left defender, who has to be good to join our squad. The other has to be a great player.'
Mourinho in same interview, talking about his summer spending plans
'There were five people in the room and I recognised Mourinho, Cole and Kenyon ... they were talking about a transfer. I remember the words: "This is what we are prepared to do if you come to Chelsea."'
Royal Park Hotel worker inThe Sun
'If correct this is a serious development but I need to see the evidence. Ashley is under contract to us until 2007 and is committed to the club.'
David Dein, Arsenal vice-chairman, yesterday
'We have not commented in the past, do not intend to comment now and will not do so in the future.'
Chelsea statement yesterday
'If Chelsea want a player they can call us and we will answer yes or no. And with Ashley it would be no, of course.'
Arsène Wenger yesterday
I want to buy a left back because I have only one. I need a player to give protection. I don't need a superstar.'
Mourinho after training yesterdayReuse content