Owner and contractor embark on war of words over Wembley delay

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The farce surrounding the construction of Wembley Stadium escalated to new levels yesterday, as the Australian contractor, Multiplex, said it could not foresee the venue being ready before June next year - two years later than its originally proposed completion date.

The revelation sparked yet another war of words between the Australians and the stadium's owners, WNSL, who immediately tried to rubbish Multiplex's statement by suggesting the project could easily be finished by the end of the year - if only the contractors got their act together.

The fiasco has taken an increasingly nasty turn ever since it became clear in the spring that the venue would not be ready in time for the FA Cup Final in May. In the months since, the two sides have ramped up their public spat - both blaming the other side for the delay to completion.

While Multiplex claims it cannot finish its own work until WNSL has got going on a number of other projects, WNSL says it can't begin its own final programme of work until Multiplex has handed over the building.

Yesterday, it was Multiplex's turn to up the ante, antagonising WNSL's management by revealing it had commissioned an independent expert to determine a likely completion date for the project. "The analysis ... indicates that it is unlikely that the stadium will be able to hold a test event for 90,000 spectators before June 2007," it said. A significant date, as this would rule out next year's FA Cup Final being held at Wembley, ensuring red faces all round at the WNSL and the Football Association once again. One-nil to Multiplex.

WNSL angrily retorted by claiming Multiplex was deliberately confusing the reality of the pair's contract, but stopped short of guaranteeing that the stadium would definitely be ready for May. Hours later, the Football Association - of which WNSL is a subsidiary - also joined the brawl, issuing its own statement inferring there was little point in forcing Multiplex to lay down a timetable for completion, as it had so far "missed all key deadlines" anyway. One all - and who knows how much longer to play, or whether the struggle might yet end with a penalty shoot-out.

Only one side can be telling the truth about what is actually required to reach completion. Ultimately, if WNSL is correct that Multiplex can complete its work regardless of its own progress, then a handover should take place in the autumn - after which WNSL says it will need just three more months to prepare the stadium for operational use.

The Australian contractor is still waiting on some 10,000 seats (after its seating sub-contractor went bust), and has some additional work to complete on the roof and drainage. However, it is not clear why it needs to wait on WNSL to get on and finish this.

While both issued lengthy statements yesterday, to outline their cases, neither seemed to bring any great clarity to the debate. "Our contract with the client clearly sets out the criteria required for us to achieve 'Practical Completion'," a Multiplex spokesperson said yesterday. "As WNSL have failed in their obligation to commence certain works critical to this criteria, the position has worsened with another month passing. We still have no clear idea from WNSL about when they intend to begin some of their works."

WNSL has several pieces of electrical and communication infrastructure to install - such as radio and phone systems - yet it is equally unclear why it cannot begin on this work until Multiplex has moved out. "The contract with Multiplex has two critical future milestones which Multiplex have deliberately confused," said WNSL's chief executive Michael Cunnah. "Multiplex is required to hand WNSL a completed stadium which is defined in the contract as 'Practical Completion'.

"WNSL then has to work with Multiplex to finish certain works and to hold the various test events which will enable the safety certificate to be obtained and achieve 'Operational Completion', the point at which a fully-functioning stadium is delivered."

Any clearer? Didn't think so.

The stakes are high on both sides. With the project running some £183m over budget, Multiplex is now embroiled in the early stages of a legal battle with WNSL to recoup some of its losses. The Australians claim that the main reason for the project being late, and over-budget, is that the stadium's owners made up to 600 design changes during the construction process, throwing the work off-course.

As a quoted company, Multiplex has an unforgiving shareholder base who will be seriously unimpressed if the business does not recoup some or all of its losses on the project. Furthermore, it has a professional reputation to restore. While Multiplex was Australia's darling six years ago, delivering projects for Sydney's 2000 Olympics on time and on budget, it has suffered some serious reputational damage due to the Wembley fiasco.

WNSL alleges that while Multiplex has had some bad luck with its sub-contractors - one going bust, another launching a strike - it believes there has also been poor project management. The wrong sort of concrete under the end of one arch, not enough steel on the site, problems with the drains ... the list goes on ...

Multiplex, however, would say that these were minor setbacks and it was, in fact, WNSL's indecision which derailed the project. One former Wembley executive recently went on the record stating that the project's failure was down to WNSL's management being "scared of getting it wrong". Hence, no decisions were ever taken. The same executive went on to work on the construction of Arsenal's Emirates stadium, which was delivered on budget by the British contractors McAlpine.

The FA and management of WNSL are clearly keen for none of these allegations to stick. Given the FA's recently ridiculed handling of the appointment of the England manager, not to mention the string of sex scandals that swept the board a few years ago, it is keen not to be blamed for yet another farce.

WNSL is also determined to deliver the project on budget, given the storm which blew up around its selection of Multiplex five years ago. Ken Bates - who was chairman of Wembley at the time, and responsible for appointing Multiplex - was accused of giving preferential treatment to the Australians because they were also building the west stand at Chelsea, where Mr Bates was chairman. Mr Bates has denied there was a conflict, claiming he plumped for Multiplex due to their willingness to take on the project for a fixed price.

WNSL and Multiplex have strong motives for trying to make thefiasco out to be the fault of the other party - and a protracted court case looks inevitable. However, it is unclear as yet whether this will have the ability to further delay the opening of the stadium. If Multiplex digs its heels in, and continues to insist that it cannot hand over the venue until WNSL has completed its own work and safety checks, then the two sides could be locked in a stalemate for many months.

But if that happens, the Government may well step in.

Into extra time

September 2000: Multiplex signs a deal to build the new stadium for a maximum cost of £326.5m.

October 2000: Germany beat England 1-0 in a World Cup 2002 qualifier, the last competitive fixture played at the old stadium.

May 2002: The FA announces the signing of a loan agreement with German bank WestLB.

September 2002: Work starts.

January 2004: One worker is killed and another seriously injured as scaffolding collapses.

August 2004: After 200 men are sacked in a dispute over working hours and breaks, builders on the site strike.

August 2005: The FA confirms Cardiff's Millennium Stadium is booked as a back-up venue for the 2006 FA Cup Final in case Wembley is not ready. The construction division of Multiplex posts full-year losses of £26.1m compared with £30.8m profits in 2004. Multiplex describes the figures as "very disappointing".

January 2006: Construction is again delayed as Multiplex says that the wrong type of concrete has been used in the foundations.

February 2006: Multiplex tells the Australian stock exchange Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, not Wembley, will host the 2006 FA Cup Final.

May 2006: Wembley is scheduled to host FA Cup Final. Again, the final is played in Cardiff.

June 2006: Take That concerts, originally scheduled for Wembley, are moved to Milton Keynes.

1 August: Multiplex warns that Wembley may not be ready until October 2007. WNSL insists stadium will host 2007 FA Cup Final.

Research by Tom Greene