Football: FAN'S EYE VIEW NO 231: Chelsea

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The Independent Online
Anniversaries sharpen our emotions. They certainly fire Ken Bates up. Among Bates' considered dispatches over the last few weeks was the observation that "the silent minority" (?!) of Chelsea fans didn't like Matthew Harding, seeing through his man-of-the-people posturing.

Funny, that. A year ago last Saturday we played Tottenham at home, the first game after Harding's death. As the team lined up on the pitch, hand- in-hand, as Graham Rix wept on the bench, that silence came not from the minority - it was total. Including the Spurs fans, The death of the vice- chairman of Chelsea Football Club had saddened them, too. He must have been doing something right.

I never met Matthew Harding. He never walked into the pub of a matchday and squeezed my balls in friendly greeting (as was, apparently, his wont), but he seemed all right. I could identify with a man who listed his must- haves as Chelsea, Bob Dylan, Guinness and oysters. That donation to Labour didn't hurt, either. It's easy to see how he could become some sort of hero.

But according to Bates far from being a hero he was actually more than merely fond of a drink. In fact, he was evil, nothing less than An Evil Man, some Prince Of Darkness on a mission to destroy the holy work of Chelsea Village (props. K Bates and persons unknown) and the forces of good in SW6.

Ask any Chelsea supporter what they think of Bates and they'll soon acknowledge that he "turned this club around". Buying an ailing Chelsea for a quid or so in 1982, his first year saw them finish two points away from the old Third Division. He allowed John Neal the cash to build an often inspired team that won promotion the next year and, bar the odd hiccup, we've never looked like revisiting those dark days.

Bates is ambitious. He first bought into football when he become chairman of Oldham in the late 1960s. He quit after three years, frustrated at the board's caution. But for all Bates' bluster, that Herculean stance of the self-made man, he has always had to be pragmatic where CFC is concerned.

Harding was different. The Osgood-worshipper from a minor public school went on to do something complicated in re-insurance and made the sort of money that could turn true-blue Bates green. He wasn't buying into Football Ltd. He was buying into the team he loved. When Bates recruited him as a director the unstoppable wad met the immovable ego, and the rest is history. Harding always disagreed with Bates' hotel-building antics. He wanted to build a massive stand on the old Shed End: what we wanted. And if, in death, he's joined Diana in a popular sanctity that he doesn't necessarily deserve, then Ken Bates should have the grace to bear it. Bates' slagging of his dead rival, apart from the barbaric insensitivity it shows towards Harding's family, also displays his contempt for the fans who admired the man. Nothing new there, then.

So when you're booked into the Chelsea Village Hotel for your dirty weekend, you might want to go to your balcony and take in a game. Look across the pitch and you'll see a packed Matthew Harding Stand, and it will silently taunt the Bates Motel across Stamford Bridge forever. I know which one I'd rather be in.

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