Being born in the year 2000, I have only ever seen Chelsea under the Roman Abramovich era. I never experienced the hard times of the “Help! Save the Bridge Campaign” or suffered the 26-year trophy drought between the ’70s and the late ’90s. I have been a very privileged Chelsea fan. I have seen my club win everything there is to win in football, but as I look back at our history, there is one man who made this all possible. Matthew Harding.
As a young fan, I never saw what Matthew Harding brought to Chelsea Football Club. Only until my early teens did it cross my mind as to why one of our stands is named ‘The Matthew Harding Stand’. After researching to find out more, it left me compelled to tell the younger Chelsea generation how this man saved our club.
Matthew Harding was born in Hayward Heath, Essex in 1953. Earning his vast amount of wealth through the insurance industry, Harding responded to the then Chelsea owner, Ken Bates, call for new investment into the club. Being a lifetime Chelsea fan, Harding invested £26 million pounds into Chelsea in 1993. He helped build the North Stand worth £7.5m, then another £16.5m into the Stamford Bridge freehold and transfer funds. In return, Ken Bates offered Harding a place on the Chelsea board.
It was love at first sight. Chelsea fans felt a more stable connection to the club now with a fan on the board fighting their case. Harding was blue through and through, giving fans someone they can look up to in the Chelsea hierarchy. But this began to cause tensions to rise between Bates and Harding. Their feud with each other was seen publicly. Bates was scared that Harding was trying to muscle him out of Chelsea and feared losing control over the club, but Harding was simply doing what he felt was best. This created a behind the scenes melodrama with Bates as the pantomime villain.
After continuous rows with one another, Bates finally banned Harding from the board. So whilst Bates and other board members sat in their box watching Chelsea, Matthew Harding became “The Peoples Chairman” watching games sat with fans. Despite the fights between him and Bates, he subsequently became Vice-Chairman in 1995 but still continued to join fans in the terraces. Even as Vice-Chairman, he continued to be a fan around the players with stories of him joining the team bus on away days or asking players for photographs and their signature. Normally it’s quite rare for your boss to ask an employee for pictures or signed shirts but Harding was such a fan, he couldn’t hold back the 8-year-old inside of him!
As Harding’s popularity with fans began to rise, Bates was at an all-time low. Bates used the media to slate Harding but easily forgot that it was Harding’s money that saved the club, helping buy players and fund wages. In 1996, rumors sparked that Harding was planning a takeover at Chelsea to remove Bates from the club. It seemed like a real possibility that he would own Chelsea…until one fateful night in October.
Harding had traveled to Bolton after watching Chelsea get knocked out of the Carling Cup against The Wanderers. Returning home in the company of journalist, John Bauldie, and close friends Tony Burridge and Raymond Dean in a chartered helicopter. Unfortunately, not long after takeoff, the pilot had lost control of the helicopter due to bad weather, crashing and killing everyone on board. A later investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch showed that the pilot did not have the correct experience or qualifications to safely fly a helicopter in those conditions.
Later that season, Chelsea went on to win the FA Cup for the first time in 27 years. Harding had missed the triumph which he had helped achieve. Chelsea’s success continued to follow, winning the League Cup and also being successful in Europe, lifting both the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and The Super Cup too. There is no doubt that without Harding, Chelsea’s late 90’s success would never have been achieved. Despite all this, Chelsea did not truly recover his loss until the arrival of a new owner on the scene.
In 2003, Chelsea was struggling financially again. It was speculated that Chelsea was days from going out of business until Russian Oil Trader, Roman Abramovic, bought the club. Abramovic paid around £140 million, covering a club value of £60 – £80 million debt.
It is unknown whether Harding would have ever become Chelsea owner or not and it’s possible that if he did, he may never have sold Chelsea to Abramovic anyway. But what we do know is that Chelsea Football Club is a worse place without him. In his memory, the North Stand had been named after him.
Matthew Harding was a True Blue. 26th of December 1953 – 22nd of October 1996.