Cole charged over Chelsea tap-up

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The Independent Online

Arsenal's attempt to bring Chelsea to justice over their alleged illegal approach to Ashley Cole backfired disastrously on the Highbury club last night when the Premier League charged the England left-back himself with breaking the rules.

Arsenal's attempt to bring Chelsea to justice over their alleged illegal approach to Ashley Cole backfired disastrously on the Highbury club last night when the Premier League charged the England left-back himself with breaking the rules.

Jose Mourinho and Chelsea were also charged with breaking Premier League regulations, but the charge against Cole will infuriate Arsenal, who had hoped to keep their player out of the dispute. When, after newspaper allegations, Arsenal finally made their complaint about Chelsea "tapping up" Cole, they did not accuse the player of any wrongdoing and Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has since refused to blame him.

However, after the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, and the chairman, Dave Richards, studied evidence on the meeting between Mourinho, Cole and the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, at London's Royal Park Hotel on 27 January, they were left with no option but to charge the player as well.

Cole has been charged with breaking Rule K5 of the Premier League regulations which forbids any player under contract to a club soliciting the interest of another. The evidence was collected by the Premier League's lawyer Nick Fitzpatrick from, among others, Kenyon, Mourinho and Cole, and it was the Chelsea men who said that Cole had instigated the meeting.

Although it would now be highly unlikely for Cole to join Chelsea, it will also deepen the divide between the player and Arsenal. It was Cole's disaffection with the salary package that he was being offered by Arsenal that is understood to have led him to consider meeting with Chelsea. Now he is not likely to feel any better disposed to the Highbury hierarchy for initiating the process that has led to his charge.

The charge will probably earn Cole a fine because the independent three-man commission which will decide the charges - and set the punishment - will not wish to penalise Arsenal by banning the player. However, the 24-year-old is a target for Real Madrid and that now looks like the most attractive option for him if he was to leave Arsenal.

Mourinho has been charged with Rule Q, which relates to the manager's code of conduct as laid out by the Premier League regulations. Chelsea have been charged with Rule K3 which forbids clubs from approaching players who are under contract elsewhere without the permission of their existing club.

While many in English football accept that the process of illegally "tapping up" players takes place all the time, Wenger argued that it was symptomatic of Chelsea's "arrogance" - because of the wealth of the club's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich.

There has been an extraordinary escape for Cole's agent, Jonathan Barnett, who was also present at the Royal Park hotel meeting. The Premier League has acknowledged that there is no provision under their rules to charge him but have said that they will be passing on evidence to the Football Association for them to act. The same will apply to the agent Pini Zahavi, who is also understood to have been present at the meeting.

When the commission hear the three charges, Cole is understood to be planning to keep to his defence that he and Barnett met Zahavi to discuss his options if he were to leave Arsenal. The player alleged when he gave evidence to Fitzpatrick that Mourinho and Kenyon then walked into the room, unexpected and uninvited, to join the discussions.

Chelsea will allege that Cole and Barnett approached them about the meeting and that at no time was the issue of money raised. The spectre of the Premier League docking points from Chelsea now hangs over Stamford Bridge, but sources have suggested that if the governing body were prepared to go that far, those points would be taken away at the start of next season.

The likelihood for Cole would be a fine, especially as that was the punishment meted out to Christian Ziege in the only comparable case after Middlesbrough accused Liverpool of tapping up the former German international. Ziege was fined £20,000.

Whether the case will be able to rid the game of the custom of making illegal approaches to players is open to question. In a recent revealing fanzine interview, Rio Ferdinand said that his agent, Zahavi, had often told him that "there's been other clubs interested in me". Ferdinand denied that Zahavi had said this to him while he had been under contract to Manchester United. "He's a millionaire," Ferdinand said of Zahavi, "he doesn't need to make no [sic] money."

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