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Matthew Harding never forgotten – part two

Yesterday, the official Chelsea website looked back on Matthew Harding’s life as a Chelsea fan before and after he became a club director by speaking to three of his children.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of Harding’s death, club historian Rick Glanvill considers the impact and legacy of our former vice-chairman’s investment and involvement, in particular the ‘Marriott Accord’ between the four key individuals in the running of Chelsea Football Club at the time…

The Observer newspaper published a ‘UK pay league table’ in August 1993 that placed Matthew Harding 13th with his £2.27m annual salary from the reinsurance brokers, Benfield group. (Present-day West Ham co-owner David Sullivan was 14th.) His personal fortune was put at £125m.

It was two months later, though, on 18 October 1993, that Harding’s name came to resonate with Chelsea supporters, as the club announced the multimillionaire with a Latin A-level had provided £5m which, together with a £2m Football Trust grant, would kick-start the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge a month later.

Equally noteworthy was that Harding had swiftly become a director and was ushered onto the Chelsea Village board. ‘We are all looking forward to a good working relationship with him,’ said delighted chairman Ken Bates.

Harding, a Blue for 30 of his then 39 years on earth, aimed to wield his new-found power to influence far more than just the bricks and mortar at his club, and immediately found a kindred spirit in another youthful newcomer earlier that year, player-manager Glenn Hoddle.

The timing for change was perfect. The protracted and damaging ‘Battle of the Bridge’ against ravenous redevelopers had ended, and revolution was in the air.

One agent of that change would be Colin Hutchinson. Brought in to help raise desperately needed funds, he had become managing director, his responsibilities extending to strategy and recruitment.

‘Obviously [by 1993] there was a more stable base to go forward but the cost of getting to that point was a huge drain on the finances,’ Hutchinson later recalled. ‘I think we started, from a football side, to get it together when Glenn Hoddle arrived.’

New thinking was desperately needed to raise standards. Prior to Hoddle, Chelsea had offered the job to Neil Warnock before settling on Ian Porterfield. But the club under Porterfield were unable even to attract defender Darren Wassell, unloved at Nottingham Forest, to Stamford Bridge.

With relegation threatening devastation in spring 1993, caretaker David Webb came in for three months and crucially preserved Chelsea’s top-flight status. 

It was clear root-and-branch changes were required that summer, but who could be trusted to lead them? ‘My suggestion was Glenn Hoddle,’ said Hutchinson, ‘having got to know him a little bit when he was at Chelsea [recuperating from injury a few years earlier]. I felt it was time to maybe go for a slightly more modernistic approach because we’d tried it the other way.’

Duly anointed, Hoddle upgraded everything from the training ground at Harlington and players’ diets, to the method of play and the public face the club projected to the world. Over two years Chelsea was transformed from an organisation with a bunker mentality to one with a modern, outward-looking approach.

The player-manager even shepherded his side to a first FA Cup final for almost a quarter of a century in May 1994 and the club finally began looking up, not staring down.

‘Even though at that time we didn’t have the best team in the world, the fact we got to Wembley, it was still a wonderful day because it gave the fans some hope,’ recalled Hutchinson. ‘The real bonus was the fact that Man United [who won the final against Chelsea] were already qualified for Europe so we were automatically into the Cup Winners’ Cup.

‘We got to the semi-finals [in Europe] and we’d had a taste of it. Then at the end of the ’94/’95 season we obviously realised that for the following season there was going to be a vacuum – you’ve had the taste but there’s no follow on.

‘And I think that was the point we decided that if we’re going to have a go, that the opportunity might not always be around. By which time Matthew was on board, so we had what is now known as the Marriott Accord.

‘Football was changing dramatically. It was obvious that at that stage we were on the level of Crystal Palace and Queen’s Park Rangers and we had the opportunity, the ground was now secure, Matthew was now around, we were getting things together.

‘We would probably never have that opportunity again and we had to grab it with both hands, or really accept that we were going to be just a middle-of-the-road club, hoping that we would stay in the Premier League, hoping that we might have the occasional cup run, but not really having any ambitions above that. Or we had the opportunity of trying to break in.’

A room in Slough’s prosaic Marriott Hotel, just outside Heathrow, might not be the obvious setting for one of the most game-changing meetings in the history of Chelsea, but ambition can blossom anywhere. This was 21 May 1995, the morning after Everton met Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

‘It was full of Everton supporters, and fortunately Everton had won,’ related Hutchinson. ‘And there was Ken Bates, Matthew Harding, Glenn and myself, and the major thing we talked about was the fact that Ruud Gullit was available.

‘Glenn and I had already been out to Milan and met him. We got to see him for a few minutes, put our ideas to him and he said he would think about it and he would call another meeting if he was interested.

‘So we sat down to go through the philosophy of that, and what it might do to the image, and what it might achieve on starting to make Chelsea a bit better known Europe-wise. And from that meeting it was decided that we should try and go out and get him and Paul Gascoigne. Well, obviously there was a deep intake of breath when I said what I believed it would cost.’ (Gascoigne went to Rangers in Scotland instead.)

The instant result of the Marriott meeting was the signature of Gullit, a remarkable statement by the club that brought positive headlines around the world. Then during the press conference for the Dutch legend, it was announced that Manchester United star Mark Hughes was the next recruit. ‘The press couldn’t believe it,’ chuckled Hutchinson. Neither could Chelsea fans.

Players at their peak cost far more in transfer fees than thirtysomethings. Older, high-profile players were targeted at first because despite the future of Stamford Bridge having been secured, and Harding arriving as a benefactor, money was still an issue.

Yet the post-Marriott Accord years also brought the brilliance of Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo, Marcel Desailly, George Weah and dozens more to grace the Bridge. Even after Harding’s death in October 1996 the philosophical legacy was partly his.

‘If Matthew hadn’t been around I’m not sure we would have embarked on that,’ said Hutchinson.

‘He certainly came in as a breath of fresh air. His enthusiasm for Chelsea was unparalleled. I mean, even though he was running a multi-million pound business, he lived Chelsea day and night and he certainly shared and supported the vision to want to stamp Chelsea’s mark on the European map.’

From Hoddle through Gullit to Vialli and beyond there was an unbroken line of managers building success on success. Without Harding’s input the Marriott Accord might never have happened, and without the Accord, the club may never have been considered a worthwhile investment by Roman Abramovich.

Hutchinson was on his way back from Bolton in October 1996 when he received a call from the team coach to say that a helicopter had gone down and there was a fear it might be Matthew and his party.

‘It’s all a blur now, but we were making calls through the night,’ he remembered. ‘There was no confirmation, but it was becoming more and more apparent what had happened.

‘It was the shock of somebody so vibrant, just gone like that. I remember the last conversation I had with him in the boardroom at Bolton, and we’d gone out of the League Cup. And in his half-serious, half-joking way he said, “Chelsea out of another cup… ” And I said to him, “Well, we’re going to have to try to win the FA Cup aren’t we?” He said, “Yeah, we’re bloody going to do it!”’

Which, of course, is exactly what came to pass when the Blues beat Middlesbrough 2-0 in May 1997. ‘Matthew Harding’s blue and white army!’ rang out from the stands throughout that campaign. And the club became exactly that: a powerful force he played a big part in building.

 

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