How Matthew Harding transformed Chelsea before Roman Abramovich
Chelsea are one of the most successful clubs in the last decade, but it wasn't just Roman Abramovich that helped them muster the success.
7th May 2005: Chelsea had already won the title, thanks to a brace from their star midfielder Frank Lampard - and the investment from their wealthy owner, Roman Abramovich. It was a festive mood for the Blues before facing Charlton Athletic.
The players took to the pitch after a guard of honour which firmly established their champions tag. Blue Heaven, the supporters chanted from the Matthew Harding Stand, named after their former director, Matthew Harding who died in a plane crash on his way back from a League Cup game against Bolton.
To many, the Russian oligarchs wholly remunerated Chelsea's success over the years. However, to the fans who know the club since the mid-1990s, there is one man who deserves as much credit.
Matthew Harding's tale wasn't a rag to riches story. He was born in an affluent family and was educated at Oxfordshire. But, school just wasn't for him. The only A-level he got was in Latin and at the time began his outstanding business career.
In ways, Harding was lucky he inherited the wealth, estimated to be £170m in the time of his death. But, it was his sheer passion and commitment towards his beloved club that garners him such endearment from the fans.
Despite the overwhelming wealth, he remained a grounded fan with pre-match rituals, the same as thousands of other fans at Chesire. To Harding, the game wasn't just a 90-minute event. It was instead a full day ritual to be celebrated among the local community.
He was a famous Chelsea supporter, and as a man who liked to meet new people and talk about Chelsea all day, it shouldn't come as a surprise. However, he has the cult status at Stamford Bridge for propelling Chelsea to the top.
In 1993, Chelsea's story was disparate to what the Blues are used to right now.
Under their manager Ian Porterfield, the Blues were battling relegation from the top flight. Ian was eventually sacked, and caretaker David Webb had the tough task of preserving the Blues' top-flight status. Webb delivered and the club had the chance to move forward.
Frustration around club's misfortunes and zero success frustrated the fans - and one passionate fan decided to step in.
Matthew Harding contacted the then chairman, Ken Bates, about injecting money to the club following a disappointing season for the Blues. It all came to fruition in the spring of 1993. Harding now became a club director as he looked to head the club towards a new exciting direction.
The West London club faithful started to take notice. His name started to ring a sense of excitement around the Shed End while his money began a significant rebuilding process within the club.
His £26.5m investment doesn't sound like much at the time, but it was enough to propel Chelsea to mid-table. It helped renovate the ground and rebuild different parts of the current Stamford Bridge stadium - especially what is the now called the Matthew Harding stand.
Meanwhile, it also helped turn a club who couldn't attract a defender like Darren Wassel, unwanted at Nottingham Forest - to a household name capturing the signatures of a Dutch legend, Ruud Gullit.
Chelsea's fortunes were transformed under the new manager Glen Hoddle. All this under the guidance of their club director Matthew Harding.
Glen Hoddle bettered the Blues' training ground at Harlington and implemented a strict player's diet to resonate with the public face Chelsea intended to project under the new leadership.
It not only helped Chelsea attract high-profile players but also change their face from a tediously run club to a modern example.
Perhaps, if it weren't for Matthew Harding, Chelsea would have never had enough firepower to sign the likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola and Marcel Desailly.
The Blues might have had a different timeline from a European powerhouse they are today. With no proper investment in the mid-1990s, it was impossible for the Pensioners to win an FA Cup and garner the European glory that followed.
Roman Abramovich initially had talks with Daniel Levy, but eventually, the Russian invested in Chelsea, a club who had some pretty decent players back then. However, for a man who helped achieve so much for the club, it is a tragedy that Harding never got to enjoy the glory.
Before Abramovich's era where Chelsea have won numerous titles, they won the FA Cup in 1997, the same season where the Blues crashed out of the League Cup against Bolton. It was on the way back home from the same tie when Matthew lost his life along with pilot Michael Goss, businessmen Tony Burridge and Raymond Deane and journalist John Bauldie.
"Chelsea out of another cup… ” said the club managing director Colin Hutchinson before Harding's flight back home. “Well, we’re going to have to try to win the FA Cup aren’t we?”
“Yeah, we’re bloody going to do it!” - replied Harding.
Sometimes, the tales are just bittersweet.