Modern tragedy of love's labours lost

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The Independent Online
There is not a footballer in the land whose death would have been greeted with such a cascade of public grief as that of Matthew Harding, the Chelsea vice-chairman who perished with four others in a helicopter crash on Tuesday night. This is not to suggest that we haven't a player worth weeping over but to acknowledge how extraordinary has been the flow of affection for the 42-year-old Stamford Bridge benefactor.

Those not fully conversant with Harding's relationship with Chelsea, and we are probably talking about a large proportion of the nation, would have been puzzled at the magnitude of the spontaneous reaction to his loss. It wasn't explained even by the fact that he occupied 89th place in the list of richest Britons. Any one of at least 75 of those above him in the list could have each suffered a tragic demise without a fraction of the media coverage.

What we have witnessed in the wake of his death is a phenomenon that could occur only in sport. On the very rare occasions when a philanthropist of Harding's generosity alights on a club his place in heaven is guaranteed, at least among his fellow supporters. When the club concerned possesses a profile as high as Chelsea's, whose supporters include the Prime Minister, then you can expect the effect to be magnified many times over.

Harding's particular qualities are examined by my colleague Norman Fox on another page and the extent of his worthiness has been obvious from the sincerity of the tributes paid to him, even allowing for the bandwagon jumpers, and the willingness of the media to devote space to them. No- one who flings money about on a club's behalf with such abandon is ever going to be unpopular but Harding's benevolence touched deeper chords.

The strong feelings we have for sporting spendthrifts are rooted in the origins of organised sport; a time when the patronage of the rich shaped the appetite for controlled contests. Prize-fighting, legal or otherwise, and horse-racing sprang from the eagerness of the nobility to rattle the big purses in support of their favourites. Most of our long-established cricket, rugby and football clubs owed their beginnings to the munificence of local hearties.

One of the greatest ironies of sport's progress into the advanced stages of commercialism is that we seem just as dependent on the bountiful assistance of the rich now as we ever were in more Corinthian days. Harding was preceeded by many fine and altruistic men whose love for a game or a club has staved off catastrophe.

One in particular, Jack Walker of Blackburn Rovers, might well be reflecting this weekend on the absence of a "money back if not satisfied" rule no matter how many millions you give to the club you love. Walker's patience has been admirable. He financed Blackburn's amazing march on the 1995 Premiership title and has spent the subsequent 18 months watching them slide to the foot of the table without putting any noticeable pressure on their manager, Ray Harford.

Inevitably, Harford decided to resign after last week's defeat in the Coca-Cola Cup by Stockport and now Walker has to stump up the stake-money all over again. Such stoicism separates men like Walker and Harding - although Harding's resolve under failure didn't have a chance to be tested - from the more usual wealth-bearing tycoon who breezes into the game.

The chancers, the shysters, the charlatans and the downright crooks who manage to wheel and deal their way into the game do not bring much in the way of lasting blessings. It is distressing how many gain entry with the promise of big investment but who, once in office, are prepared to give nothing but what they laughingly refer to as their business expertise. They may genuinely believe that the same brain that earned them a fortune from coin-op laundries or the like can preside over the damnable intricacies of running a professional football club.

It is an arrogance we see too often, perhaps never so vividly than when Robert Maxwell was boring the board-rooms of football. It was only Football League regulations that prevented him acquiring, and ruining, more than the three clubs he got his hands on.

What Harding and Walker have shown is that helping a football club is a labour of love before it becomes anything else. Those rich men who find themselves embroiled in the clubs' battle for freedom in rugby may have to prove how deep that love runs before they reach the stage when they can properly demonstrate what they can offer the game in the long term. The Unions wouldn't agree, but the clubs hold the key to the future.

The world of sport must continually pray that for every Don King it contains, there is at least one Matthew Harding anxious to play a part; that for every one concerned only for what he can get out of it, there is another desperate for the chance to put something in.

Sadly, we know there will not be enough of the latter to go around. What we want is more mad-keen fans with money. We have so many clubs who go down on their knees on Saturday evening and pray that the staunchest of their supporters wins the lottery.

BATH RUGBY sounds like a new game with floating goalposts and a ball made of soap to be played by two people in the privacy of their own tub.

Unfortunately, it is the new name for Bath Football Club; adopted as part of the fresh corporate image they are presenting to the world. On Friday, rugby writers received a parcel through the post containing a compact disk and varied accompanying glossy literature explaining Bath's commercial future, none of which need concern us apart from the re-christening.

Normally, it is difficult to find common ground with rugby die-hards but you can sympathise with their anguish when a club so carelessly tosses away its history. Founded in 1863, Bath Football Club dates from before the split which sent football in one direction and rugby in the other.

Bath FC had a certain style that Bath Rugby will never inherit - but the more I think of my original concept, it might have possibilities.

TITTERS ran around sport on Friday when it was reported that this weekend's edition of The Lancet contains medical evidence that soccer players may have impaired fertility because their tough training regimes affect the flow of sperm.

Test conducted among young Italian footballers connected with clubs such as AC Milan and AC Monza also revealed that they have smaller testicles than boys who do not train. Panic has immediately set in and players in this country are demanding a recount. Northam-pton Town are considering changing their nickname from "The Cobblers".

May I suggest that we stay calm and remember that these figures come from Italy and are unlikely to be repeated here among the bulldog breed. Now that the BBC TV show They Think It's All Over has revealed an appetite for puerile corn among sports followers I needn't hesitate to ask the question: Why are British footballers' balls bigger than Italian footballers' balls? The answer, of course, is because they sell more tickets.

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