The Premier League staged a remarkable retreat last night in their purge on Chelsea's illegal transfer approaches when they reduced the fine handed out to Jose Mourinho for his role in the Ashley Cole tapping-up scandal and ruled that the coach's role in the affair was less blameworthy.
After an independent commission took the Chelsea manager to task in June for his meeting with Cole, Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and the agent Jonathan Barnett, the Premier League appeals committee reduced Mourinho's fine yesterday from £200,000 to £75,000. Although they stopped short of overturning the guilty verdicts, the committee also reduced Cole's fine from £100,000 to £75,000.
The punishments handed out to Chelsea, who did not appeal their £300,000 fine, and Mourinho were intended to stand as a warning that the Premier League would no longer tolerate the practice of tapping-up - speaking to a player without his club's permission - among the game's élite. However, the reductions this week have undermined the stance originally taken by the commission chairman, Sir Phillip Otton.
Sources at Chelsea said that they were "delighted" with the result after the appeal, launched at Mourinho's request, decided that the Chelsea manager was "less culpable for the arranged meeting". That judgment stands in stark contrast to Otton's original decision that Mourinho's "blatant disregard" for his obligations was a key component in the saga.
The decision was made by a second independent commission chaired by the Leeds-based QC Simon Bourne-Arton as well as the Football Association councillor Roger Burden and the former Stoke City chairman Peter Coates. They are understood to have shown sympathy towards the argument advanced by Chelsea's QC, Jim Sturman, that Mourinho had little role in setting up the meeting which was also attended by the Israeli agent Pini Zahavi.
The commission also accepted the line that Cole, by virtue of being a footballer, should assume little responsibility for the fact that he found himself at a meeting with the manager of a rival club. The commission was satisfied that they could reduce Mourinho's fine because Chelsea's unprecedented £300,000 levy was sufficiently high to reflect the severity of the offence.
The meeting between the Chelsea hierarchy and Cole on 27 January in London's Royal Park Hotel caused shock at Arsenal, who risked isolating their player by referring the matter to the Premier League and triggering an inquiry. Cole has since signed a new three-year £70,000-a-week deal. His agent Barnett, whose conduct did not come under Premiership guidelines, is still yet to be charged by the FA and Zahavi also looks likely to emerge unscathed. The appeals committee rejected an attempt by Cole's lawyer Graham Shear to argue that the laws against tapping-up players were a restraint of trade.
The transfer saga between Chelsea and Lyon over the Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien looked to be approaching resolution yesterday when it emerged that the Lyon president, Jean-Michael Aulas, had met Roman Abramovich. The meeting, in St Tropez, apparently at Aulas's request and the club are now ready to accept an offer of about £23m.
Essein has told Lyon that he would not sign a new contract and, with three years left on his existing deal, it appears that the French side will at last have to cash in on his value and sell him to Chelsea. Sources at the club have said that the deal could be resolved within the next 36 hours.