Blues hero who saw life in black and white

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The Independent Online
There was no half-way house with Matthew Harding. If he liked you he would speak to you; if he did not he would not.

That black and white view governed his approach to life, to making money, to football, to politics. During his feud with Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, he asked a friend to advise him on how best to end the row. The friend discovered that one thing none of Harding's advisers had ever done was to actually talk to Bates, so he did.

When Harding found out, the friend quickly realised why none of the previous advisers had done the same. Harding bellowed at him, "are you working for me or working for him?"

Until Harding invested pounds 5m in Chelsea Football Club in 1994, he was an unknown, a young guy who had made many millions from one of the more obscure aspects of City business, the convoluted reinsurance market. It seemed fitting that Chelsea, with its flashy, big talk reputation should be the club for a 41-year old, cocky, multi-millionaire from the not so pukkha side of the City. End of story.

Soon, it became obvious to those who met him that this was wrong. He talked about his politics, not the traditional blinkered Toryism of the self-made men at the top of football but socialism. He was avowedly pro- Labour and pro-Tony Blair, feeling the party would drop its suspicion of business success and once in power, would promote education and training, something he felt strongly about.

He was at odds with the millieu in which he moved. How many other football bosses or City wheeler-dealers openly boasted of their willingness to pay taxes?

His love for Chelsea had held firm through 30 years of strife, on and off the field. While other clubs' money-men wore camel coats, puffed on large cigars, drove flash cars and put a wall of glass between their executive boxes and the fans, Harding mixed it with the lads. He drank at the same pub in the King's Road on match days, held court with the supporters in train buffets on away journeys and once tried to take a four-pack into the directors' seats at Wembley. In London, he went everywhere by black cab.

He did not fit a pre-conceived pattern. He quoted Salinger in his company report and listened to Wagner, but loved books on Chelsea and liked to hum the anthem of the Shed, the end for die-hard fans, "One man went to mow..." Yet inevitably, there was a gulf between him and the Shed. A fortune estimated at between pounds 150m to pounds 200m and a public school education saw to that.

After leaving school with one A Level in Latin he went straight into the City, as a trainee with Benfield, a reinsurance broker. In 1988, he led a management buy-out, borrowing pounds 160,000 for a one-third share in the company. Harding and his team based their deal on the firm making pounds 4m a year for 10 years, at the end of which they would have paid-off the original shareholders. As it was, thanks to Harding's flair, the shareholders were paid-off in three years. Last year, Benfield made profits of pounds 32m on sales of pounds 50m.

While Harding's investment in Chelsea raised his profile, two events which reflected his twin passions projected him into the public eye. His boardroom clash with Bates, the club's right-wing, dominant figure, centred on his belief that the chairman's desire to redevelop the ground was hampering progress on the pitch. Their spat soon became personal and was pure theatre: at one stage, Harding was banned from the director's box and the club car park. Relations were so bad that the only thing the pair did not do was square up to each other in the car park.

A peace of sorts was agreed but Harding still simmered. He told one would- be author of a book about Chelsea recently on no account to talk to Bates.

Then there was his donation to Labour. The fact that Chelsea's two best- known fans, David Mellor and John Major were Tories, did not bother him a jot. Neither did they take it badly: for this was someone they could not influence.