Legacy of director with a common touch

Norman Fox says Stamford Bridge's populist hero broke the boardroom mould
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The Independent Online
Chelsea and their gruff chairman, Ken Bates, are synonymous. Chelsea and their gregarious vice-chairman, Matthew Harding, were inseparable. The subtle difference was one the fans appreciated. It allowed Harding to break down people's suspicions of the rich young men who wear shades and new club scarves and come from the City to replace the elderly directors who wear half-glasses and brandy-stained old school ties.

Bates himself recognised the difference when the club badly needed a lot more money than he could offer. If he could come up with someone in love with the club and who valued football and footballers more highly than land prices in West London, the future would be doubly secure.

After the match was made, Harding's financial contribution to Chelsea was equalled by his ability to persuade fans and investors that his long- term intentions were above reproach and that his emotional commitment to the club was not something he switched off at 4.45 on a Saturday afternoon.

As Ruud Gullit and Glenn Hoddle said, Harding was probably the only director players would have in the dressing room without wanting to make him feel like an intruder. Most other directors who attempt such a thing quickly find that footballers' attitudes have changed little since the time more than 30 years ago when Len Shackleton left a blank page in his autobiography, entitling it "The Average Director's Knowledge of Soccer".

Harding once said: "It has always intrigued me that there are people on football boards who aren't football fans." The Chelsea fans were initially troubled because Harding's investment in Stamford Bridge meant he owned the freehold of the land while Bates remained owner of the club. There was a natural inclination to suspect that within a short time the place would be sold off for property development. It was typical of the inherent misgiving upon which fanzines thrive, and one even Jack Walker faced when he first started to rebuild his beloved Blackburn.

Sir John Hall, at Newcastle, confronted enormous suspicion when he started to become deeply involved with the transformation of St James' Park, and the modern concept of full-time chief executives, as in Manchester United's Martin Edwards, and powerful vice- chairmen, like Arsenal's David Dein, is not one that normally makes fans take those men to their hearts.

Over a few years, and with blind faith in someone who made it so clear that he was one of them but richer, Chelsea's followers turned Harding into their champion. Yet it was his drinks with the lads, a curry after the match, the bus home, and his wearing of the colours that perhaps unfairly led people to forget that it was the irascible Bates whose money and dedication meant there was still a club to be saved by Harding's millions.

But, hard though it is to cast a shadow over the tributes for a man who bridged the usual divides between directors, fans and players, to assume that Chelsea's future is secure as a result of Harding is to hope that he made provision for the circumstances in which the club now finds itself.

Matthew Harding was a man full of energy who recently turned to some fans and said: "Don't worry, I'll be around for a long time." Presumably, he could never envisage life without Chelsea, but whether this insurance man ensured that Chelsea could go on living prosperously without him, sadly, we have to wait and see.