Steve Menary wonders when it became so difficult to simply build a stadium

Why can no one build a national stadium in this country without the entire project becoming a total embarrassment? A date has finally been set for a £20 million high court dispute between two firms rebuilding Wembley and this showdown will take place next April – a month before the first FA Cup final at the rebuilt stadium.

The court case will complete a shambolic hat-trick of British national stadium rebuilding projects. First the Cardiff Arms Park was turned into the Millennium Stadium. Home to nearly all of English professional football’s big finals after Wembley closed down in 2000, the Millennium Stadium has been generally popular with fans even if getting out of Cardiff afterwards is not always easy. Hosting all these events has been a great source of cash for the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), which also did well out of the construction of the £121m stadium. The scheme ran into difficulties from the start, however, with the project manager quitting early on and a dispute with Cardiff rugby club, whose ground backed onto the Arms Park, delaying work. The firm building the project, Laing, turned over £1.5 billion a year but the problems at Cardiff, where the scheme went at least £31m over budget, led to it being sold for £1.

Like the WRU, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) also wanted to rebuild its home venue. The SFA recruited Sir Robert McAlpine, the firm that built Wembley Stadium in 1924, but the new Hampden overran its projected £67m budget by at least £4m. McAlpine also bore this cost and in lieu of payment was offered debenture tickets by the National Stadium Company, the SFA quango that organised the project.

With no UK firm willing to take on the harsh Wembley contract devised by Ken Bates (see WSC 217), Australian contractor Multiplex is rebuilding the stadium but will lose anything from £45m to £100m on the £325.6m job. Multiplex’s court case against the sacked sub-contractor Cleveland Bridge offers them a chance to reclaim some of the money and may shed light on why the Wembley scheme ran so far over budget.

Disputes over UK stadium projects invariably arise because the clients, usually the clubs, have other priorities for their money – usually players’ wages. Earlier this year, Doncaster metropolitan borough council asked contractors to price a stadium to host Rovers and women’s team the Belles plus the local rugby league and athletics clubs. The council had £32m to pay for the ambitious project but the lowest of the bids that came back in June was still £5m over the budget.

In the past, work-hungry contractors have taken stadium jobs despite suspecting that clubs do not have the money then resorted to the law to claw back money due. Construction is the only UK industry with its own court – the Technology and Construction Court – as when clients change a project, they think this cost can be achieved for peanuts. The contractors usually think differently and disputes drag on for years. Hosts of football clubs have fallen into disputes with contractors and some have gone into administration to avoid payment. The Football League’s introduction of a ten-point penalty for clubs in administration only happened after Leicester City gained promotion to the Premiership in 2002-03 after building a 32,000-seat stadium to replace their old Filbert Street ground. Unable to finance a promotion challenge and building work, the club sank into administration and contractor Birse lost £7m and people lost their jobs. Birse chief executive Martin Budden said: “We’ll never work on a stadium again.”

With billions of pounds pumped into schools and hospitals, contractors can now be selective and are not keen on risky stadium work. Proposals by Milton Keynes Dons for a 30,000-seat arena spiralled millions over budget before work even began and favoured contractor Alfred McAlpine dropped out. The Dons are using local firm Buckingham to build the ground, which has a price tag of £47m – almost twice the firm’s annual turnover. Whether Buckingham make a profit remains to be seen as most clubs and the national FAs seem to have forgotten something that all football fans are well aware of – if you get the builders in, they need paying.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month

Related articles

From the archive ~ The enduring myth of Wembley’s wide open spaces
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'_gPNLN0cQoVn2ohyiQmvSQ',sig...
From the archive ~ How the old Wembley earned its worldwide affection
With the new Wembley now ten, here is Jeff Hill in 1999 on how its predecessor ingrained itself in football folklore despite its pomposity The...
Getting into Europe: The 1973 Common Market Match
When Britain joined the European Economic Community a celebratory game was held at Wembley, revealing split opinions on the move Embed from Getty...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday