Of bluffs and blinkers

When on Monday Arsene Wenger declared this week as “the last limit” he expects something to happen with Ashley Cole “one way or the other”, it was a sure sign that Arsenal had blinked first in their game of brinkmanship with Chelsea over the player’s possible transfer. If further confirmation was needed, it came in the form of Cole’s subsequent omission from the team that took on Dinamo Zagreb in their Champions League third qualifying round match the following day. Expectedly, this chink in Arsenal’s armour was quickly exploited by Chelsea as Jose Mourinho immediately came out to declare almost exactly the sentiments of Wenger, only this time, he reduced the deadline to “a couple of days” after which, if nothing happens, Chelsea would look elsewhere. By Wednesday evening, Chelsea followed this up by releasing a statement acknowledging that the club have been in discussions with Arsenal over the possible transfer of Cole, but that “Arsenal’s valuation of the player does not match Chelsea’s and therefore no agreement can be reached in the current circumstances”. After Chelsea’s friendly with Celtic at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho talked more on the issue by insisting that though he isn’t the “financial man”, Roman Abramovich, Peter Kenyon and the board have told him that they are not increasing their offer beyond what they’ve got on the table, which the press is reporting to be between £16 and £20 million.

By this morning, the Independent newspaper is reporting that Arsenal’s response to Chelsea’s position is to threaten to play Cole next week in their Champions League second leg match against Zagreb. Of course, if this is true, it should top the cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face chart immediately. Equally laughable is the breakout of premature jubilation and back-slapping both sides of the London divide. On the Arsenal side, even those who days ago were urging Arsenal to let the “twat” go are suddenly hailing their club for thwarting the moneybags from the city’s southwest. Yes, Cole is so and so, but they’ll keep him because he’s the best left-back in the world. In fact, some of them are already giving the credit of Arsenal digging in their heels to their talisman and club captain, Thierry Henry, who called on his club not to sell the player to Chelsea. On the Chelsea side, those celebrating the club’s statement see it as the long-overdue tough reaction to the mindless fleecing of Chelsea that has gone on year in year out simply because they have a billionaire owner who seems to spend freely. But even though the BBC is reporting the development as Chelsea breaking off from the talks, in truth, it isn’t that dramatic. While certain motions can be detected, there’s really little movement from few weeks ago when David Dein first admitted the clubs are in talks over the player. So, after all the public yippee frenzy, behind closed doors movers and shakers of both clubs will need to look at their cards and act fast.

The only thing the Chelsea statement has really done is to throw negotiations into the open, but even then, only to an extent. The club’s statements over this are aimed at publicly putting pressure on Arsenal to come down on their valuation, but I’m not sure Chelsea would receive much sympathy from the press or the football public, having created the impression over the years that we’ll always cave in once anyone does an Aulas on us. We have never walked away from a deal on our own terms; we’ve always compromised to bring in players even when they do not justify their price tags based on prevailing market rates. Arsenal know this and that’s what they’re banking on. They think Chelsea will pay their asking price, as far as they continue to hold on as the deadline looms. However, by releasing yesterday’s statement, Chelsea have also put a near-moral pressure on themselves. No matter how much we need Cole (and I think we need him), we cannot afford to buy him now at Arsenal’s price. To do so will further confirm the view that any club with a reasonably good player can shaft us. It is important to maintain the ‘tough’ stance now exhibited by totally ignoring Arsenal while at the same time fully concentrating on looking at other options for the left-back position.

Such an action will cause untold panic within the Arsenal board for several reasons. First, they really need the money despite their posturing. Ashburton Grove has eaten too deeply into their pocket and beyond so they need to quickly begin to raise cash. In terms of honours, they must be realistic enough to know that they won’t be challenging for the league title this year and that the Champions League fairytale run of last season isn’t likely this time around. They need to strengthen their squad, but they need to sell to strengthen. Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes are the only likely players to raise this cash. But while Madrid are interested in Reyes and talks are indeed ongoing, they obviously aren’t interested in Cole. The likelihood is that other clubs are not interested in Cole because no one can match the present Chelsea offer on the table. Thus, on that count, Cole is Chelsea’s if only we can have a little more patience and show a little more resolve in the position we’ve now publicly adopted.

The second factor is Cole himself. His capacity to thoroughly embarrass Arsenal is huge, especially with his damning book coming out shortly. No matter the optimism sprouting in the minds of some Arsenal supporters, Wenger and the board know that it would be nigh impossible to work with Cole again and if they do, it would be very difficult to get the best out of him, after all that has happened. Underlying all this is the widespread belief that Arsenal are reneging on the terms of a buy-out clause in Cole’s contract which is said to be £15 million. Obviously, if this is true, Chelsea have offered over and above the amount and if Arsenal are sincere, they should have allowed Cole to move on rather than hold out for more. Cole could therefore read this action as Arsenal’s attempt at vengeance, knowing that he’s not likely to take legal action as such an action would automatically rule out a transfer for him during this window at least. So, even if there is indeed a breach of the buy-out clause, Cole can only grit his teeth and bear it while Arsenal squeeze Chelsea for more dough. Cole’s only consolation is that he knows with what has gone on, going back to play for Arsenal is not on the cards, but how it will eventually play out to get to that seemingly immutable conclusion he may not know.

However, Arsenal need to be careful here. If indeed there’s a buy-out clause, written or oral, Cole may decide to take the high-risk option of coming out publicly to state exactly what this entails and in the process cause Arsenal’s image amongst players, potential players and the public great harm. Arsenal may threaten to sue him for a breach of confidentiality, but the cost for the club will be far greater than it would cost Cole. Besides, it is doubtful Arsenal can go to equity if their hands aren’t clean. If indeed, Cole is able to prove that there’s a breach of the terms by their refusal to accept an offer well-above what was agreed in the buy-out clause from the only club bidding for his services, Arsenal would be the worse for it in more ways than one. Cole has showed that he’s capable of taking such high-risk manoeuvres over the course of his disagreement with Arsenal, so they’re well advised not to push their present stance too hard. Grown-ups from both clubs should get together, forget what has gone on (for Arsenal, this is business, not vengeance) and iron out a compromise deal quickly so that all parties can get on with preparation for the new season.

As a Chelsea fan, I’ll always defend Chelsea’s interest; but no matter how any neutral fellow looks at this, the fact is Arsenal have more to lose if this deal breaks down than Chelsea. Yes, Chelsea need a left-back, because, quite frankly, Bridge isn’t world-class and he alone won’t do, but Chelsea still have time to shop around for some very good options. Arsenal cannot guarantee to keep Cole happy and productive and if they have to sell him to another club, chances are that they’ll do so at considerably less than whatever Chelsea are offering now. They, more than Chelsea, need to do this deal. Indeed, the future of their club may well hinge on what they do now that Chelsea have gone public.