- Rewind to ... 2006
For a few dollars more
Ashley Cole's decision to move to Chelsea from London rivals Arsenal in 2006 was one of the most controversial transfers of the Premier League era and saw William Gallas go the other way, along with a fee of £5 million paid to the Gunners. The rushed deal on the final day of the summer transfer window marked the final decline in the relationship between Cole and the club he began his career at, and the publication of his autobiography a few months later ensured that his legacy was forever tarnished.
Boyhood Arsenal fan Cole came through the youth ranks at the club before being handed his first-team debut in the Worthington Cup tie with Middlesbrough in November 1999. The young left-back was viewed as one of the most exciting prospects in Arsene Wenger's squad and, while he suffered an early knock to his career by being hauled off at half-time during the 6-1 hammering by Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2001, he recovered to cement his place in the Arsenal first-team after an injury to Sylvinho.
Cole's star rose further after he was given a call-up by his country, making his bow that March against Albania, and he picked up his first Premier League title the following season - when the Gunners won the third Double of their history by beating Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup final.
Wenger had been protective of Cole in his early years, worried by the prospect he would become the latest young English player to run out of steam before fulfilling his obvious potential. But after Cole was taken to the 2002 World Cup, his boss could do little to quell the hype and, by the time he was a regular in the 'Invincibles' XI that went the entire 2003-04 season unbeaten, he was viewed as the best left-back in England. "I'm so happy, it's not true,'' he said in celebration on the Highbury pitch at the end of that campaign. ''Nothing, but nothing, could possibly go wrong."
But problems were not far around the corner: Cole's love affair with the club began to go downhill as his profile began to grow. Personal success at Euro 2004 saw him named in the UEFA team of the year, but his final few years at Arsenal were hindered by injury and intrigue.
With talks over a new contract proving tough to conclude, a meeting between Cole, his agent Jonathan Barnett, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, Blues chief executive Peter Kenyon and so-called 'super agent' Pini Zahavi had taken place on January 27, 2005, and, while there, the Blues were alleged to have spoken to the defender about the possibility of a transfer.
As news outlets took great pleasure in drawing attention to the meeting, Cole was charged under Premier League rule K5, which ''prevents contracted players or their representatives from making approaches to other clubs''. In June, Cole was found guilty and fined £100,000, which was later reduced by £25,000, while Chelsea were given a £300,000 fine and a suspended three-point deduction, and Mourinho was fined £200,000.
For his part, Cole always protested his innocence and, in autobiography My Defence, later claimed: "I can only speak about what was said and not said while I was in the room, and in those 15-20 minutes, the chit-chat never strayed anywhere near what could be considered an approach by Chelsea. Not once was there anything mentioned about figures, transfers, further meetings or even leaving Arsenal."
The damage was done though and, despite the fact that he signed a new one-year extension to his deal after winning the FA Cup that summer, it was obvious to many that his love for the club had died. Long-terms contracts given to Jose Antonio Reyes (until 2011) and Gael Clichy (until 2010) signified that Arsenal were keen to tie down their young stars but, although Cole was doubling his £27,000-a-week wage, he was not happy and wanted £60,000-a-week.
Recalling the contract negotiations with his agent in My Defence, Cole revealed: ''I nearly swerved off the road. 'He [Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein] is taking the piss, Jonathan!' I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I'd heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on.''
While many could not fathom how an affluent footballer's career at a club could hinge on a discrepancy of a mere £5,000-a-week, Cole was furious that they had made him sit through an inquiry that also saw Dein called as a witness. Later, he would claim that the Arsenal board had treated him as a "scapegoat" and that they had "fed him to the sharks" by not backing his version of events, but it was clear that the relationship between club and player was at breaking point.
In fact, Cole was barely in the spotlight on the pitch as, in the midst of Arsenal's run to the Champions League final, he was injured and replaced by a combination of injury-prone youngster Gael Clichy and midfielder Mathieu Flamini, the latter of whom was gaining high praise despite being deployed in an unfamiliar position on the left side of defence. While Cole returned in time to play in the ultimately unsuccessful final against Barcelona in Paris, Arsenal had proved that they could live without him - conceding just three goals in the competition - and Cole was beginning to attract attention from Chelsea again.
As the Blues grew strong from the foundations of Roman Abramovich's money - winning their second Premier League title on the bounce at the end of 2005-06 - it became obvious that Cole would be targeted by the wealthy Londoners in the summer. After arriving back from the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the defender was left out of the 2006-07 Arsenal team photo ahead of the new season and Dein revealed at the end of July that the two clubs were in ''civil talks'' over his transfer.
The bitter contract dispute had ruined the relationship between Cole's agent and the club, making it difficult to make ground. Arsenal were not willing to budge from their £25 million valuation, while Mourinho was adamant that he would not pay ''one single pound more'' than their £16.5 million opening offer.
With such animosity on both sides, it was unsurprising that an agreement was not reached until the 11th hour on August 31, 2006, the final day of the summer transfer window. Cole was offloaded for £5 million and offered £90,000-a-week to play for Chelsea, while the Gunners were able to strengthen their defence with the addition of seasoned France international Gallas, who had grown tired of being used as a utility player.
It seemed a good deal for both concerned, although the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel would later argue that Cole's exit was the moment that Arsenal became "a selling club".
For the player, now dubbed 'Cashley' by the fans who used to love him, it was a bitter end to a bitter situation. "I know full well that I'm not a greedy person. I've not come here for money," he said upon arrival at Stamford Bridge. "I've come here because I want to win things and I have a good chance of winning things at Chelsea.
"When you start at a club at such a young age, you do owe the club and I owe Arsenal for giving me the chance to make it. But hopefully the fans and the manager and everybody will agree I've repaid them a bit. Maybe it's not enough but there's nothing I can do now. I've moved on and Arsenal is in my past."
What happened next: Cole continued to play as first-choice left-back for club and country and won the Premier League in 2009-10, while also becoming the first player in history to win six FA Cups as he picked up the trophy in 2007, 2009 and 2010 as a Blues player. Arsenal replaced him with Gael Clichy but did not pick up anymore silverware after his exit and fans pelted 'Cashley' with fake money when he first returned to the Emirates. Still, in 2011, Cole revealed that he had "forgiven" the club for their actions, saying: "I don't think I got respected or held in as high regard as I thought I deserved at Arsenal. For me it's about respect. I gave everything in my heart to Arsenal and was honest when I was there.''