Remembering Chelsea legend Matthew Harding 20 years after his death in a helicopter crash

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The morning of 22nd October 1996 could not stand clearer in the mind.

Crisp, autumnal. The alarm went off, and the news sounded a curious lead item – given the many things going on in the world at the time.

A helicopter had crashed on the way back from Chelsea’s League Cup tie at Bolton. I’m sure many who heard it, like me, from that moment knew…

It wasn’t until later in the morning that Harding was named in the media: just 42, and the man who had brought riches, and a long forgotten sniff of glory to the club he loved like the rest of us.

Harding was not the only one to lose his life, as the craft collided with the ground and exploded in flames near Middlewich, in Cheshire: pilot Michael Goss, 38; businessman Tony Burridge, 39; Raymond Deane, 43; and journalist John Bauldie, 47, all perished with him.

Matthew Harding sits left of Ken Bates the Chelsea chairman (middle-right of picture) (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Allsport)

But it was Harding, already a folk hero, who was unquestionably the best known.

To many youngsters, or newcomers to the club he helped build, Matthew Harding is nothing but an ‘End’.

But he was arguably as important in the germination of the seeds that became the Chelsea we now know, as Roman Abramovich – who did not arrive for seven years hence.

Harding liked to paint himself as one of us: a football supporter who got lucky.

That was only part true: he was born into a family already insulated from life’s challenges by money from the insurance industry; he went to the long established Abingdon fee-paying school in Oxfordshire.

But he was clearly different to his peers.

School wasn’t for him: all those fees yielded just one A-level, in Latin.

Matthew Harding tributes

And through blood ties he was given the leg-up that was to make him the man he became: into the insurance business.

There, he flourished: starting as tea boy, and raising to a position as director and major shareholder, with a fortune estimated by the time of his death of around £170m.

But, throughout, he made sure to maintain his man of the people image.

His fame, particularly among Chelsea’s support, grew as the game shook off the negative connotations of the 80s, and became a more celebrated and inclusive leisure pursuit in the 90s.

Holding court in The Imperial, on The Kings Road, it would not be unusual for him to announce that Guinness was on him: and for him to get a round in for the pub.

He would arrive pre-match in a replica shirt, switching it for suit and tie for the stadium’s posh seats before leaving.

A Tribute to Chelsea vice chairman Matthew Harding who died in a helicopter crash (Photo: Ben Radford/Allsport)

When Ken Bates called for investors, in 1994, he was the obvious target: and he sunk around £26.5m into the club – a sum which wouldn’t buy a fullback now, but was an absolute fortune in football terms back then.

It helped rebuild the ground, and the team – under the leadership of first Glenn Hoddle, then Ruud Gullit.

But this is no hagiography.

There were those who he rubbed-up the wrong way with his notable ego: principally the then Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates, for good or bad.

With the pair at loggerheads for some time, club business could painfully stagnate.

His personal relationships, a matter which gleaned much tabloid coverage both before his death and after, were a matter mainly for he and those close to him more than anything.

And there were questions about the way he used his political influence: hobnobbing with Conservative cabinet ministers, and then Prime Minister John Major, in hospitality at Stamford Bridge; while donating £1m to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Chelsea fans’ tributes

But the overwhelming tide of tales remains positive.

More than anything, Harding will be remembered as a passionate fan of the club, who loved life, and wanted to make a difference.

One of the great tragedies was that he was not there to see the fruit of his investment: Chelsea won their first major trophy in a generation, the 1997 FA Cup, seven months after his death.

Two decades later, and he lives on: in the name of that Stamford Bridge north stand he largely paid to rebuild; and in the title of the club’s independent fanzine – never to be forgotten.

Chelsea have reached impossible-to-imagine new heights since, and have received benevolence to swamp his investment.

But, because he was one of us, we will forever be Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army

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