Peter Corrigan: Evidence of a game too ruthless for its own good

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The Independent Online

The days that should have been cheerfully dominated by the build-up to yesterday's FA Cup final were overshadowed last week by the Premier League inquiry into the Ashley Cole "tapping-up" affair; a tawdry business that does nothing to sweeten the aroma of something rotting in the state of football.

The days that should have been cheerfully dominated by the build-up to yesterday's FA Cup final were overshadowed last week by the Premier League inquiry into the Ashley Cole "tapping-up" affair; a tawdry business that does nothing to sweeten the aroma of something rotting in the state of football.

Any vestige of the thin veneer of gentlemanly behaviour that once existed between the baronial figures who ran our clubs - and didn't pay themselves vast sums for the privilege - has vanished, to be replaced by a free-for-all that appears to recognise no code of proper conduct. There may be honour among thieves, but there is scant sign of it among the men who guide and control many of our clubs, and while we might enjoy some hearty competitiveness there is a growing cause to fear that the game is becoming too cutthroat for its own good.

That the Cole case took so long to reach a hearing is a disgrace in itself. The allegedly illicit meeting between Arsenal's Cole, his agent, Jonathan Barnett, and Chelsea's chief exec-utive, Peter Kenyon, and manager, Jose Mourinho, plus another agent, Pini Zahavi, happened way back in January. Part of the delay was caused by all concerned denying that the meeting had ever taken place, but it was soon established that it did, and there has been plenty of time since to bring those concerned before an independent three-man commission.

It is even more disgraceful that the commission eventually sat just a few days before an FA Cup final in which Arsenal and Cole were involved. Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, has rightly complained at the timing. He was bound to be distracted by the complications and implications of the case when he should have been concentrating completely on preparing his team and playing mind games with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Farcically, Wenger was hanging around ready to give evidence on Wednesday but the commission neglected to call on him before closing the hearing and promising to deliver a verdict on 1 June.

That was just another oddity in a saga that has become more confusing by the day. Put simply, Cole is accused of being in breach of a rule that forbids a player talking to another club while under contract. Mourinho is charged under the rule that governs a manager's conduct in these matters, and Chelsea FC are charged under another rule that stops clubs approaching players under contract without permission.

Cole denies that the meeting was at his instigation, and it was also argued by his QC at the hearing that the rule amounts to a restraint of trade anyway. Mourinho has said nothing publicly, and after appearing before the commission on the first day flew to Korea with his team. Chelsea's defence is that the player's agent approached them to arrange the meeting. The agent denies this, and thus we are left with a tangled impression of what transpired.

An ordinary person not gifted with a legal brain might assume that it doesn't matter who convened the meeting. If it took place without Arsenal's permission and discussions about Cole's future ensued then an offence against the game's rules was committed, and a serious one at that.

Chelsea also argue that they were not interested in Cole, and that they are negotiating to sign another top left-back. Why then send two high-powered officials to the meeting?

Sadly, even when the commission delivers its judgement we are not likely to be shot of the affair. Both sides are said to be ready to appeal if the verdict goes against them.

When hearing expressions like "human rights" and "restraint of trade", the heart sinks. Without firm rules regarding the movement of players between clubs, the game cannot function as a fair and equitable business.

Also watching the proceedings are Fifa, football's world governing body, whose president, Sepp Blatter, has been emphas-ising that harsh penalties should result if the transfer regulations are breached. They may even step in if they feel the matter has not been properly tried.

The fact that the tapping-up of players is commonplace in the game, and has been for many decades, has been offered by some as mitigation, but this is immaterial. There are lots of murders being committed, too, but no one suggests that it should not remain a crime.

At the time the alleged offences took place Arsenal were championship contenders. In no circumstances could it be right for a wealthy club to entice a star player from a less well-heeled competitor unless it was in a manner permitted by the rules. Strengthening your own squad while weakening that of a rival brings double value to any transfer.

Arsenal are becoming resigned to losing Cole whatever the result of the hearing. Cole, who has two years left on his contract, has been negotiating a new one for some time. Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, said last week that the player had demanded three times his weekly salary of £27,000 to commit to a new deal. They are not prepared to pay more than £55,000. Cole, who is said to be worth £18m on the transfer market, could leave for no transfer fee at all if he chooses to see out his contract, so Arsenal haven't much choice but to sell him, good as he is. "We have no control over the players, they control us," complained Hill-Wood. It would not take a meeting with Chelsea for Cole to be aware of the wages available elsewhere, and Wenger is convinced that Cole's agent wants "to move him on".

The activity of agents is another area which the clubs have long professed to dislike, but they have made no concerted attempt to curb them and their influence on the game. Agents are employed to do deals for their clients, and the more deals they do the more they prosper. Everyone seems agreed that agents do not act in the game's best interests, but they are part of a scene of which the bigger clubs are happy to take advantage. It is another example of the unsavoury face the Premier League are revealing to us with a sickening frequency.

This is the same Premier League who the previous week were harshly criticising the way the Football Association run the game. For allowing farces like this to clutter up the scene for so long, the FA undoubtedly deserve censure, but they still represent our only hope of restoring order and probity to the game.

The Lions - real pay per view

Rugby fans keen to turn up at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow night to watch the Lions play a friendly against Argentina before they leave for New Zealand are startled to find themselves paying up to £56 for a ticket.

There are cheaper seats at £23 and £39, but it is a lump of money to watch what is virtually a practice match.

You can get a very good seat for the Wales v England football match in September for £20, and that's a World Cup qualifier with David Beckham and Co on show. And I had the best view of Wales winning the Grand Slam at the same stadium for £40 just two months ago.

It is good to support the boys before they depart, but with Argentina fielding a much-weakened team and the Lions fielding something less than a Test line-up, it seems vastly overpriced. It's supposed to be a send-off, not a rip-off.