The City type who invested in his dreams

FOOTBALL: Matthew Harding, devotee and director of Chelsea, is the people's board member. Glenn Moore met him

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The Independent Online

Matthew Harding was in Monte Carlo last week meeting some business associates from the United States. A few days later he was sharing a few pre-match beers in a pub on Fulham Broadway. The bulk of the conversation, on both occasions, was Chelsea Football Club. It is the factor that links the two strands of Harding's life - high finance and high hopes.

The former, in the shape of reinsurance, the City's version of a bookmaker laying off a bet, is where Harding made his money - and plenty of it. Estimates of his fortune vary between pounds 120m and pounds 150m. The latter takes the form of his dreams for Chelsea, which is where he spends that money. Once it just went on tickets and programmes; now it goes on stands and players.

Harding, 41, is an unusual figure for a football club director. There are not many of his ilk who have been chased down the street by Middlesbrough fans, who have been stopped for trying to take four cans of lager into a Wembley semi-final and who still attempt to pull on a first-team shirt and play in staff matches.

Nor are there many who speak of being a supporters' representative and a trustee, rather than a director. This is partly because of Harding's football background. He was first taken to Chelsea, by his father, at the age of eight. By the time he was 16 he was joined, on the yawning Shed terrace, by his future wife. As his fortune increased he moved to the East Stand and expanded his season ticket holding to include his children and a few friends.

Then, two years ago this month, Harding answered the phone one Sunday morning after watching Chelsea gain a draw at White Hart Lane. The caller was Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman. Bates was working his way through responses to an advertisement in the Financial Times seeking fresh investment.

Bates needed Harding's money; Harding was keen to help. Sitting in his leather- upholstered City office this week he said he had never previously considered moving into the boardroom, nor even thought much about the running of the club. Since that call, Harding said, he has put pounds 24m into the club.

That is not quite in the Jack Walker league - but Uncle Jack owns Blackburn, whereas at Stamford Bridge the club is still owned by Ken Bates. What Harding does own is the freehold (which he plans to put into trust for the club). He has also paid for the new North Stand (at a cost of pounds 5m) and has helped finance Glenn Hoddle's team rebuilding. He would like to bankroll the signing of Matthew Le Tissier, whose signed sticker picture he carries around on his diary. So far, the Southampton skipper is not interested.

Harding had arrived late for the interview, having been delayed travelling back from Chelsea's midweek match at Stoke. Before sitting down, under an architect's impression of the now-completed North Stand, he made a long call on club business.

One wondered if he ever found time to work but, with a glance at a pile of newly printed documents (near a copy of Chelsea - Player by Player), he pointed out a hectic week had also taken in the company AGM. That revealed the Benfield Group's pre-tax profits were up to pounds 32.3m. It was also disclosed that Harding's salary had risen 36 per cent, to pounds 3.25m a year.

So the company - in which he started as a junior 20 years ago - is clearly surviving. Besides, he noted, football's improved image means his involvement is not frowned upon as it once might have been.

Should, for instance, Harding bump into Peter Middleton, the chief executive of Lloyds, he is as likely to discuss Chelsea's recent match with Middlesbrough as the state of the reinsurance market.

Middleton, it can be safely assumed, was not among the group of Middlesbrough fans who pursued Harding and a few friends through the Middlesbrough streets after Chelsea's FA Cup defeat there two years ago. The chase ended with Harding and company leaping into a convenient police van in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Von Ryan's Express.

The following year's FA Cup run was more successful but, when Chelsea reached Wembley for the semi-final with Luton, Harding was stopped on his way to the directors' box with a pocket full of lager. The cans, it transpired, had been placed there by supporters he had been drinking with on the way.

This affinity with fans is not pretence. Harding was spotted drinking near Stamford Bridge before last week's match with Southampton and can be found standing with a beer in the buffet car on away trips. However, after three decades of abusing referees and opponents he has had to master the self-control required in the directors' box. He just about manages to avoid taunting rival chairmen when Chelsea score, but he cannot sit on his hands and watch impassively. "I do behave considerably better than the way I used to," he said with a chuckle. "But you cannot just sit there.

"This thing about me being a fan on the board - what are people doing on boards who are not fans? There is this amazing surprise that I get out of my seat when we score and wave my arms about - if that is a crime football has gone mad.

"It is a crying indictment of the system that supporters feel disenfranchised from the body politic. The idea that you have a token supporter on the board says a lot about what is wrong with football clubs.

"I think there are two criteria to being on the board of a football club. I think you have to be unequivocally wedded to that particular club, which is not always the case. There are a number of directors and chairmen who have been involved in more than one club. A committed football fan cannot understand that.

"I also think you have to be able to afford to do what you have to do. People think that it is akin to running a business but that is missing the point. Football club directors should not even be paid. Football clubs, as often as not, have been run as fiefdoms. I think you have to drag football from being run along Victorian lines to something more contemporary."

Despite Tottenham's good financial results this week, Chelsea will not, as Harding sees it, be following their London rivals by floating on the stock market. "Once a football club becomes a plc two things happen which are potentially worrying," Harding said.

"People can buy into the club without demonstrating they are wedded to it - which goes right against my beliefs. And you have to serve the interests of the shareholders who are not going to have the emotional attachment to the football club. They are going to expect capital growth in the share price and a dividend. I am all for running a club at a profit, but that profit should be reinvested in the club rather than paid out to shareholders."

There are several areas where Harding's views appear different to those of the chairman, Bates, who was previously involved with Oldham and Wigan. Harding will not be drawn on his relationship with the chairman, but pays tribute to Bates's role in reviving a club which, when he took over, was almost bankrupt off the pitch and mediocre on it.

Of his chairman's contribution he said: "You have only got to look at the plight the club was in in the early Eighties when Ken took it upon himself to come in and have a crack at restoring their fortunes."

The question now is how Chelsea are going to make the next step. They presently have half a ground and half a team. The better half is epitomised by Gullit, who is still becoming accustomed to his team-mates' inadequacies.

At Stoke in midweek he looked frustrated and the former Chelsea and Stoke midfielder Alan Hudson, now a columnist in the Potteries, suggested Gullit "again looked disillusioned". Hudson added: "He has gone from shaking his dreadlocks to putting his head down. Unless Chelsea bring in great players like Le Tissier I cannot see him staying with the club."

Harding is unlikely to wish to invest too heavily while he has little control over the club. But, though Bates has hinted that Harding is chairman- in-waiting, he has given no intimation of wishing to step down just yet. There could be interesting times ahead at Stamford Bridge, both on and off the pitch.

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