LONDON — To borrow a phrase from “Alice In Wonderland,” the speculation on whether Arsenal fullback Ashley Cole held a meeting with Chelsea power brokers in a London hotel last month gets curiouser and curiouser.

Christopher Davies

On the face of it, the chances of a player being tapped up in such a public place is beyond belief. While it would be naive to think illegal approaches do not occur, they tend to be more clandestine than half a dozen people working out a deal in a place where they would inevitably be recognized.

The Premier League has asked both clubs “for their observations” and it will be interesting to see whether Chelsea, especially, is more forthcoming than its “we don’t discuss speculation” line trotted out in public.

As tapping a player who is under contract to another club goes against Premier League rules it would surely be in Chelsea’s interests to deny a story that will not go away.

It was far more than a “Chelsea Wants Cole” report and Chelsea would be best served by breaking what chief executive Peter Kenyon said was club policy — “we can’t knock back every story because that is club policy.”

A public denial would end all the speculation immediately but, of course, there may be good reasons why they have kept mum. Until Chelsea, or someone, refutes the story, people will inevitably make up their own minds about what did or did not go on.

If the meeting did take place — and the basis of the story is sworn affidavits from hotel staff — it is running the risk of punishment from the Premier League which Chelsea would have been aware of.

A club convicted of making an illegal approach for a player could have points deducted, but there have been only two clubs found guilty in the 13-year history of the Premier League, which either means the practice is not as widespread as believed or that practice has made near perfect.

Liverpool (when it bought Christian Ziege from Middlesbrough) was fined £20,000 — the player was also fined £10,000 — while this season Aston Villa was warned as to its future conduct by the Football Association after illegally approaching Southampton’s James Beattie.

Surely Chelsea could not be so brazen as to disregard Premier League regulations, confident that any subsequent fine would be a pittance when your owner is multibillionaire Roman Abramovich?

Adding more spice to the mystery, as if it needed it, is a report this week which alleged Cole could not have been at the hotel meeting with Chelsea officials (which allegedly included Kenyon) because the England international was in the offices of his agent Jonathan Barnett at the time along with another client, Newcastle’s Kieron Dyer.

Hopefully, the Premier League will get to the bottom of the matter which does little for the credibility of English football.

SVEN-GORAN ERIKSSON upset the Premier League when the England head coach effectively claimed that there is “nothing wrong” with a club tapping another club’s player.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Last year, while under contract to the Football Association, Eriksson had talks with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon which resulted in a pay raise and contract extension for the Swede to remain in charge of England.

A couple of years earlier Eriksson was said to have been on the verge of joining Manchester United (whose chief executive at the time was Kenyon) after Sir Alex Ferguson had announced his retirement.

Word has it that when Ferguson discovered the identity of his successor he “unretired.”

“We don’t live in a dictatorship, we live in a democracy,” said Eriksson, which is correct though within the democracy there are still rules and regulations.

“As a professional footballer it must be your right to listen if there is some other work available. They are professional and it’s the same in any situation.”

It is an interesting argument even if the Premier League may disagree.

Football has always been an anomaly in that when someone moves from one employer to another a transfer fee is paid.

If a dentist, mechanic, chef or anyone changes jobs, he or she is: (a) free to speak to their prospective new employers and (b) moves on free of charge at the end of any agreed notice period.

The reason for transfer fees in football is that the money is the lifeblood of the game, though in this litigious age it would be no surprise if there was a legal challenge to this just as the Bosman ruling in the 1990s allowed players to leave a club at the end of their contract.

Goodness knows what would happen to football if, for whatever reason, transfer fees were abolished.

Imagine Thierry Henry walking into the office of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and saying: “I’ve had a better offer from Real Madrid. Here’s my letter of resignation . . .”

It might not happen for a while, but as those in the European Union have to almost live by a one-law-for-everyone ruling it may not be too long before Brussels takes a closer look at football’s transfer fees.

MANY MAY WONDER why Chelsea needs Ashley Cole as it boasts the best defensive record by far in English football.

The 0-0 draw against Manchester City last Sunday extended its record to 871 minutes without conceding a goal in the Premiership.

The clean sheet against City was Petr Cech’s 23rd shutout of 2004-05, one behind the Chelsea record of 24 set by Carlo Cudicini last season. The last player to beat Cech in the Premiership was Thierry Henry on Dec. 22.

Such an achievement is nothing new to Cech, who once went more than 900 minutes without letting in a goal for Sparta Prague, the 11-game run ending when he let a shot slip through his arms.

“I could have saved 50 similar shots in a training session,” said Cech. “I can’t explain what happened . . .”

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