My alarm clock-radio clicked on at 5.55am, the same as it always did. A couple of hours sleep hadn’t done me too many favours, I rubbed my eyes and lay in the darkness waiting for the 6am news bulletin whilst questioning the sanity of my trip to Burnden Park the previous evening to watch Premier League Chelsea play Bolton Wanderers of what was then referred to as the First Division in a League Cup tie.
The Blues had lost the match 2-1 in a pulsating encounter, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory after Scott Minto had given travelling fans some early cheer with a fabulous 2nd minute goal. Player-manager Ruud Gullit, making his first appearance of the season, had been Chelsea’s best player, but the enterprising Trotters had dispatched their illustrious visitors with a gung-ho performance which had left those who’d bothered making the trip from London cursing the same-old-same-old. As maddening as mercury, that was Chelsea for you.
‘Where were you when you were shit?’ is a popular taunt levied at 21st Century Blues fans. ‘How much time have you got?’ I am prone to reply. The League Cup ha ha ha. Any Chelsea masochist of a certain age will regale you with tales of woe involving calamitous defeats at footballing outposts such as Crewe, Scunthorpe, Scarborough and Wigan … losing a days wages and a nights sleep following the Blues on the road to nowhere was a character-forming part of my life.
6am, I’m bolt upright, turning up the volume on the radio … shocked by the lead item on the news which is confirming an earlier report that Chelsea Football Club vice-chairman, Matthew Harding had been killed in a helicopter crash. Multi-millionaire Mr Harding, 42, pilot Michael Goss, 38, businessmen Tony Burridge, 39, and Raymond Deane, 43, and magazine journalist John Bauldie, 47, died instantly when the Twin Squirrel aircraft crashed into farmland near Middlewich, Cheshire, and burst into flames as it was carrying the party home from a Chelsea v Bolton cup tie.
I was stunned.
It wasn’t as if Matthew was a personal friend or anything like that. I’d met him several times, but this had been well before he’d answered Ken Bates’ plea for financial assistance. An ex-girlfriend had been in charge of the directors’ dining room at Benfield’s, the city-based re-insurance group of which Matthew was chairman and as such I used to get to go to various company knees-ups. As we all know a shared love of Chelsea transcends traditional barriers of class, not that Matthew had any airs and graces. Office-boy made good, rags to riches and all that … good luck to him. Matthew welcomed a chin-wag with a like minded Chelsea individual, and here was a man who’d first stood on the Shed as an eight-year old boy and followed them ever since … home and away.
When the phone calls started as word got around that Matthew Harding had been tragically killed, I couldn’t help thinking that if he hadn’t been the millionaire businessman that he was, then he would still have been alive having journeyed to and from Burnden Park by more conventional means than helicopter. Come the end of the day, flowers, scarves, and notes of condolence festooned the Stamford Bridge gates as supporters gathered to share in their grief. The uninformed passerby might have thought a famous Chelsea footballer from yesteryear had died as opposed to the Club vice-chairman. But then the uninformed passerby could never have known just what Matthew Harding had come to mean to the supporters of Chelsea Football Club … and that was the reason I’d been stunned by the news at my waking hour.
Ken Bates famously bought Chelsea for £1, and some fans are of the opinion that by the time he sold out to Roman Abramovich he’d transformed the club into one of the biggest names in European football. Others have suggested that old Greybeard took over a club. Bates’ obsession with creating Chelsea Village almost bankrupted the club long before Mr A came on the scene and this precipitated Matthew Harding’s formal involvement during the 1993-94 season. Ken Bates later recalled the telephone conversation which launched their unlikely and some might say unholy alliance. “Ken Bates here,” he said. “I understand you’re richer than I am, so we’d better get together.”
Harding, immediately weighed Chelsea in with £5million to fund the construction of a new North Stand, and also lent the club more than twice that amount to purchase players. But there was no question of the younger man adopting the traditional boardroom values so beloved of Mr Bates. To the best of my knowledge I never saw Ken Bates wearing a Chelsea replica kit, or drinking with supporters in The Imperial public house on the Kings Road before a game. Who can forget Matthew turning up at the unveiling of Gianluca Vialli as a Blues player clutching a brand new home shirt already emblazoned with his name and number? “I’m just a fan who’s done rather well,” he once said, and the Chelsea massive took him to their hearts.
Bates’ priority was to build a futuristic stadium, Harding wanted a swashbuckling team to match the heroes of his youth. The two men were on a collision course which eventually resulted in Bates banning Harding from the directors’ box, citing “behaviour related to your heavy drinking both home and away”. The letter sent to Harding contained a P.S. which read: “Please ensure that your `Bates Out’ banner in the Main Stand does not obscure the valuable advertisement panels”. “Never mind,” replied Matthew, “I’ll go and sit in the North Stand. I presume that’s alright with you. After all, I did pay for it.”
The ban galvanised popular support for Harding and by now a large majority of fans wanted him to take over. A well-known spokesman for the Chelsea Independent Supporters’ Association crystalised opinion at the time saying, “Bates appears to think it is his club, while Harding’s attitude is that it is our club.” (The current market-leading Chelsea fanzine, cfcuk whose origins can be traced back to the CISA, originally came to life as Matthew Harding’s Blue and White Army and to this very day it still carries the strap-line published in memory of Matthew Harding on every single page.)
The bitter public feud rumbled on with Harding pledging that Chelsea fans would be given a vote in the future of the club if he won his power battle with Bates. “If I become chairman I intend to break some moulds, and one plan I have is to give club members the right to re-elect me as chairman. Chelsea have more than 25,000 members and they are the emotional shareholders of the club. I would go to them every summer and I’ll promise you this now. If there was a majority voting against me I would stand down instantly.” Harding’s words stirred the True Blue soul … ‘Matthew Harding’s Blue and White Army’, the chant would echo around the Bridge on match-days a testament to the faith supporters had in him.
In December 1995, the club announced after a board meeting that the pair would lunch and sit together at the home Premiership match against Newcastle. That implied Bates had agreed to lift the ban on Harding taking his seat in the directors’ box and using the boardroom facilities, though at the time both men refused to comment. By October 1996, Matthew Harding had committed £26.5 million to Chelsea Football Club and the irony was that both he and Bates were on the way to realising their own idealistic dreams. Had he lived, Matthew would have seen the Blues win the FA Cup at the end of the season and his journey to glory would have been complete.
Saturday October 26th 1996
Chelsea are at home to arch-rivals Spurs. The game itself was destined to be a sideshow from the minute Ken Bates took the decision was taken not to postpone it and, as wakes go, it turned into quite a knees-up-mother-Brown party. Wreaths from both clubs were laid in the centre circle before the match, with a pint of Guinness for Harding standing on the centre spot; Dennis Wise and Steve Clarke, team captain and club captain respectively, carried out a floral message reading “Matthew RIP” and presented it in front of the newly-named Matthew Harding Stand.
As the Chelsea players linked hands and stood, like the rest of us in the ground, waiting for referee Roger Dilkes to blow his whistle to signal the start of a minutes silence I wondered if this moment of reflection would be tarnished by ignorant morons as they usually were. Chelsea v Tottenham? It’s never been a marriage made in heaven now has it? From the first second to the last, you could have heard a pin drop. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. That Chelsea fans stood silent was not unexpected, that Spurs fans followed suite only added to Matthew Harding’s legend. Every supporter inside Stamford Bridge no matter what their allegiance recognised a part of themselves in Matthew … a supporter first and foremost … one of us.
Matthew Harding’s favourite expression was “Enjoy the game!” and boy would he have enjoyed this one. Chelsea took Spurs apart with a 3-1 victory, the goals coming from Ruud Gullit, David Lee and Roberto Di Matteo. “Everyone in the stadium today participated in a special way,” Gullit said in his post-match interview, “including the Tottenham supporters, and on behalf of the team and the staff I want to thank them. Everybody’s just happy about the way they played, and it was a perfect tribute to Matthew.”
Matthew Harding was only involved in the running of Chelsea Football Club for three years or so which makes it all the more remarkable that he could have made such an impression on Blues fans in such a short space of time. That he did is a testimony to the man and his principals. Chelsea supporter first and foremost, businessman second … a true man of the people, born on the Shed.
Matthew Charles Harding … born Haywards Heath, Sussex 26 December 1953 …Vice-Chairman, Chelsea Football Club 1995- 96 … died 22 October 1996 … we salute you.
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’, ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’ and ‘One Man Went to Mow’ and the co-author of ‘Chelsea Here Chelsea There. Copies are available to buy with a discount of up to 50% and free postage within the UK at http://www.gate17.co.uk