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The Blues' faithful are up in Arms.

MATTHEW HARDING would not recognise the Imperial Arms these days. It was updated to a designer bar last December.

The old fashioned boozer, where Harding once raucously supped Guinness before Chelsea matches, now has rag-rolled light blue walls hung with ethnic rugs and modern lighting.

In fact, Ruud Gullit wouldn't look out of place.

But it's Peter Osgood and Tommy Baldwin chatting at the bar while fans in blue shirts plunge into earnest debate. And no matter the invasion of the interior decorators, there's still only one heated topic of conversation.

You need a drink just to steady your nerves and talk about the mad house that is Chelsea FC.

Whenever you spot a shaking head and a wistful gaze into a pint glass, you know Ken Bates has cropped up yet again.

Let's put it this way - no-one would be hurt in the rush to buy him a drink if he strutted in.

"Vialli? Nice bloke," said 37-year-old Paul Wills, who has been a regular at Stamford Bridge since 1968. "Of course, we'll all get behind him. In the end, it's the club and the team that matters. Nothing else.

"But I genuinely think he might be too nice for the job. It could all go wrong for him very quickly if we lose against Manchester United next weekend and get knocked out of the Cup-Winners' Cup by Real Betis.

"What will Bates do then? Sack him as well? That's the whole trouble with this club.

"Whenever it looks like we're getting somewhere, Bates just can't stand it and kicks it all up in the air.

"I'm absolutely sick that Gullit has been sacked. He just got too big for Bates, didn't he? Bates couldn't stand it.

"Look at the business empire he's sitting on over there now. Do you know what really gets to you? He knows how we feel and he doesn't care one little bit."

The sacking of Gullit and the installation of Gianluca Vialli as player- manager wasn't just the first episode of the past week for Chelsea.

A couple of days later came the shocking news that fans will face massive hikes in season ticket prices next season.

They are events which have left supporters with an all too familiar feeling of confusion about exactly what goes on behind the scenes.

Adrian Stelling, a 36-year-old who travels down from Leeds for every home match, said: "I used to see Matthew Harding in this pub. He had the one thing Bates hasn't got - humility. He'd talk to anyone.

"Bates seems to take a perverse pleasure in being rude and arrogant towards everyone. I'll tell you the best kind of chairman. It's one no-one ever hears from.

"I think Gullit had lost the plot a bit. But the way things have been done have made the club look bad - again."

There is still one small picture of Harding hanging on the back wall of the Imperial Arms commemorating his death in a helicopter crash just 16 months ago.

Its caption reads simply: "Matthew Harding: 1944-1996."

He could have turned out like all the rest of football's boardroom boys who are cashing in on the boom in the game.

But Chelsea fans look at that framed photo and wonder about what might have been.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Dillon, John
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 19, 1998
Words:547
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