Flowers and scarves and fond farewell notes festooned the gates at Stamford Bridge yesterday, perhaps the first time that the vice-chairman of a football club has been mourned in the manner which has become customary since the Hillsborough disaster. But then Matthew Harding was no ordinary director.
The boardroom brigade tend not to wear their team's replica kit, or drink with the fans in a pub before a game, or encourage their children to bang a drum in the posh part of the stand. They would not, as a rule, turn up at the unveiling of a world-class striker (Gianluca Vialli) clutching a carrier bag from the club shop which contained a shirt already emblazoned with his name and number. Harding, the eternal enthusiast, did all those.
He was the Chelsea fanatic who invested pounds 26.5m in the rebuilding of his club on and off the pitch, the multi-millionaire with the common touch. One of the bitter ironies of his death in a helicopter crash, on the way back from watching Tuesday's Coca-Cola Cup defeat at Bolton, was that, for all Harding's wealth, he loved to travel up to matches from his Brighton home on the train.
The lifestyle of a tycoon - a term the former office junior always found faintly ludicrous - does not always permit such humble pleasures. Harding once had to charter a jet, at a cost of pounds 27,000, to fly back from Morocco in time to see his beloved Blues at Newcastle. After the game, the Newcastle chairman, Sir John Hall, offered him a crate of bubbly for the trip home. Harding declined, filling a carrier bag with sausage rolls and cans of beer instead.
The devotion which was to cost him his life dated back to 1962, when Chelsea were still the perennially unfashionable "Pensioners", (he nicknamed his son Luke "Greavsie" after the gaunt young goalscorer who was later reincarnated as a television personality). It intensified during their greatest era, when the likes of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson became the sporting wing of swinging London. And it survived the long, dark years before Ken Bates restored upward mobility.
Harding made his money in the reinsurance brokering business. Moguls in the City, meeting the head of the Benfield Group for the first time, were often startled to find him wearing a Chelsea top and absent- mindedly breaking into a song from the Shed.
His formal involvement with the club began during the 1993-94 season, after Bates appealed for backers to help restore Chelsea to the pre-eminence they had enjoyed a quarter of a century earlier. The chairman later recalled the telephone conversation which launched their unlikely alliance. "Ken Bates here," he said. "I understand you're richer than I am, so we'd better get together."
Bates is a conservative man, for whom blue is the colour in more than mere football terms, whereas Harding was a product of a more gregarious generation, whose only other passions were his family and Bob Dylan. "I'm just a fan who's done rather well," he once said. Not long after Harding joined the board, and began putting in cash in the form of both loans and largesse, a power struggle inevitably ensued.
Whether Harding coveted the chairmanship, as Bates alleged, we shall never know. What is beyond dispute is that he saw his destiny and that of the club as being inextricably linked. Early in the relationship, he sensed that Bates placed a higher priority on building a futuristic stadium rather than a team to match the class of 1970.
He frequently railed indiscreetly against Bates, whose past involvement with clubs such as Oldham and Wigan he could not comprehend. "I wouldn't say I was interested in football generally," he explained. "It's all Chelsea as far as I'm concerned."
In response, Bates banned him from the directors' box, citing "behaviour related to your heavy drinking both home and away". The letter sent to Harding contained a P.S. which read: "Please ensure that your `Bates Out' banner in the Main Stand does not obscure the valuable advertisement panels".
Harding laughed off the exclusion order. "Never mind," he told Bates. "I'll go and sit in the North Stand. I presume that's alright with you. After all, I did pay for it." Being barred would make little difference, he argued: he had been watching Chelsea from outside the directors' box for 31 of the previous 33 years anyway.
The ban also had the effect of rallying popular support to Harding. An opinion poll showed that the overwhelming majority of fans wanted him to take over. A spokesman for the "rebel" Independent Supporters' Association encapsulated the widespread perception of the difference between the rivals: "Bates appears to think it is his club, while Harding's attitude is that it is our club."
Gradually, however, there was a rapprochement. The odd couple - Bates with his stern countenance and white beard, Harding with his cherubic, open face - began sitting together amicably at Chelsea games. Glenn Hoddle, soon to leave for the England job, speculated as to whether they were holding hands.
Harding, who put up pounds 5m to fund the construction of the North Stand, also lent the club more than twice that amount to purchase players. But there was no question of the younger man adopting traditional boardroom values.
Last month, it emerged that he had donated pounds 1m to the Labour Party, which he acknowledged might not be Bates' idea of using his capital wisely. "Just because you're rich," Harding said, "it doesn't mean you have to be a Tory." David Mellor, the Conservative MP and Chelsea supporter, complained that the money would be "wasted on Tony Blair". Harding remained unmoved by such criticisms. Besides, not everyone in football shared Mellor's opinion.
At Anfield last month, I watched as the steward in the Liverpool directors' box made a point of showing Harding to his seat, patting him affectionately on the shoulder and telling anyone who would listen: "Matthew's a good Labour man".
A few weeks later, I interviewed Vicki Oyston, the Blackpool chairman, who recalled how Harding had come over during the second leg of their Coca-Cola Cup tie at the Bridge and asked if he could sit with the Lancashire club's largely female board. "You seem to be having so much fun," he told her.
Fun - it was no coincidence that the word was used time and again by those who paid tribute to Matthew Harding yesterday.
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