Key objective in Cole affair is integrity not restraint of trade

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The Independent Football

The full, as yet unpublished, verdict on the Ashley Cole inquiry concedes that Premier League rules amount to a restraint of a player's trade, but concludes that the restraint is justifiable and beneficial.

The full, as yet unpublished, verdict on the Ashley Cole inquiry concedes that Premier League rules amount to a restraint of a player's trade, but concludes that the restraint is justifiable and beneficial.

Cole, Arsenal's left-back, was fined £100,000 for breaching the League's Rule K5, which states that no contracted player shall make an approach to another club with a view to contract talks without permission from his club.

The conclusion about a justifiable restraint of trade was reached by Sir Philip Otton, QC, who headed the three-man commission that considered the case, and was being echoed yesterday by Arsenal's vice-chairman, David Dein.

"The public pay for the loyalty of the players, they don't expect players to move just at the drop of a wallet," Dein said. "So it is important the contracts are respected on both sides."

Cole's lawyer, Graham Shear, has vowed to fight the verdict, saying: "The rules are out of kilter with the rest of Europe. It means a player can only approach a prospective employer in the last five weeks of his contract, and it harks back to the master-servant relationship."

Yet the same fundamental rules are, in fact, in place across Europe, under the regulations of Fifa, football's world governing body, albeit with a six-month "negotiating period" rather than a five-week period.

Even if the Premier League's rules had stated that a player could talk to another club within six months of the end of his contract, Cole would have broken the rules by meeting Chelsea officials in January.

Professional footballers are allowed less freedom than other workers to talk to prospective employers for several reasons, first and foremost because their contracts are uniquely secure. Few other industries, if any, are obliged to honour contracts regardless of performance. But in football, contracts are sacrosanct, even when a player is performing badly or is injured. Clubs expect loyalty as a pay-off, and not even unconditional loyalty. If a player is considering a move, he is entitled to talk to other clubs as long as he seeks permission first.

If rule K5 were dropped, the logical conclusion would be clubs arguing that they too should be able to explore unilateral contract terminations. No doubt Shear will argue that Cole was not seeking a unilateral termination of his Arsenal contract, merely exploring his options. But as a Premier League spokesman said yesterday: "It's a question of integrity. Imagine a situation where a player is facing a forthcoming match against a club and it is discovered he has been in secret talks with that club. It is widely held that such behaviour is deeply unsettling."

The spokesman also outlined a scenario where a rich club engages in secret talks with a player from a poorer club and privately receives assurances the player wants to move. The rich club is then in an advantageous - and unfair - bargaining position in transfer negotiations.

Even Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, is not arguing that Cole has been a victim of restraint of trade. "The rules are in place for the joint benefit of players and clubs in order to convince supporters that the competition is as fair as possible," he said.

"That's why we have deadlines and windows. It's to try to prevent the biggest and strongest clubs being able to destabilise players of opposition clubs in a championship run-in.

"Even six months before the end of his contract, we wouldn't want one of our top players signing for another team if he is going to play that team because it's the perception to the paying public [that matters]."

Most of the issues surrounding the Cole case were considered when Fifa, in consultation with legal bodies including the European Commission, restructured its transfer regulations a few years ago. Fifa's rules state that clubs cannot enter negotiations with contracted players without informing the player's current club in writing. And players are only free to agree contracts with new clubs in the final six months of their current contracts.

A legal challenge by Cole, which would almost certainly revolve around the semantics of intent, might lead to a six-month "negotiation rule" in England. But it is unlikely to rule him innocent.