The full, as yet unpublished, verdict on the Ashley Cole inquiry concedes that Premier League rules amount to a restraint of a player's trade, but concludes that the restraint is justifiable and beneficial.
Cole, Arsenal's left-back, was fined pounds 100,000 for breaching the League's Rule K5, which states that no contracted player shall make an approach to another club with a view to contract talks without permission from his club.
The conclusion about a justifiable restraint of trade was reached by Sir Philip Otton, QC, who headed the three-man commission that considered the case, and was being echoed yesterday by Arsenal's vice-chairman, David Dein.
'The public pay for the loyalty of the players, they don't expect players to move just at the drop of a wallet,' Dein said. 'So it is important the contracts are respected on both sides.'
Cole's lawyer, Graham Shear, has vowed to fight the verdict, saying: 'The rules are out of kilter with the rest of Europe. It means a player can only approach a prospective employer in the last five weeks of his contract, and it harks back to the master-servant relationship.'
Yet the same fundamental rules are, in fact, in place across Europe, under the regulations of Fifa, football's world governing body, albeit with a six-month 'negotiating period' rather than a five-week period.
Even if the Premier League's rules had stated that a player could talk to another club within six months of the end of his contract, Cole would have broken the rules by meeting Chelsea officials in January.
Professional footballers are allowed less freedom than other workers to talk to prospective employers for several reasons, first and foremost because their contracts are uniquely secure. Few other industries, if any, are obliged to honour contracts regardless of performance. But in football, contracts are sacrosanct, even when a player is performing badly or is injured. Clubs expect loyalty as a pay-off, and not even unconditional loyalty. If a player is considering a move, he is entitled to talk to other clubs as long as he seeks permission first.
If rule K5 were dropped, the logical conclusion would be clubs arguing that they too should be able to explore unilateral contract terminations. No doubt Shear will argue that Cole was not seeking a unilateral termination of his Arsenal contract, merely exploring his options. …