The battle of Stamford Bridge

Chelsea are poised at the crossroads as acrimony between Ken Bates (right) and Matthew Harding (left) threatens their ambitions for the club. David Hellier reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was a comment from one of his friend's wives at a christening party over the weekend that is said to have finally persuaded Ken Bates, the chairman of Chelsea Football Club, to hit out against fellow director Matthew Harding, the would-be pretender to his throne.

"Isn't it time you said something back?" said the woman to Bates, who for months has, by his own standards, kept his counsel against the background of what he believes has been a Harding-inspired whispering campaign.

This week the long-awaited bust-up between the two men began in earnest. First Bates blasted Harding after Harding sent him a letter containing his resignation from Chelsea Village, the club that owns the assets of Chelsea Football Club: "This man isn't fit to run my club," Bates declared.

Yesterday Bates escalated the battle by writing to Harding, dramatically withdrawing his directors' privileges, barring him from the press lounge and players' bar and accusing him of causing the club embarrassment in the boardroom.

Harding, a lifelong supporter of the club who has spent the whole of this week away in New York on business, flew back, declaring that he was "amazed" by a series of vitriolic attacks from Bates.

"I wasn't aware it was a battle or a war. But I'm not going to pack up my kit and walk away," he said yesterday. Earlier in the week he admitted what many people have believed has been his intention ever since he lent the club pounds 5m for the building of its North stand two and a half years ago - he wants to be its chairman.

For anybody close to the action at Stamford Bridge, however, there has never been a question of if the two men fall out, but when.

Apart from a brief honeymoon period after Harding lent the first pounds 5m to the club for the development of the North stand, the two men have worked in growing disharmony.

Bates said yesterday: "He's been very nice to my face while at the same time courting young journalists, the ones who are impressed with being courted by a rich young man. What he hasn't realised is that almost step by step everything he's been doing has been reported back to me..."

When the North stand opened last November, Bates refused to acknowledge any debt to Harding in the club programme. He wrote that it would be wrong to thank one person alone for the new stand, that it had been the result of the efforts of everyone associated with the club.

More recently he used the programme to point out to supporters that the rent Chelsea now pays to Harding's company, Stardust, effectively puts pounds 3 on each person's ticket price.

Told that Harding was trying to win over the fans' support for his threatened challenge, Bates thought it prudent to let the fans know that Harding's assistance was not coming free.

On Harding's part, he is said to have been briefing sections of the media about his difficulties with Bates. He has hinted that the manager, Glenn Hoddle, has an uneasy relationship with the man and that Hoddle would be unlikely to stay on when his current contract expires at the end of the year if Bates is still at the helm.

And at the recent Player of the Year Awards evening he was openly telling people that there was only one man holding Chelsea Football Club. There were no prizes for guessing who he meant.

Behind all the huff and puff of two men with big egos falling out lies the seemingly intractable problem facing both men: how to elevate Chelsea into the group of eight to 10 football clubs that have the wherewithal to dominate English football.

The two men line up like this: Bates, who does not appear to be a terribly wealthy man in his own right apart from his shareholding in Chelsea Village, saved the club from possible extinction in 1981 when he bought it for a nominal sum and took on its debts.

He fought and won an 11 year-old battle with property developers who owned the site at Stamford Bridge and wanted to turf the football club out and replace the stadium with a residential complex. Now he plans to raise new funds to build two new stands for the part of the stadium that have not yet been modernised and add to this a hotel complex, a car park and a residential block. He speaks for 100 million of the club's 102 million shares.

Harding is said to be worth around pounds 140m, most of which stems from his 30 per cent plus share-holding in Benfield, the London reinsurance group. He was paid a salary last year of pounds 3.25m and receives millions of pounds a year in shareholders' dividends.

A lifelong supporter, he responded to an advertisement in the Financial Times placed by Bates soon after the appointment of the current manager, Hoddle. He has so far lent the club the pounds 5m for the North stand - repayable in 2008 - and he has put up another loan of pounds 5m for the purchase of new players. Each time Chelsea sell a player, this goes down to reduce the money they owe to Harding.

In addition he recently acquired the freehold site at Stamford Bridge from the Royal Bank of Scotland for pounds 16.5m. Chelsea pay him a rent of pounds 1.5m a year.

Apart from obvious personality conflicts - Harding dislikes Bates' politics and does not have time for Bates' rather forthright manner - the two men differ in their approach to how Chelsea should go forward into the future.

Bates insists the club needs to reduce its reliance on the football side. Hence he wants an income stream that brings a greater percentage of revenue from merchandising, from catering, from selling flats and running a hotel.

Harding would rather build up the team further first, adding to the considerable sums Hoddle has already spent on new signings, a strategy Bates condemns as short-term.

So far Harding has not invested a single penny in the shares of Chelsea Village, considering the value Bates puts on the shares to be too high.

Bates reckons that the assets of Chelsea, which include the players' registrations, the goodwill of the club's name and merchandising opportunities, and the potential gate revenue and the potential for development value the company at around pounds 50-60m.

Some City bankers, and obviously Harding, dispute such a valuation. They point to the fact that Chelsea does well if it breaks even in a year on a revenue not much more than pounds 10m (Manchester United made a profit of pounds 20m on turnover of more than pounds 60m last year). They say the players' registrations might fetch a valuation of around pounds 15m and that the franchise as it now stands is probably not worth much more than that.

However, Harding's problem is that Bates has no intention of selling the club - unless he is offered a premium price. Bates says that Harding would have to offer him around pounds 60m for the company and be prepared to invest another pounds 40m in players and redeveloping the stadium. Put up or shut up, is the thrust of his message.

Harding may be rich, but he is not yet in the Jack Walker league. Walker, who has pumped millions into Blackburn Rovers and walked away from the sale of his steel company with cash of more than pounds 400m.

For Harding to buy Bates out he would have to sell his holding in Benfield - it is by no means certain how much he would get for it if he did, or how much the company would be worth without him - and then use most of his wealth to take control of Chelsea. Once he has paid out Bates there is no certainty there would be any money left for players, let alone the modernising of the ground.

Where Chelsea go from here remains unclear. It seems unlikely that the two men, after this latest spat, can continue working together. But it is also unlikely that Harding, Chelsea fanatic as he is, will or even can withdraw all his money (for one thing he can not call in his money on the North stand until 2008 anyway).

But if the worst happens and Harding tries to starve Chelsea of money for transfers, Bates' loyalists were yesterday suggesting that he is determined to carry on without Harding's financial assistance.

If the two can not resolve their differences, Chelsea may struggle to raise new funds, although Bates said yesterday he was in discussion with a number of financiers concerning the development of the new south stand.

Prior to Harding's involvement Bates, using the advice of Macarthur and Co, a small City merchant bank, toured the City in search of investors to assist him in getting his development plans on the road. There was no help forthcoming until Harding emerged.

Recently he has lunched merchant bankers in the City, but not with universal success. One banker said he would have worked for Bates if he was sure he would be paid up front. Bates insisted on a success-only fee and the business relationship broke down.

In the end this might be enough to secure a truce, however unlikely that may seem right now.

Hurt though he may be by Harding's supposed sniping campaign, Bates may yet come around to the fact that his aims at Chelsea could be badly affected by turning his nose up at Harding's cash and Harding, if he is to be taken at his word, is too big a fan of the club to do anything that will cause it long-term harm.