JODY MORRIS is convinced Matthew Harding helped turn Chelsea into the global force the club is now.
Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of lifelong Blues fan Harding in a helicopter crash which shocked football.
The Roman Abramovich era has heralded huge success for the London club.
But without Harding injecting £26million of his own money to rebuild Stamford Bridge and bring in stars such as Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli, then the Russian billionaire may never have invested his fortunes.
And Morris — a passionate fan who came through the ranks to play for the Blues before going on to be Frank Lampard’s No 2 — knows just how big a role charismatic Harding played in Chelsea’s history.
Morris said: “We were lucky. I know everybody thinks Chelsea started when Roman came in but all the success, and all that kind of blueprint for where the club was going, started with Matthew and Glenn Hoddle.
“It started with Glenn changing the training ground. And also the environment where you’d eat properly to play football the right way, with nutritionists and all that.
“That went hand in hand with this sort of time when Matthew Harding came on board. Not only was there someone like Glenn helping to change the environment, the mentality and the way that the club was run from a player’s perspective, you also had someone like Matthew doing similar but on a boardroom level.
“We all know that he helped the club out in a difficult time.”
Harding had made his fortune in insurance but answered the desperate plea of then-owner Ken Bates for much-needed finances to keep Chelsea going, then to build a club capable of competing.
He bankrolled the rebuild of the North Stand that now bears his name and provided the funds to sign Gullit, Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Mark Hughes.
The motivation was nothing more than being a die-hard Chelsea supporter from childhood, who just wanted the best for his club.
Ultimately, he did not live to see his investment rewarded with huge success but his era in the Stamford Bridge boardroom was the eventual springboard for turning a stagnant club into one of the most glamorous around.
Aged 42, he was one of four people killed when the helicopter he was travelling in crashed in fog on the way back from a match at Bolton on October 22, 1996.
Morris had just broken into the Chelsea first team at the time and, more than most, has seen how times have changed because of the involvement Harding had.
He added: “My memories of him are mostly just as me being a fan.
“But also knowing that I was coming through the youth ranks and we had someone high up who was just a fan as well.
“Everybody thinks Chelsea started when Roman came in but all the success, and all that kind of blueprint for where the club was going, started with Matthew”
“The youth team had a guy called Graham Bell, who was mates with Harding and did the same for us by sponsoring us — it wasn’t like the academy it is today.
“Graham used to relay all the stories of, ‘He’s one of the fans, he’s just like us’.
“He would go to the games and be in the pub and buy a round of drinks for everyone. He couldn’t be happier than when we were playing well but wasn’t one of those fans that if we started losing or not doing well, all of a sudden he would turn on the team. He was a proper fan.
“All the murmurings around the place… the older pros were making comments, saying, ‘We’ve got a chance’ and ‘We might be able to get this player because Matthew is involved’.
“As I was coming through the ranks, even the feel throughout the youth team was along the lines of, ‘This fella in charge really cares about the club — and from top to bottom’.
“You saw how heartfelt it was when he died. It was someone who was literally one of us.
“For someone to be involved so high up at the football club, being one of the fans, it was certainly a little bit unique to see that.
“The fact that you would get the home fans singing his name was rare. I don’t think you often get the fans nowadays singing about people running the club.
“Those sorts of things don’t come around very often — he must have made such an important impact upstairs with the club — which then also helps with what goes on out on the pitch.
“If a stand wasn’t named after him, I think there would have been a bit of an outcry from the fans because they finally felt that they had — well, we all did —like we had one of us in a high place.”