Loss will not affect club's plans

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The supporters who gathered at Stamford Bridge yesterday were mourning more than an uncommonly beloved football vice-chairman. They were also attempting to come to terms with the possible loss of Chel-sea's bright new future.

Chelsea's board met in emergency session yesterday as the club tried to assess the full implications of Matthew Harding's death. After the meeting, Ken Bates, the club's chairman, insisted the tragedy "does not and will not" affect his plans for the future of the club. Mr Harding had injected pounds 26.5m into Chel-sea, and Mr Bates said he had put "the promised financial commitments in place".

Mr Bates said: "This will allow us to move on to the next phase in achieving his and every Chelsea fan's dream of having a world-class team and a world- class stadium. The board feels his memory will be best served by achieving those objectives."

Since Mr Harding became involved with the west London club, it has moved from the ranks of also-rans towards the game's elite. World-famous names, such as Ruud Gullit, have been attracted to the team, while the stadium began a long-overdue regeneration.

This was almost entirely due to the unlikely combination of Mr Harding and Mr Bates. It was Mr Bates, a 64-year-old entrepreneur who placed the advertisement in the Financial Times appealing for investors which Mr Harding answered three years ago.

It was a stormy marriage. Mr Bates may have saved the club from liquidation, but Mr Harding - an effervescent, lifelong supporter - soon supplanted him in the affections of many fans. The honeymoon period was followed by an acrimonious separation during which both parties made full use of the tabloid press. Harsh words were exchanged, but earlier this year the pair kissed and made up.

They had to. Mr Harding owned the land Chelsea play on, Mr Bates the parent company, Chelsea Village. Mr Harding has funded for ground development and new players, Mr Bates has masterminded its stock market listing. Trading in the shares may be suspended while the repurcussions of Mr Harding's death are assessed.

The land, for which Chelsea paid Mr Harding pounds 1.5m rent per year, cost him pounds 16.5m. He also loaned the club nearly pounds 10m. It now depends how secure that money is - a pounds 5m loan for the North Stand, renamed for Mr Harding, is repayable in 2008.

Mr Harding was a shrewd financier and he was devoted to Chelsea, but even if there is provision for the club in his will, it is unlikely to match the amount he might have invested had he lived.

Mr Bates may reflect with a bitter irony upon a comment he made last year in defence of his plans to turn Stamford Bridge into a multi-function development: "I believe you cannot rely on one man's affluence, the club has to be run as a business," he said.

They had their differences but, yesterday, Mr Bates' prescience gave him no pleasure at all.

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