I always think of Ken Bates at least once at Christmas, & always at the same time, when watching It’s A Wonderful Life. At the heart of that yuletide classic is the struggle between the great James Stewart’s character, the noble George Bailey, & the black-hearted, mean spirited & vindictive Henry F. Potter, a masterly turn from Lionel Barrymore. Ken Bates is the anti hero of the Chelsea story for the final twenty years of the last century, but as with Mr Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, it wouldn’t have been much of a story without him, & it is more than possible, nay likely, that there would not be a football club to talk about at all, certainly not one playing at Stamford Bridge. This is the most ghastly & soul sapping Christmas card from Chelsea that I can ever recall. I have a nice one somewhere of Zola bending a free kick past a defensive wall composed of snowmen. Cliched sure, but we’re talking Christmas cards here, not Hieronymus Bosch triptychs. This horror, dating from the early Noughties, relegates the players, at least three of them among the greatest ever to play for the club (the sainted Gianfranco, Marcel Desailly & John Terry) to the status of stick men in the corner whilst the least genial Santa ever ( bar Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa until he goes soft & gets shot delivering that pink elephant) oversees his empire of tat from the roof of its centrepiece, the Chelsea Village Hotel. Four stars & no windows looking out over the pitch. Never was one for freebies our then chairman, one Kenneth William Bates. Owner of Chelsea from 1981 until Roman’s Russian revolution & umpteen millions swept him away from the club he originally bought for a pound. The man who belies the myth that people only started hating Chelsea in 2003. Fewer people divide opinion more, although outside SW6 most were happy to get on with the business of loathing the contrary old bugger. As we face the prospect of his beloved hotel & its accompanying tacky bars & eateries being bulldozed, assuming the planned redevelopment of Stamford Bridge eventually transpires, the legacy of old Birdseye Bates remains as confused & contradictory as ever.
There is plenty to support the Bates as Potter lobby today. There always was. Past questionable business interests aside, he was a tabloid hack’s wet dream come true from the start at Stamford Bridge, dismissing crowd trouble at one away match in the early ’80’s by saying ‘I didn’t see any gang bangs.’ Well that’s alright then Ken. All fears allayed. Of course he took a slightly different approach to similar problems at home games, famously erecting a 12 foot high barbed electric fence prior to the Spurs game in 1985, attempting to reduce the status of his own team’s supporters, quite literally, to that of his own cattle. The fence was never switched on, but only because the ‘loony left’ GLC vetoed it. I don’t know. Refusing to sanction the electrocution of human beings at football matches. It’s political correctness gone mad.
Then there were the endless feuds with the media. His contempt for many of the plethora of tosspots within this industry was hugely understandable, but his craving of the spotlight via cheap shots fed that industry as much as his own, gargantuan ego. I have only ever been in the same room as him once, at a Boxtree book launch at Stamford Bridge in 1998. He made a short speech, but still found time within it to have an irrelevant & low rent dig at the (admittedly odd) ex Chelsea boss & then England manager Glenn Hoddle, & that faith healer accomplice of his, the woman who Ray Parlour upset by asking for a short, back & sides when it was his turn to experience her laying on of hands. There being press people there, presumably Ken just couldn’t help himself. At least Hoddle got away from Chelsea without being sacked, although in contemporary terms the old bruiser now looks like a master of restraint on that front, allowing John Hollins 3 years of bizarre managerial decisions before losing patience (would Abramovich have given him 3 days?) & later sticking correctly with a trophy free Claudio Ranieri, who rewarded him with a Champions League place when the club was teetering in the edge of bankruptcy, a magnificent feat that only the most churlish of Chelsea fans fail to acknowledge. He is rabidly litigious but did himself no favours at all when diehard fan David Johnstone famously sued him successfully for referring to the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association as ‘parasites’ in the late 90’s. His antipathy towards any organized supporters’ groups presumably stemmed from his inherently autocratic approach to the running of the club, which also led him into conflict with former players. The great Bobby Tambling, on meeting Bates for the first time, thanked him for ‘saving my club.’ ‘It’s my club now’ was the charming reply. The late Ian Hutchinson paid a visit to the ground one day only to be confronted by cuddly Ken. ‘I’m Ian Hutchinson. I used to play here & I was the Commercial manager for a while’ was the greeting from quite possibly the bravest man ever to pull on a Chelsea shirt. Bates responded by calling security & having them escort Hutchinson from the premises for trespassing. In fairness, when he did call an uneasy truce with certain older players by giving them matchday PR roles their case wasn’t assisted by my first Chelsea hero Alan Hudson making a tiresome tit of himself & reopening old wounds with rivals from his playing days, having a spat in the tunnel with Middlesbrough coach & former QPR keeper Mike Kelly & a juvenile exchange of verbals with ex Liverpool stars Kevin Keegan & Terry McDermott when they visited with Newcastle. Strangely, Hudson doesn’t mention this when slagging off his former employers in the media as being cruelly oblivious to his plight. Bates once walked through a large collection of us queuing for FA cup tickets. That could mean a 6-8 hour wait in those pre-internet days. Perhaps a brief chat & thumbs up for us hardy & often long-suffering supporters, having in my case taken time off work to make the 100 mile round journey to London to embark on this vigil? No. He merely strode through us all before scuttling off in his Bentley, possibly the one purchased after he successfully sued reporter Harry Harris. Off home to something rather better than a Pot Noodle & a wank you would suspect, while the only entertainment for a sap like me was listening to a man stood behind me called Melvyn agonizing over whether he wanted haddock or cod from the chip shop run his mate was about to embark on. Cheers Ken. Once again you spoil us Ambassador.
An examination of his relationship with the late Matthew Harding is possibly the best way to really taste the Marmite in the Bates sandwich. Happy to take significant investment from Harding to fund the redevelopment of the ground in the early to mid ’90’s, the two then fell out badly when it became clear that the other man’s ambitions extended beyond merely bankrolling the bearded one’s vision for the club. Surrounding the pitch with stewards at half time during the Spurs match in 1995 was clearly the old boy’s statement of intent to quell any potential protest at his handling of the fallout from his row with Harding. It was an undignified & public row that embarrassed everyone & achieved little. That Harding was a folk hero with large sections of Chelsea’s fan base was understandably galling for Bates, who had toiled to turn around the club’s fortunes for more than a decade before the insurance broker’s first investment in the club in 1993. Harding cultivated his man of the people image magnificently, wearing his team shirt & supping his pre-match pints of Guinness in The Imperial, but whether or not there was any contrivance involved in such behaviour, the man’s contribution to the resurrection of Chelsea as a genuine force in English football was enormous. Naming a stand after him in the immediate aftermath of his tragic death appeared to have drawn a line under the hostilities of earlier years, but mortality was not to stand in the way of Bates continuing a grudge, within a year referring to his old adversary as an ‘evil man’ on a Channel 5 documentary.
It is easy, & sometimes tempting, to reduce Ken Bates to the role of pantomime villain, but also unfair. Life is not a Frank Capra movie, & there were major positives for the club & its supporters arising from his lengthy tenure.(Leeds United fans doubtless have less reason to be charitable following his unhappy stint in charge there) Many people who sneered at the old man walking off with his pot of Russian gold after leading the club to the brink of financial ruin ignore many salient points in the 21 year back story. Bates did not draw a salary at all in his first decade at Chelsea. He did, however, spend enormous amounts of time fighting off property developers Marler Estates, Chelsea’s hated landlords in the 1980’s. This delightful company also got their claws into West London neighbours Fulham & QPR, imperiling the futures of all three clubs. I think it fair to say Marler were not motivated by a desire to serve football. Stamford Bridge & Craven Cottage were, & still are, clearly situated in highly desirable areas. Marler were landlords of both, & added Loftus Road to their portfolio in 1987, installing arch-villain of the piece David Bulstrode as QPR chairman in the process, the sole intention being to evict Fulham & amalgamate the 2 clubs under the name of Fulham Park Rangers (FPR! FPR! FPR! FP-AHAHAHAHAHA?!) to play at Shepherd’s Bush. Bates fought tirelessly for years to ward off Marler’s attempts to evict Chelsea from Stamford Bridge, setting up the Save The Bridge campaign & waging war with Marler through the courts. It was last-minute court injunctions and not last-minute goals that counted in the Chelsea story at this time. Bates’ rearguard action won out in the end, & his sheer bloody minded refusal to accept defeat was the reason. Marler were eventually taken over by Cabra Estates who promptly foundered as the property market took a downturn. All three clubs survived with their grounds & names intact but it was a close run thing. Bulstrode had died unexpectedly, apparently in the arms of an ample bosomed extra marital blonde, which sadly elicited little sympathy from The Shed. There are worse ways to go, although one fan reacting to a tedious period of play during a match shortly after his demise by shouting ‘I’ve seen more life in David fucking Bulstrode’ probably overstepped the mark slightly. Having won the war, Bates set out his vision for the future, & the Chelsea Village project was born. There was plenty to dislike about it, but having rescued the club from the brink of oblivion it could be argued he had earned the right to follow his own vision for the future, tacky though it may have been. My gran once knitted me a horrible green tank top. I knew I would never wear it but still said thank you. Bates may have been driven by ego and not love for the fans but he had still done us a favour, & there was little choice but to indulge him anyway.
The creation of Chelsea Pitch Owners plc in 1992 is the one touch of true genius that the 86-year-old doubtless pats himself on the back about as he enjoys his twilight years in Monaco. By creating a scheme that allowed supporters to buy into a non-profit organization owning both the Stamford Bridge pitch & the club name, he instantly devised a way to ward off future property developers intent on removing the club from its home since 1905. It has also frustrated the current owner’s plans to move the club to a new stadium, although it may never have been necessary for him to think along those lines if Chelsea Village’s hotels, bars & restaurants hadn’t eaten so heavily into the acreage. I feel sad when ANY football club leaves its home for one of these identikit new stadiums. To see Chelsea leave Stamford Bridge would be unbearable. It is both ironic & hugely rewarding that a club often derided as having no history has fought harder than any to preserve its considerable heritage, ‘plastic’ fans and all. Props to Chairman Ken for his part in that.
He was a man out of time at Leeds, & definitely in the wrong place. He had fallen out quickly with the new regime at Chelsea, & gleefully played out the feud in public, fuelled by his old club luring two promising youngsters away from Elland Road. When Chelsea reported him to the FA following further provocative comments he gleefully retorted that he hadn’t ‘laughed so much since ma got her tits caught in the mangle.’ The old ones are the best eh Ken? Sleights of hand about details of ownership & hiking up ticket prices were never going to win over the Leeds faithful, & attempting to recreate the Chelsea model on the pitch via the appointment of Dennis Wise as manager seemed insane. Nowhere are Chelsea more despised than Leeds. Dirty Leeds. Club owners were once local boys made good, butchers & scrap metal dealers. Bates came along later as one of a clutch of more maverick businessmen. Now it is oligarchs, multi-nationals or indeed entire countries who control the biggest clubs. The old boy’s race was run.
Bates had simply had his day, but what a peculiar day it was. Unpleasant side effects of his MO remain in football. When the ground redevelopment was taking place in the early to mid 1990’s he took to relocating away fans in the top-tier of the East stand, reducing their ability to affect the atmosphere while charging them the then astronomical sum of £25 into the bargain. Rival clubs & their fans squealed in indignation but Chelsea fans have been regularly treated similarly ever since, the recent capping of prices for away fans at Premier League grounds being a welcome & long overdue innovation. His contempt for any kind of input from fan groups, while not unique to him among club owners, always stuck in the craw, as did his disdain for many who had contributed to club glories prior to his era as owner. He was known to be generous to those he liked, settling a sizeable debt from Sam Hamman’s Wimbledon to Dennis Wise when he signed for Chelsea in 1990 & helping Kerry Dixon sort out financial problems caused by his gambling addiction. He could be fun too, & sometimes indulged his taste for it at the expense of those who fully deserved it. The repulsive David Evans was one. Having banned all away fans from games at Kenilworth Road, the right-wing Tory MP & Luton Town chairman was outraged when Bates gave Director’s Box tickets away to regular Chelsea fans, forcing the Luton elite to share their afternoon with people in Harrington jackets, jeans & trainers responding to the action with gusto. The singing & shouting was somewhat muted by a 1-0 defeat but Evans still stated his intention to boycott the Chelsea VIP area for the return match & stand on the terraces with the Luton massive. It didn’t happen, but Bates’ programme notes on one Luton visit were a joy, assuring their fans that they shouldn’t be alarmed by ranks of blue & white clad fans at the other end of the ground to them, they were simply opposition supporters & considered quite normal at most stadiums. Your move Mr Evans.
I haven’t got the energy for a Ken Bates running my club in 2017, although he probably still has. Whatever anyone thinks of him, they certainly won’t forget him. For those who wish he had never got involved in football the ‘no Bates, no Chelsea’ line can still be rolled out. For Blues fans that has to be the cause for celebration, but so too should it be for massed ranks of Chelsea hating online trolls & Scouse, Manc & Gooner infused mainstream media bores alike. Let’s face it, without Chelsea who would you all have left to hate dear boys?