Death of a pounds 150m football fan

Chelsea in mourning as vice-chairman's helicopter crashes into field on way home from match
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The Independent Online
Eight-year-old Jody Craig was in tears as she left her flowers at the entrance to Chelsea Football Club's stadium.

"I had just got his autograph," she sobbed, as she stood wearing her team's yellow away strip with her father. "I am so upset." Her distraught father, Stewart, added: "We have come to pay our last respects. He did so much for this club."

Their mood echoed that of the many fans who turned up at the Stamford Bridge ground in Fulham, west London, yesterday, as news filtered through of the death in a helicopter crash of Matthew Harding, vice-chairman and multi-millionaire insurance businessman.

He and four others, including the pilot, died late on Tuesday when their Eurocopter Twin Squirrel helicopter ploughed into a field and burst into flames at Middlewich, Cheshire.

The mourners included the chairman of rival Premier League team, Wimbledon FC, Sam Hamman, a close friend, who added his own floral tribute to the dozens at the gates. It was signed: "You were full of life, goodbye my friend. Sam."

Tributes came in, too, from senior politicians, including fellow Chelsea fan, John Major, who spoke of the huge amount Mr Harding had done for the club, and from Tony Blair - whose Labour Party recently received a pledge of a pounds 1m donation from Mr Harding.

By coincidence, the helicopter involved in the crash had been used to ferry Mr Blair from the party's recent conference in Blackpool.

The sentiment that summed up the emotions of fans came on one floral tribute. "To Mat-thew Harding, a friend of the ordinary fan, God bless," it read.

Yesterday, the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, expressed his sorrow and said the club's new north stand would be named in memory of the vice-chairman.

Mr Bates said: "Matthew was a catalyst to the rebuilding of Stamford Bridge, and it is the unanimous decision of the board that the new north stand should be named after him as a tribute for what he did for club.''

Ruud Gullit, the Chelsea player-manager, said: "He was more like a supporter than a director."

Mr Harding, an ebullient character who enjoyed drinking with the fans, held 24.97 per cent of the shares in Chelsea Village, the public company that owns the club. The value of the shares fell 12p as news came in of his death.

As supporters and friends digested the consequences, an investigation was launched by inspectors from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport.

Mr Harding, 42, was separated from his wife, Ruth, by whom he had four children, and had moved in with his lover, Vicky Jaramillo, by whom he had a daughter aged two. He had been watching Chelsea lose 2-1 to Bolton Wanderers in a Coca-Cola Cup tie at Bolton's Burnden Park.

The helicopter disintegrated on impact and caught fire. One theory was that the aircraft hit power lines, but they appeared intact at the scene. The nature of the crash apparently gave no time for the pilot to put out an emergency message. The helicopter owners, Aero-mega, said the twin- engined Eurocopter had a good safety record.

A Bolton millionaire and friend of Mr Harding, Jonathan Warburton, saw him before the crash. He said the Chelsea vice-chairman had been philosophical about his team's defeat. "I patted him on the back and said, `See you next time.' I think I said, `Have a safe trip home'."

Away from his football interests, Mr Harding built a reputation in the City as chairman of the reinsurance company, Benfield Group. His fortune was estimated at more than pounds 150m.

The other passengers killed in the crash were later named by police as Raymond Deane, 43, of Camberley, Surrey; John Bauldie, 47, of, Richmond, Surrey; and Tony Burridge, of Wimbledon, south London. The pilot was Michael Goss, 38, of Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Mr Burridge was a director of Benfield Ellinger, a subsidiary of Mr Harding's Benfield group. Mr Bauldie was a friend and former journalist on Q magazine and expert on the music of Bob Dylan - one of Mr Harding's other great passions.