'Abide with me', sings the home of football

Plagued by disputes yet again, Wembley still insists it will be ready on time and on budget. Miranda McLachlan reports

Just like the beautiful game itself, Wembley Stadium has long had a knack for surprises - and disappointments. Ever since its redevelopment was first floated nearly 10 years ago, doubts have swirled around the project. It has suffered delays due to years of political wrangling, problems attracting funding and escalating budgets.

Just like the beautiful game itself, Wembley Stadium has long had a knack for surprises - and disappointments. Ever since its redevelopment was first floated nearly 10 years ago, doubts have swirled around the project. It has suffered delays due to years of political wrangling, problems attracting funding and escalating budgets.

When work eventually kicked off late in 2002, the management was under pressure from the Football Association, the stadium's ultimate owner, and the Government to meet its new deadline: delivery, complete with 133-metre arch, by Spring 2006 and a price tag of £757m.

Until last week, it appeared to be broadly on track. Then the GMB union, which represents many of the workers involved in the redevelopment, warned that the project had fallen behind by at least four months and, crucially, was unlikely to be ready for its first big event, the 2006 FA Cup Final.

GMB spokeswoman Kelly Rogers says that members report there have been no steel or concrete deliveries for two months. And another source close to the project claims a legal tussle between the Australian developer, Multiplex, and Cleveland Bridge, the steel contractor which walked on the redevelopment in June, has caused further delays.

The warning last week followed a two-month dispute between workers and the new steel contractor which brought things to a temporary halt and was only resolved a few days ago. The unions, which claim they are being made a scapegoat for the delays, have also raised health and safety concerns after a death at the site in January.

But Wembley Stadium insists there is no crisis. Its finance director, Roger Maslin, says: "We are committed to producing the stadium on time and on budget, and that's exactly what we're going to do. We are in regular discussions with Multiplex and we've had an absolute assurance from them that we're on time."

The industrial dispute held up steel deliveries for up to two weeks, he says, but added: "There's plenty of steel to get on with the work".

Mr Maslin says Multiplex's completion of the Wembley arch is important because it was the stage of the project that carried the highest degree of risk.

The raising of the arch was celebrated in a ceremony attended by Tony Blair and David Beckham earlier this month.

"That was, in a sense, a triumphant arrival that has put Wembley back on the map," Mr Maslin says. "It's a highly visible shape on the London skyline."

The sale of corporate hospitality packages, Wembley's chief income stream (it takes 100 per cent of the profits on these regardless of who is organising an event at the stadium), is going so well that the company may even refinance its £426m debt as early as next year. "We are delighted with ticket sales," Mr Maslin says. "All of the boxes have been reserved and one-third of the seats have been sold."

The stadium gets the bulk of its income from the 17,000 corporate seats and boxes, and a percentage of the ticket sales of more than 70,000 ordinary seats, the price of which is determined by the sporting bodies that hold events at the stadium . Boxes are bought for an average of eight years and the seats for 10 years. "It's akin to a guaranteed income. You're looking at long-term revenues," Mr Maslin says.

"What that means is that in the next six to nine months, given the level of interest I've had so far, we should be in a strong position to refinance in a capital markets transaction such as a bond. It all depends on the markets."

Mr Maslin, who came on board in 1999 just before the Football Association bought the stadium with £160m of public funds, has helped steer the company to a position where it has sufficient financial backing. That wasn't the case in 2000, something he blames partly on the economic climate and partly on a lack of support from "various parties". The implication is a lack of political support, though he won't put it like that. "There was a lot of uncertainty, which made it hard to get banks to back it," is all he will concede.

Eventually, German bank WestLB agreed to underwrite the project and syndicated the loan to a host of banks, with Lloyds TSB and Barclays coming on board recently as well.

Less confident of the stadium's progress is Nigel Currie, a director at sports marketing firm GEM. He believes the project is "definitely going to be delayed".

"They've sold a few packages but the longer-term marketing has been held up quite a lot."

While the arch has helped generate interest, he reckons that sales of corporate seats are likely to ease off until the stadium nears completion.

But Mr Maslin says he has "a business plan that any finance director would die for". The stadium, once completed, will be profitable immediately; "with a £426m loan, you need to have a reasonably solid cashflow". The loans have to be cleared within 13 years but he expects them to be paid well before that.

Mr Maslin is also keen for the stadium to become more closely involved with London's bid for the 2012 Olympics, and it hopes to a contender for the 2007 Champions' League final.

But for now, he will just be happy to get the stadium finished by early 2006 and sell all the remaining corporate seats. And if that goes to plan, despite all the rows and delays, football fans should at last be heading to Wembley come FA Cup Final day once again.

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