Cole's fight may force Premiership rule change

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The Independent Football

Ashley Cole will almost certainly launch an immediate appeal if he is found guilty by the Premier League tapping-up inquiry. The Arsenal defender is also understood to be prepared to take the case to the European courts which means the saga may drag on for months.

Ashley Cole will almost certainly launch an immediate appeal if he is found guilty by the Premier League tapping-up inquiry. The Arsenal defender is also understood to be prepared to take the case to the European courts which means the saga may drag on for months.

At the same time it has emerged that Cole told the inquiry that if any illegal approach was made it was instigated by Chelsea and not him. However, his legal team, headed by the solicitor Graham Shear and David Pannick QC, an expert in human rights, did indeed also submit a "secondary argument". This challenges the legality of the Premier League rule, K5, which forbids any player from talking to another club while under contract.

Such a rule does not exist in any other European country and, they said, amounts to a restraint of trade. The nearest equivalent to the rule is in Italy and even there a player can make an approach in the final year of his contract. It may be that the matter has to go to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The strength of Cole's case - and the weight of legal evidence submitted by his lawyers - is the prime reason why the three-strong inquiry team, chaired by the retired judge Sir Philip Otton, have deferred their decision until 1 June. Privately, Premier League officials admit that the Cole inquiry may prove to be a crucial test case and that they may have to redraft K5 because of it. His lawyers are certainly happy with the way their case was presented while any appeal, if necessary, would be heard by a new Premier League panel.

Arsenal, however, also wanted the decision deferred, as they were concerned as to the effects before tomorrow's FA Cup final. This has further annoyed Cole as did the presence of the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, as a witness in the two-day hearing. Dein had to be called because the complaint over the meeting at the Royal Park Hotel in central London on 27 January came from Arsenal but this meant he effectively became part of the prosecution's case.

It is also believed that during the testimony of Cole's agent, Jonathan Barnett, Arsenal's lawyer, Nigel Boardman, fed questions to the Premier League prosecutors, handing them notes and documents and this has further soured relations.

Talks between Cole's advisers and Arsenal over a new, improved contract have broken down leading to speculation that Barnett sought out a meeting with the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, their manager, Jose Mourinho, and the agent Pini Zahavi to try to use the Stamford Bridge club as leverage for a new deal. Barnett maintains he thought he was only meeting Zahavi to discuss possible moves abroad for Cole.

Indeed, the schism between Cole - or, more specifically, his agent - and Arsenal was widened further by their manager, Arsène Wenger, earlier in the week when he said that he feared Barnett was trying to "move Ashley Cole". For their part, Cole's side claim Arsenal effectively reneged on an agreement to pay the 24-year-old £60,000-a-week. At the Premier League inquiry Cole's team are understood to have presented minutes which alleged that the new deal was cut to £55,000 per week on the instruction of the Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood.

Comments from Hill-Wood yesterday will not have improved the chances of Cole staying either. He said: "We have no control over the players. They control us. If you take someone like Ashley Cole, he has another two years to go. He wanted something like three times what we are paying him. We said we can't do that." The irony is that Hill-Wood was complaining about the effects of the Bosman ruling - a ruling that Arsenal profited from in the high-profile case of Sol Campbell's defection from Tottenham Hotspur.

The most likely scenario now is that Cole, who is understood to earn £27,000-a-week at present, will threaten to sit out the remainder of his contract and leave for free after that. Arsenal may simply hope he changes his mind or, more sensibly, agree to sell him. Wenger certainly fears that tomorrow's final will be Cole's final game in Arsenal's colours while the row has totally overshadowed the role in the affair played by Chelsea.

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