Bates may be ready to take on one more challenge

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The Independent Football

Ken Bates was accused of being many things while he was the chairman of Chelsea: arrogant, abrasive, evasive, cantankerous, ruthless, heartless, egotistical, greedy, secretive, self-serving and deluded. He also had his bad points.

When he bought Chelsea for £1 in 1982, they were a financial basket case with debts of up to £1m. They were in the old Second Division and their hopes of survival were grim. When he sold the club last year to Roman Abramovich, they were a financial basket case with debts of up to £100m and though they had qualified for this season's Champions' League, they were close to financial meltdown and possibly administration.

The underlying reason for that parlous state of affairs was that Bates's ego-driven ambition to turn Chelsea into a European superpower - housed at his Chelsea Village development amid hotels, restaurants and flashy apartments - had been built on financial quicksand.

He had a vision and he was never going to let anyone stand in his way. He was variously reliant on unidentified allies (who owned Chelsea shares via anonymous offshore trusts) and on Matthew Harding, whose investments and loans of some £20m were vital to the club's survival in the mid-1990s, when Harding took a seat on the board in exchange for his cash.

Bates' subsequent bitter feud with Harding, based on their contrasting views of the way the club should move forward, only truly ended when Harding died in a helicopter crash in 1996. Even that tragedy did little to soften Bates' public denouncement of Harding, whom he later described as "evil".

Harding had never bought into the notion of Bates's Chelsea Village dream nor the floating of Chelsea on the Alternative Investment Market, a plan masterminded by Bates after Harding had been ousted from Chelsea shortly before his death. Bates subsequently engineered what was effectively a £75m loan for Chelsea in 1997 in the form of a Eurobond. Interest on that alone cost almost £7m annually.

By last year, Chelsea were incapable of servicing their enormous debts, were saddled with massive wage liabilities and faced the real prospect of at least a firesale of players to stay solvent. There but for the grace of Abramovich, Chelsea might now have been in the same situation as Leeds: potless, hapless, scrapping against relegation and staring down the barrel at economic oblivion.

Instead, the Russian businessman bought the club, handing Bates a £17m personal windfall in the process. Abramovich wiped out Chelsea's debts and started splashing out on talent, with that bill alone standing at some £130m to date.

Unsurprisingly, Bates did not dwell on these events on Tuesday evening at his Chairman's Supper Club when he told 300 fans, staff and directors that he was stepping down as chairman with immediate effect. He said instead that the intended period of handover from himself to the new regime had not gone as he had anticipated, and that the differences of eastern and western cultures perhaps resulted in his decision.

That was a rare underplaying of reality on Bates's part, perhaps due to the fact that he has yet to finalise his pay-off. He is reportedly hoping for a £2m lump sump to sever all ties with the club and renounce any entitlement to become Chelsea's life president after next season, as was originally agreed when Abramovich took over.

The harsh truth for Bates is that he would have been powerless if he had stayed. He had already been replaced as the chairman of Chelsea's parent company by Abramovich's associate, Bruce Buck, and he had then seen his famous programme notes axed.

The arrival of Peter Kenyon as Chelsea's new chief executive last month heralded the end of any meaningful contribution by Bates in day-to-day affairs. For someone so used to getting his own way, to become so utterly irrelevant was beyond the pale.

Quite what Bates will do next is unclear. Once his resignation as chairman is formally confirmed, he will no longer be able to sit on the Football Association Council, ending his long-standing influence in the corridors of power. But on Tuesday he hinted he would be making a comeback, saying: "I'm 72 and I've got another challenge left in me."

Whether that challenge will involve Sheffield Wednesday remains to be seen. It was claimed yesterday that Bates will make a formal approach to join the Wednesday board within a fortnight, with the aim of investing some of his £17m from Abramovich at Hillsborough.

"He's definitely, definitely interested," said Bates's friend Joe Ashton, the former Labour MP who was a director at Wednesday between 1990 and 1999. "He wants to do what Sam Hammam has done at Cardiff and I can't think of a better candidate to do the job."

If Bates does end up at Sheffield Wednesday, they will become the fourth club at which he has been prominent on the board. Before Chelsea, he had been the chairman at Oldham in the 1960s and the owner of Wigan immediately before buying Chelsea. In between, he had had a business career so colourful that even Jeffrey Archer might reject it as fanciful.

Born in December 1931 in Ealing, he was raised by relatives in a council flat following the death of his mother. He later moved to Manchester to work in his father's quarry business. In 1965, he started a construction and property firm that went bust in 1969. By that time he had also become a property developer in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. He stayed there until 1971, when a complex wrangle over his development projects was settled with a $5.8m (£3.2m) inducement to leave. He later moved to Monte Carlo, set up a bank in Ireland that subsequently collapsed and pursued a variety of business interests in Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom before buying Chelsea for a quid in 1982.

His 22-year reign at Stamford Bridge has rarely been without controversy, including his aborted plan to install electric fences in 1985 to deter hooligans, Chelsea being found guilty in 1991 of making illegal payments to players, and multiple scraps with rival club directors, administrators, governing bodies and television companies.

For all his faults, he will leave behind a double legacy. The first is the stadium, which has been developed - albeit with a big dose of Harding's money, plus loans - on land which he bloody-mindedly battled over for years. Using all his cunning and determination, he eventually secured the site at a knock-down price in 1992. The facility that has sprung up since is well worthy of the upper reaches of the Premiership, albeit at similarly astronomical ticket prices.

Bates's second major legacy, applicable to football audiences much further afield than the King's Road, is his contribution to the internationalisation of English football. He appointed Glenn Hoddle as a manager, who then hired Ruud Gullit, who lured the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and the amiable genius of Gianfranco Zola. They dazzled, they won trophies and ultimately they helped to cut a swathe through English football's insular and protectionist mentality.

They did so with the full backing and hearty endorsement of Bates, who believed it was absolutely the right way forward. In part, the current cosmopolitan Premiership is a result of such beliefs, as even Bates's fiercest critics would acknowledge. Maybe.

KEN BATES: TWENTY YEARS OF BLUNTNESS AND BRAVADO

I never speak, according to the newspapers. I just storm and blast.

John Hollins was a mistake. He has a very strong wife. It might have been better if I'd made her manager.

I missed the last goal. I was too busy counting our share of the money.

In 1986, as the Full Members Cup final produced receipts of £508,000

I'm off to my 300-acre farm. You lot can bugger off to your council houses.

To the press after Chelsea were relegated

I'm not difficult to work for. I just don't suffer fools gladly.

I'm off back to my pigsty. You meet a better class of person there.

In 1992, after a meeting to set up a Premier League broke up amid accusations of secret deals

I'm very self-critical. When I get up in the morning I look in the mirror and tell myself what an idiot I am for all the mistakes I made the previous day.

Hump it, bump it, whack it - it might be a recipe for a good sex life but it won't win us the World Cup.

After England's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup under Graham Taylor

Ken Bates here. I understand you're richer than me, so we'd better get together.

In a call to Matthew Harding, who was to put in £24m over the next two years

So what? Ninety-nine per cent of all Iraqis voted for Saddam Hussein.

On hearing that a poll of Chelsea fans wanted Harding as chairman

There was only one Matthew Harding and, if I might say so, thank God for that. I don't think I could have coped with two.

A year after Harding died in a helicopter crash in 1996

They're building another stand at Villa Park. They're going to call it "The Other Doug Ellis Stand".

I put in 70 hours a week and, quite honestly, Chelsea could not pay me what I am worth.

It's the greatest game in the world. It's also the most frustrating, exasperating, infuriating and desolating. But there is nothing else.

Some told me they actually preferred the old atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. I said: "Not only do you look like a prat, but you are one. If you really think it was better then, come and see me after the game and I'll get two security guards to rough you up and piss in your pocket."

Jesus Christ had only one Pontius Pilate. I had a whole team of them.

After being ousted from the board of Wembley National Stadium Ltd

I'm not star-struck around players. How could I be? I'm the biggest star here.

They [Chelsea's foreign players] speak better English, are more civilised and know how to use a knife and fork.

Six months after trying to buy Chelsea he bought Fulham, having discovered he was a lifelong supporter of theirs.

On Mohamed Al Fayed

An agent rang me from Italy last summer [2003] saying Gabriel Batistuta wanted to come to Chelsea. I said: "I'm sure he does, but we've stopped signing pensioners."

All the toilet rolls being thrown by Besiktas supporters was orchestrated. They wanted the kick-off delayed so they would know the other result before our game finished. I said to Roman Abramovich: "If you fancy making another billion, go and open a toilet factory in Turkey."

By Phil Shaw

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