LONDON — When England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was accused of holding contract negotiations with Chelsea behind the backs of his employers, the Football Association, he claimed he was not having talks with the club, he was merely listening.
Similarly, when Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and manager Jose Mourinho met Arsenal fullback Ashley Cole in a central London hotel on Jan 27, it did not, in their view, constitute an illegal approach or a breach of Premier League rules.
Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman, explained: “They were there to listen. Our view is that it breaches the rules if you make an approach with the intent of entering into a contract with that player. We had no intention of entering into a contract with that player.”
So what were they listening to?
What Cole had to say about the European referendum?
The value of the pound against the dollar?
The Premier League’s independent disciplinary commission disagreed with the “innocent” parties at the meeting and fined Chelsea £300,000 with a three-point suspended deduction, Mourinho £200,000 and Cole £100,000.
All will appeal against the punishments because in their eyes they have done nothing wrong, mainly because all parties seem to disagree with the rules.
That does not wash.
Try telling a judge he should not ban you from driving for doing 160 kph in a 60-kph zone “because I disagree with the speed limit.”
The commission was not impressed by the lies those concerned initially told.
Cole maintained he thought he was meeting his agent, Jonathan Barnett and the super-agent Pini Zahavi, who is Chelsea’s Mr. Fixit, to discuss his future options.
Who also happened to be in the room of the hotel?
Mourinho and Kenyon.
Mourinho denied he had met Cole.
“I was in Milan that day meeting Adriano,” maintained the Chelsea manager, not specifying if this was (or, rather, wasn’t) AC Milan vice president Adriano Galliani or Inter’s Brazilian striker Adriano.
“The presence of the manager was vital because he was the key component in the discussion,” said the commission’s statement.
“Managers are fully aware of their obligations under the rules and he acted in blatant disregard of them. In imposing the penalty we now do, we aim to send a clear message to other managers that this conduct must not occur.”
Buck — as in “passing” some might say — blamed Arsenal for unsettling its own player — whom he described as “an unhappy young man” — rather than attempting to meet his contract demands.
He said: “Let’s be clear here, when you look at the whole proceedings from start to finish — and Arsenal’s role in that — you have to come to the view that they had a particular agenda.
“And none of the possible scenarios on that agenda result in there now being a great relationship between Arsenal and Chelsea. Having said that, we’ll try.
“Ashley Cole is a fine young man and was caught up in this situation but didn’t have to be. He wasn’t happy about being subjected to this.
“Is that Arsenal’s fault? Certainly Arsenal made the complaint, take it from there.”
In their initial finding, the commission said that Chelsea had been approached by Cole’s agent.
Buck added: “They then came to the conclusion that the fact we went to the meeting constituted an approach. We disagree with that conclusion and believe that attending the meeting did not go over the line.
“We also believe that the sanctions are totally disproportionate to the alleged sin. We are almost certainly going to appeal.”
Why didn’t Chelsea simply say “no” to the request to attend any meeting?
Were they so naive they did not realize the possible consequences?
And by holding the meeting in a central London hotel it smacked of arrogance.
The commission said: “We consider it unacceptable that Chelsea saw fit to respond to an invitation extended by [agents] Pini Zahavi and Jonathan Barnett. It was a rash and dangerous course to take and was likely to, and did, bring the club into disrepute in the eyes of other Premier League clubs and the public alike.”
Cole’s solicitor Graham Shear confirmed they would do whatever it takes in an effort to overturn the commission’s decision.
He said: “We will be immediately lodging an appeal, not only as far as the factual side of this decision is concerned, but as far as the restraint issues are concerned.
“Under instructions from Ashley, we intend to pursue this to its fullest conclusion. The normal course of action is to exhaust the appropriate forums and, in these circumstances, they would be appeals to the Premier League and, thereafter, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“We will consider the position as we traverse and navigate it. We view it extremely seriously.”
Cole’s argument that he should have the right to speak to another club while under contract to Arsenal has little chance of success in an appeal to the Premier League, given that he clearly broke their rules whether he and Shear agree with the regulations or not.
Shear insisted that the Premier League rule book is antiquated and “out of kilter with the rest of Europe.”
He added: “It sends entirely the wrong message — that English football has lost sight of the fact that a footballer is an employee. It seems to keep hold of the master and servant relationship that employees had a century ago.”
Football is not other industries, though. Few employees are given lucrative five-year contracts and are paid even when they have an injury that would not prevent most of us from working.
They are paid when they are not “working well” (i.e. dropped) or in the case of Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, when suspended for eight months for failing to take a drug test.
In return, clubs do not expect players to talk/listen to other clubs.
Of course, the “tapping-up” process will never be stopped, but, like other things in life that should not be done, don’t do it in a London hotel.
The two real villains in all this are, in the view of most, the agents who stand to earn millions from transfers.
“It is a matter of regret that two of the most involved participants are not eligible to be dealt with by this disciplinary commission,” the statement said.
“We recommend that the responsible bodies concerned should investigate the roles of the two agents, Pini Zahavi and Jonathan Barnett.”
The Football Association is looking into Barnett’s role, but as Zahavi is registered in Israel, he would have to be dealt with by FIFA.
In the wake of all the tapping, lying and claims of innocence, Arsenal vice chairman David Dein said he hoped Cole would extend his contract, which has two years to run, with the club.
“We hope Ashley does not leave,” he said. “We do not want him to leave and we will be trying to extend his contract. We all make mistakes but we move on. We want Ashley to be part of our future.”
The reaction of Arsenal fans if/when he runs out at Highbury next August will be interesting.
Similarly, the atmosphere when Chelsea plays Arsenal, and the suspicion is relationships between the Premiership’s top two clubs will become ever more strained in the coming weeks as the appeals process progresses.
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