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The fans looked up to see if Matthew's smiling face was there. . it wasn't, of course. They were searching for his blue heaven!; TRIBUTE TO Mr CHELSEA.

I had a long-standing arrangement with Matthew Harding. We were supposed to meet yesterday at 12.30pm in the Imperial Arms.

I always met him there before Chelsea home games - but yesterday would have been a bit special for us both as Matthew's beloved "Chels" were playing my favourites Spurs, so there was bound to be a bit of banter.

Matthew was a good friend of mine and of Sports Mirror. He was our guest for the last two years at the Footballer of The Year dinner and loved mixing with Press and players alike.

I last spoke to Matthew five days before his tragic death and he said: "The Yiddos are coming to the Bridge - we've got to meet for a pint of Guinness before that one."

Matthew knew I am Jewish but he meant no offence calling Tottenham the Yiddos - it is an often-used nickname for the club's fans.

I decided to keep my appointment at the pub yesterday because I felt Matthew would have appreciated that.

I set off early and the District Line train to Fulham Broadway was as busy as you might expect for a sell-out derby - but it was unusually quiet.

I walked to the Imperial Arms and the customers had spilled onto the street, many standing around with a rather dazed look.

It was sombre place, heaving inside but I squeezed my way to the bar. Peter Osgood was already there, he was a good friend of Matthew's and another regular to the Imperial before matches.

He bought a pint of Guinness for Matthew and placed it on the bar where it remained untouched.

"I keep expecting him to walk in," said Ossie, who works for Chelsea on the hospitality side. "It still hasn't sunk in and this is such a sad day for us all. Even if Chelsea won the Championship it wouldn't bring back Matthew."

The landlord, Cornelius, always served Matthew with a dozen oysters, but there were no oysters on sale this particular Saturday.

I chatted with many of Matthews' friends. They all travelled to London together yesterday morning on Matthew's train, the one he always took from his Sussex home. Even the ones who normally drive wanted to make what they felt would be a poignant journey by train.

I left the pub at 1.30pm - about the same time Matthew would have done to go and change into his suit ready to greet visiting directors.

It was very quiet at the Bridge as fans queued up to study the walk of scalves and floral tributes to their popular vice chairman.

I had not seen anything like it since I covered the match at Upton Park shortly after the great Bobby Moore had died, so that shows how highly Matthew Harding was regarded.

Messages such as: "Thank you Matthew for all you have done." And "We'll keep the blue flag flying high."

I walked in through the Press entrance and was allowed to wander down the tunnel and out onto the pitch where, in the centre circle there were two wreaths - and another pint of Guinness.

I looked to my right and a new blue and white sign proclaimed: Matthew Harding Stand. That of course is the new North Stand, the stand that Matthew's money built.

I sat in the Press Box which is just a few rows behind the Chelsea dug- out and watched as the ground slowly filled up. There has been something of a tradition at the Bridge that at about 2.50pm Matthew Harding would come into the director's box in the upper tier, put his head over the edge and wave to the regulars below.

Those same fans couldn't help looking up at about that time just to see if Matthew's smiling face was there.

They all knew it wasn't, of course. But the fans continued to look at the sky, no doubt searching for Matthew Harding's Blue heaven.

The Chelsea players were led out at a trot by skipper Dennis Wise.

Behind him was goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock and as the team ran to their right towards the Matthew Harding Stand, the leading pair carried a long wreath of white carnations which said simply: Matthew RIP.

They laid it on the edge of the penalty area facing their fans, who applauded warmly.

In a touching gesture the players from Chelsea joined hands and stood on the edge of the 18-yard box, heads bowed, for the minute's silence which followed.

There was total silence as both sets of fans marked the minute with the utmost respect. Perhaps the sad irony was the fact that in the distant sky above there was a buzzing noise which came from a police helicopter circling the area. There was also the drone of passing jets on the Heathrow flight-path.

A grown man just in front of me wiped away tears with his white handkerchief - this was the day that soccer hard men were reduced to emotional mourners.

Then the kick-off, and Stamford Bridge was suddenly alive.

The fans desperately wanted to turn the occasion into a celebratory wake.

The chant that would have pleased Harding most was the one which went simply: "Matthew Harding's blue and white army".

It was fitting on this occasion that two of Chelsea's three winning goals came from players who were at the club thanks only to Harding's money.

Player-manager Ruud Gullit scored the first and Italian Roberto Di Matteo grabbed the third.

The result and the whole occasion was summed up nicely afterwards by managing director Colin Hutchinson.

He told me: "Matthew would have enjoyed that. I left Bolton's ground with him on Tuesday night and we were both depressed because we'd lost but then he turned to me and said: 'Cheer up, we'll beat Tottenham on Saturday.'

"He was right, wasn't he."
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Silver, Neil
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 27, 1996
Next Article:Walsall 1 Stockport 1.

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