Wenger fears agent will force Cole to leave Arsenal

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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger admitted for the first time yesterday that he faces losing Ashley Cole this summer and, on the day that the Premier League inquiry into the tapping-up scandal concluded, the Arsenal manager revealed that he had been prevented from giving evidence.

Arsène Wenger admitted for the first time yesterday that he faces losing Ashley Cole this summer and, on the day that the Premier League inquiry into the tapping-up scandal concluded, the Arsenal manager revealed that he had been prevented from giving evidence.

As one of the most high-profile disputes of the season approaches its decision on 1 June, when the independent commission rule on charges against Chelsea, Jose Mourinho and Cole, Wenger said that he feared the agent Jonathan Barnett could now engineer a move for the £18 m-rated Arsenal full-back.

With Arsenal preparing for an FA Cup final against Manchester United on Saturday, the Cole inquiry has proved an unwelcome distraction in the week leading up to the game. However, Wenger said that he would have liked to have given evidence to the three-man commission, chaired by Sir Philip Otton - who also heard from Cole, Mourinho and the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon - but that he was blocked by the Stamford Bridge club's lawyers.

Wenger said that Cole, who was taken to the now infamous meeting with Kenyon and Mourinho at the Royal Park Hotel on 27 January, would not be forced out by Arsenal but could be directed to leave by his agent. The dispute between the player and his club has involved a disagreement over wages with Cole's camp intimating that, after Euro 2004, Arsenal withdrew an original offer of £60,00 a week.

Wenger said: "We have no rift with Ashley Cole at all because we want to keep Ashley Cole. With his agent? Let's allow this story to be completed and then we can see what happens. I'm more concerned that the agent will try to move Ashley Cole than us not wanting to talk to his agent.

"On our side we have no problem to speak to him and sign a contract. What the agent will want to do, I don't know. If he doesn't want to talk to us he will try to move him, so he has to decide.

"I am completely convinced it has not been instigated by Ashley Cole. Do you really think Ashley Cole gets the phone and says: 'Hey, Peter Kenyon, come on, I am organising a meeting at the hotel, bring Mourinho with you and I will bring my agent and we will have a nice meeting.'

"His agent is certainly is certainly part of it," Wenger continued. "I don't know what happened in there but you can get any player anywhere you want. He doesn't always know who will attend.

"Sometimes the players go somewhere and they are told the chairman of Real Madrid will be there and they find they are facing another agent who will want to negotiate between them and Real Madrid."

The Premier League commission had called Wenger to give his views on the conduct of Chelsea over the Cole affair but he said that, despite planning a testimony he thought was due yesterday, he had been preventing from speaking by Chelsea.

Joking that he had been made a "sub" at the last minute, Wenger claimed he would have liked to have attended the inquiry. "First they wanted me in there - the Chelsea lawyers had asked for me to attend - and then finally I was not needed. I'm sub," he said.

"I thought at first they wanted me this afternoon but they told me: 'No, you stay at home, you're not playing'. I'm not needed any more. I don't know why."

"What would I have told them? That I am very happy that they tap up our players just before we play Man United and they can do it again? What can I tell them? You have the rules and as well the behaviour that you live in the same city and you do not say: 'Come on, let's take a player behind the back of a club that is just next door.' It is common sense. It is part as well of living intelligently together."

While Wenger has never failed to offer his support to Cole - despite the player's attendance at the meeting - he also said that he did not fear for his full-back's state of mind as he approached Saturday's FA Cup final in Cardiff. The player's training this week had also not been affected, Wenger said, because Cole had been given Monday off along with the rest of the first-team squad.

Wenger also confirmed that Jose Antonio Reyes will definitely start against United. The Arsenal manager famously accused United of targeting the Spanish striker in the game against United in October but said that Reyes has grown more physically resilient.

"I think he is much stronger physically than at the beginning of the season," Wenger said. "He resists better. He is an instinctive, creative player. He has a provocative game so he will always be kicked but he will cope with it much better than before."

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