A Picture of Matthew

Matthew Harding, 1953 - 1996

Mr Harding's friend, the balloonist Per Lindstrand, who was with him during the day before the accident, said he was one of the lads. "He was a Mission Impossible kind of guy. The word 'cannot' was not in his vocabulary. He was totally unafraid to stick his neck out, always carefree."

A special forum was created the next morning and was quickly filled with supporters' messages and those from other clubs too. I'll be putting all those messages back online in journal format in due course...

Flowers at the Bridge
October 23rd 1996
Photo by Ian Waldie
© Telegraph Group

The Press Conference
October 23rd 1996
Photo by Ian Waldie
© Telegraph Group

Matthew and Ken

Matthew Harding, vice-chairman of Chelsea Football Club, died in a helicopter crash on October 22 aged 42. He was born on December 26, 1953.

Although it was his success as a businessman, in insurance, that enabled him to cut the dash he did in public, it is for his passion for football embodied in a long love affair with Chelsea FC and all its works that Matthew Harding will be most generally remembered. His long-running feud with Chelsea's chairman Ken Bates, resolved in a somewhat uneasy truce only six months ago, was, as he saw it, a battle for the "soul" of the club.

Should the Chelsea of the future be about a brand-new stadium, big corporation atmosphere and well-upholstered entertainment facilities for the great and the good? Or should the money he and others had pumped into the club be devoted to the pursuit of excitement on the pitch of the kind that had given the Chelsea of the late Sixties and early Seventies its glamorous image and made it synonymous with the King's Road culture of Mary Quant and Ossie Clark?

In contrast with Bates, who wanted the futuristic stadium, Harding was a man who dreamt of once again seeing the likes of Peter Osgood and Charlie Cooke strolling the Stamford Bridge turf with easy elegance, while Peter Bonetti lurked watchfully between the goalposts. He looked back to an era in which Chelsea could win both FA Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup in successive seasons with displays of verve and style. Not that he was backward-looking. Twenty years Bates's junior, he believed passionately in a vibrant new Chelsea team to be assembled by the club's brilliant new player-manager, the former Dutch star Ruud Gullit.

In all things Harding was in complete contrast with his chairman. A frothing pint of Guinness, downed in the local pub among the fans, was his idea of a tipple not the effervescent products of Epernay, quaffed in the opulent atmosphere of the directors' box among distinguished guests. Although a man who had prospered during the Thatcherite ethos of the 1980s with his Benfield reinsurance broking company, he was an avowed Labour supporter, and had just donated 1 million to the party's coffers, generally regarded as a record for an individual donation.

When asked how he visualised the millennium he saw it totally in football and political terms: "Tony Blair in Downing Street, Glenn Hoddle winning the European championships and obviously Chelsea as league champions." When he was removed from the Chelsea board room he simply shrugged his shoulders and decamped to the new North Stand which had been built with 5 million of his own money. There he set up camp among the fans with whom he felt most at home.

Matthew Harding was born in Haywards Heath, Sussex, and grew up in prosperous-enough circumstances. His father, a Lloyd's underwriter, was able to send him to Abingdon School, but it was an experience which was to fill him with a dislike of the public school and rugby-playing ethos. From the age of eight he was a regular attender on the Chelsea terraces, developing a love of the club which never afterwards left him.

After leaving school with only one A level he went to work in a bank in Haywards Heath where, as he later said, his most onerous task was to shut the main doors at the end of the working day. After six months of this he went to the City to work at the Anglo-Portuguese Bank in Bishopsgate. This was little more congenial and he was soon dismissed after dropping anchor at his local pub for an overlong lunch-hour.

But his fortunes were about to change with dramatic suddenness. While having a drink in a City pub with his father he was introduced to Ted Benfield, who asked him if he would like to join him in a reinsurance broking company he was setting up. Starting as an office junior in 1973, he was soon making rapid progress. By 1980 he had been offered the opportunity to acquire 10 per cent of the company's shares. In 1982 he bought out his proprietor, borrowing 160,000 to buy a 32 per cent stake in the company. This stake was to increase its value to more than 150 million in the years which followed. Last year the company made a profit of 32 million. By that time Harding was one of Britain's 100 richest men.

Harding's business association with Chelsea Football Club came in 1994 when he answered a request from its chairman, Ken Bates, for investment. Harding ploughed 26.5 million into the Stamford Bridge ground, and became a director of the club. This direct involvement in Chelsea seemed only to increase his enthusiasm for the club and its football, and he was a familar sight before matches in the Imperial Arms in King's Road, where he would meet friends and discuss the prospects for the impending match, washing down the conversation with stout and oysters.

But his aim of buying the best players and building up a strong team brought him into conflict with his chairman, who wanted to use the money on a futuristic new stadium. A classic tabloid newspaper feud developed between the two men, with allegations of wrongdoing by each against the other reaching fantasy proportions.

The disagreement was finally resolved in March of this year; by that time Harding no longer had his seat on the board. He became vice-chairman of the club, but retained a 28.5 per cent stake in the company and was chairman of Chelsea Village, the club's parent company.

Besides Guinness and oysters, Harding was a devotee of Bob Dylan and was given to quoting the sayings of Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. He is survived by his wife Ruth, three sons and one daughter, and by a daughter from his relationship with his girlfriend Vicky Jaramillo.

The above article appeared in
The Times newspaper.

Go Top || Go Home