As Chelsea Football Club marks the 20th anniversary this weekend of the death of Matthew Harding at the age of only 42, we recall his life as a fan and as a club director…
Matthew Harding – the lifelong Chelsea fan who became a high-profile director of the club in a pivotal period in our history, but always wanted to remain essentially a fan.
To those who followed the Blues in the mid-1990s, that was clear and it was a major reason why he was held in such high esteem by his fellow supporters and remains so to this day.
His legacy is the accelerating effect the investment of millions of pounds from his considerable wealth had on our long overdue return to winning trophies, and on the redevelopment of the stadium into the modern, closed-in arena the team plays in today.
As Chelsea Football Club marks the 20th anniversary this weekend of his hugely untimely death at the age of just 42, the official Chelsea website will tomorrow look at the impact his time as a director had, but as Harding considered himself primarily a fan, we today recall that part of his life first and to do that, we spoke to three of his children, Hannah, Joel and Luke, whom he ensured were bitten by the blue bug and are season ticket holders to this day. We talk sitting in the stand at the north end of the stadium that bears their father’s name.
‘There wasn't a choice for us about being Chelsea fans,’ Hannah confirms, ‘and our kids have had no choice either.
‘Dad was quite obsessed. We couldn't go on holiday for a whole week because we'd have to be home for the matches, so we could only go on holiday from Monday to Friday.’
Matthew Harding was a Chelsea fan for the same reason – parental influence – and was taken to his first game in November 1962, a Division Two win. His father continued to bring him to Stamford Bridge a few times a season and Bobby Tambling became an early favourite player.
He continued to follow the team’s fortunes in early adulthood and with his children growing up and other activities, including playing hockey, subsiding, he bought season tickets in 1989.
Luke remembers being taken to the first game of the 1989/90 season, a win away at Wimbledon and the home game the following weekend when Sheffield Wednesday were beaten 4-0. Hannah’s first game was the start of the next season, Dennis Wise’s debut against Derby, with Joel following on a couple of months later by watching a goalless visit from Nottingham Forest.
It is clear Chelsea for Matthew Harding was about far more than the 90 minutes. The social occasion was paramount too.
‘He always used to make it a whole day out,’ confirms Hannah. ‘We'd never just go up to London, go to the football and go home. There was always a big atmospheric build-up.
‘We'd get on the train from Sussex. We'd have to get the buffet car and we'd have bacon sandwiches. There used to be the “Crawley Boys” as he'd call them, who got on at Three Bridges and travelled up with us.
‘Songs would be sung,’ adds Luke. ‘And then we'd go to the Imperial pub. He was all about the pre-match really, as much as he was the match. It was about the journey up and the whole day out.
‘We’d take the 10 o'clock train in the morning, if you miss it you miss out, and we wouldn't get home until eight o'clock at night. He loved meeting new people and chatting and he'd be talking forever and we'd be telling him we had to go. He'd just be talking Chelsea to anyone who would listen.’
‘The more he got into it the further afield we went,’ says Hannah. ‘To begin with it was just the home games, then we started going to all the away games, on the train all the way up to somewhere like Liverpool.
‘He used to love the East Anglian games,’ recalls Luke, ‘because they weren't dry trains, you could drink alcohol on the East Anglian trains.’
For Matthew Harding, football was served with Guinness, and a symbolic pint of it was placed on the centre-spot at the Bridge for the minute’s silence preceding the game after his death.
Though he would do his best not to let it alter his pre-match ritual, Chelsea life would change for the Hardings when Matthew, having read an advert in the Financial Times inviting investment in the Chelsea Village stadium redevelopment project, let it be known to the club he was interested in helping. Chairman Ken Bates made his famous, ‘I’m told you think you’re richer than I am and I thought I’d better ring you to find out,’ phone call.
Harding was richer than all but a few in the UK in the autumn of 1993. Eleven years earlier he had become a director and shareholder of the reinsurance brokers he joined as a teenage office boy. He spotted a gap in that market and business boomed.
Bates and Chelsea over the same period fought an extremely draining battle with property developers, and the very real possibility of eviction from Stamford Bridge, and won. Chelsea Pitch Owners was set up to protect that victory and at last the circumstances were right to regenerate the obsolete stadium.
When Harding made available the bulk of the money for a new North Stand and on doing so became a Chelsea director, that regeneration could begin and construction work was underway a month later.
His children recall him making no big deal of it when he started his new role.
‘I remember when we were coming to matches and walking to the ground or on the train, people started taking an interest and getting his view on Chelsea,’ says Joel. ‘That happened overnight really.’
‘Now at away games, Dad would go in the directors' box and we would go in with the away fans.
‘One of the memories I've particularly got of being at Stamford Bridge with him is the last game that the old Shed End was open, a game against Sheffield United when we relegated them.
‘At half-time we walked down and into the Shed End and watched the second half there with him, which was nice.’
That last league game of the 1993/94 season was followed seven days later by an appearance in the FA Cup final, our first in more than two decades. Although we were defeated, with the Wembley outing coming just a few months after Matthew joined the board and Glenn Hoddle became manager, it was another indication Chelsea FC was moving forward. A giant blue ‘Pride of London’ flag carried overhead by the fans was a big feature of the later rounds of the cup run. The new director and his business friend Graham Bell paid for it.
The new North Stand opened in the first half of the following season and the Harding family’s season tickets were relocated there from the East Stand. Their father would leave the pub and his friends and change into a suit before watching games from the directors’ box but a year after the new stand’s opening, he had to re-join his family and watch from there.
Disharmony with Bates, especially over the Chelsea Village project, had intensified to the extent the chairman banned Harding from the directors’ seats.
A degree of co-operation between Bates and Harding was later achieved, with investments made, loans repaid, Harding becoming the club’s vice-chairman and returning to the directors’ box. They were also part of the ‘Marriott Accord’ with Hoddle and managing director Colin Hutchinson which will be detailed on this website tomorrow. That led to the arrival of star-name players although one on the Harding wish-list did not prove possible.
‘He used to love Matt Le Tissier,’ says Joel. ‘I think he tried for years to sign him, and I've seen Le Tissier saying the same in a documentary. And he obviously loved Glenn Hoddle as well.
‘Looking back he used to like Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood,’ adds Luke. ‘Going through the years Eddie Newton was one of his later favourite players. He used to start shouting, “Eddie, Eddie,” so it's good to see Eddie Newton still at the club. He loved Kerry Dixon as well.’
And Matthew maintained his love for the Chelsea players whether they won or lost. His sons and daughter remember their father as the type of fan who did not take defeat too badly and soon moved on. Indeed those people who saw him after the League Cup exit at Bolton, on the night of the helicopter crash that took his life, recall him quickly declaring we would win the FA Cup that season instead.
Ruud Gullit’s team did just that, but sadly without Matthew present, although the line in our enduring 1997 Cup Final song ‘Blue Day’ when Suggs sings, ‘And even heaven, is blue today,’ captured the thoughts of the Chelsea fans who were.
At this Sunday’s game against Manchester United, Matthew Harding’s memory will be honoured. Members of his family will be guests in the directors’ seats and two of his grandchildren will be mascots.
‘The grandchildren are the fourth generation of Chelsea-fan Hardings to come to Stamford Bridge,’ says Luke.
‘Our grandad from Haywards Heath was based in the army barracks in Chelsea and came to watch games back in the 1940s. He then took our father and our uncle, and after that our dad took our mum, up here in the old North Stand. Then it was our turn for our dad to take us and now we have reached the point where we're taking our children.
‘Most of us sit in the middle of the Harding upper,’ says Hannah, ‘and Luke’s tickets are down in the lower tier.’
Sitting with those in the upper tier are two sons of Matthew’s friend Ray Deane, who along with Tony Burridge, John Bauldie and Mick Goss was also killed in the crash.
‘I'm definitely proud to have a stand here named after my dad,’ says Joel. ‘For me it's a very important part of the ground.
‘It's still a bit surreal hearing people sing his name,’ admits Hannah.
‘It puts a lump in my throat,’ adds Luke.
‘It's emotional,’ agrees Joel. ‘It's lovely that fans still think of him, and they still sing his name.’