Arsène Wenger has offered his support to Ashley Cole's legal action against newspapers which, the England international claims, published articles and pictures designed to insinuate that he was one of two unnamed footballers who took part in a gay sex act. The Arsenal manager added that he did not believe the case would affect Cole's recovery from a long-term injury and his attempts to get fit for June's World Cup finals.
The 25-year-old left-back must be well acquainted with his lawyer's office by now - his appeal against the punishment for his part in the Chelsea tapping-up saga continues - although this new legal action is unusual even by the standards of Premiership football. Cole is suing the News of the World and The Sun for what his lawyer, Graham Shear, described as articles "designed to tell readers" that Cole was one of two players who took part in a gay sex act - a video recording of which was alleged to have been seen by a News of the World reporter.
While the gossipy world of football, not to mention the internet, has been flooded with theories about the identity of the two players, the disclosure of Cole's writ was the first time any player has been linked to the alleged act in a newspaper. Although Cole was not originally named by either newspaper, Shear said that both "arranged the articles and pictures in such a way that readers would identify him". As one of his key players approaches another complicated, high-profile legal battle, Wenger was unperturbed about the effect it might have on Cole, who he believed would have the "mental strength" to deal with the court case - if it came to that. Cole is in good company: Sven Goran Eriksson, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney are all in legal proceedings against either The Sun or the News of the World - both part of the News International group - ahead of the World Cup finals.
Wenger said that Cole's forthcoming marriage to the pop singer Cheryl Tweedy of Girls Aloud could have been a factor in the player deciding to address the rumours that were swirling around his private life. Wenger said: "My feeling is that he wants to clear his name because he feels there were some wrong rumours, and I can understand that. Nobody likes to read these kind of rumours in the newspapers about himself, but unfortunately we are in a job where sometimes you have to face that and you have to show mental strength. I feel he is focused on his job and focused on doing well and recovering quickly. Unfortunately at the moment he is out [with an injured ankle] for three to four weeks.
"I don't believe privately it's a problem but maybe he has decided to do this because he is going to be married soon and wants to go into something like that showing he cannot accept any insinuation about his private life."
Cole's case centres upon a piece published in the News of the World on 12 February headlined "Gay as you go", which described the gay sex act but did not name the players involved. The Sun followed it up the following day with a similar story but also used a picture of Cole and Tweedy - ostensibly unrelated - on the same page. The News of the World then returned to the story the following week with a picture of one of the players involved - but with his face blanked out.
Shear described the allegations as "disgraceful" and "cowardly journalism". It will be of interest to see how News International approaches its disputes given that the World Cup finals are now three months away and legal action against players such as Beckham, Rooney and Cole is likely to prove deeply unpopular among fans.
Asked what kind of response a gay footballer would encounter, Wenger said a player's sexuality would make no difference to him. "I don't mind the sexuality of a player," Wenger said. "I mind the quality of his passing and how he behaves on the pitch. All the rest is of no interest at all."
In seventh place on 41 points, Wenger said ahead of his side's visit to Fulham today that Arsenal "cannot afford to drop points any more". "We have to give absolutely everything to get back into fourth place to be at least in a qualifying position," he added. "We can still finish in fourth."
Robert Pires is out with a virus, and a hand injury to Manuel Almunia rules him out, but Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp are back in the squad. Robin van Persie is still not fit and 16-year-old Theo Walcott will be rested.Reuse content