Michael Cunnah: From twin towers to 2,000 toilets - what a relief the new Wembley is taking shape

Costing £750m plus to build, the new stadium had better be good. It will be, its boss assures Abigail Townsend
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The Independent Online

Michael Cunnah, the chief executive of Wembley Stadium, is a man with toilets on his mind. Quite aside from the unplumbed model in a mock-up stadium box at the Football Association's Soho Square headquarters, which was once rather unfortunately used by an unsuspecting visitor, he is particularly excited about the 2,000 loos being installed at the "Venue of Legends" in north-west London.

"Everyone's got a terrible story about the old stadium, and they are justified," he admits. The new design will see the stadium divided into self-sufficient segments, removing the need to wander aimlessly in search of refreshments - or queue 20 minutes to use the toilet. When finished, it will seat 90,000 fans, have 160 boxes (seating between eight and 20 people) and, says Cunnah, some of the best hospitality in the world. Transport links to the stadium, universally recognised as dire, are also being improved.

Cunnah is trying to create a stadium that will be in keeping with the iconic status of the site. It is about building a showpiece theatre, primarily for English football, and he talks eagerly about hosting international games and the 2007 Champions League final (he has already written to Uefa declaring an interest). In his opinion, along with the 2,000 loos, the transformation is nothing less than Wembley deserves.

"The great thing about Wembley is you only play there if your team's in the Champions League final or if you have made it into the national team," raves Cunnah. "Even Pele, the best player that's ever been, his one regret was that he never played at Wembley."

But then, at a cost of £757m, £160m of which is public money, the new Wembley had better be good. The sums involved seem particularly exorbitant when compared with another stadium taking shape over in north London. Arsenal's new home at the 60-acre Ashburton Grove site will seat 60,000 and include a casino as well as housing. The club is spending £357m, which also covers the compulsory purchase of buildings in the area, relocating local businesses, developing transport links and constructing a recycling plant. While Wembley will have 30,000 more seats, it will cost £400m more.

Cunnah insists the comparison with Arsenal is misleading. "You have to break it down to make sure you're comparing apples with apples," he says, pointing out that Wembley, unlike Arsenal, had to buy the existing stadium before any redevelopment could get under way. It is also a national stadium and needs to be bigger, and that is where the costs really ratchet up.

There is, though, one flaw in his argument, and that's whether England needs a national stadium in the first place. Since Wembley closed its doors, club grounds have successfully hosted both international and European matches. Then there's the small matter of the country already having a major sporting venue in the form of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Irrelevant, says Cunnah. For a start, it's Welsh, so hardly an ideal home for English football. He adds: "It's a fine stadium, and the FA has enjoyed its time having Cup Finals down there. England has been successful taking football out to the provinces, too.

"But there's no doubt about it, having Wembley as the showpiece adds something to English football. It gives more people the opportunity to see matches. People are also ready to come back to the capital."

Although a devoted fan of his home team, Sunderland, Cunnah has spent his career in finance departments and has only worked in football since 1998, when he joined the FA as finance director.

He become involved with Wembley when he oversaw the FA's £150m acquisition of the stadium in March 1999. Then, when initial attempts to finance the project collapsed, it fell to the FA to sort out the mess and Cunnah become more hands-on.

That is not to say, however, that he sees himself as a project manager or, heaven forbid, a bean counter: "I'm chief executive of a company that happens to be being built at the moment and afterwards I have to run the thing. I'm not a specialist contractor."

He refuses to discuss how much he is being paid to look after this national treasure. "I don't really want to talk about that. It's my business." Neither is he keen to go into the financial details of the contracts with the Australian contractor, Multiplex, which built Sydney's Olympic stadium, and IMG, the sports agency that is handling the sale of boxes. All Cunnah will say of Multiplex is that there are incentives to finish early.

What he is happy to talk about is the money coming into the project. So far, around £150m worth of boxes and executive seats have been sold to customers and companies worldwide. Boxes are on sale from between £60,000 and £210,000 a year, while the 16,000 executive seats are available on a 10-year licence that costs between £3,900 and £16,000 (a yearly season ticket, costing an additional £1,350 to £5,450 for 12 key events, has to be purchased separately).

How much Joe Public will pay is not yet clear. Cunnah says he does not know, as it will be down to the hosts of individual events - such as the FA or the Rugby Football Union - to set prices. Wembley makes its money from the "rent" paid by these hosts and from the hospitality. Pop concerts will be another revenue stream.

As with most things in football, not everything is running smoothly. Wembley has always had its fair share of controversy, and there are no signs of that changing. For a start, a question mark hovers over how much of a role Wembley will play in London's 2012 Olympic Games bid. The likelihood is that it will be used for just two events, the men's and women's football finals. While it can be converted into an athletics stadium - a condition of part of its £120m lottery funding - the process takes weeks and costs millions. Understandably, the amount of public money already spent on Wembley means questions are being asked about why more money must be shelled out on another stadium for the capital.

The design also has a problem. A 1,700 ton, 133-metre showpiece arch was due to be raised in early spring, but the discovery of faults within the structure has delayed that until this summer.

Yet Cunnah remains thoroughly upbeat about his showpiece stadium, so much so that he is bringing forward its refinancing (around £462m is bank debt, held in the main by WestLB, Lehman Brothers and Société Générale). It was originally planned for 2007, allowing the stadium time to open before shaking up the finance via a bond issue. But interest rates are creeping back up, and Cunnah now plans to start the process early.

That the stadium will open is pretty much guaranteed. Cunnah's toughest task will be to make sure that it is a success. In other words, his job now is to prove that, after all the controversy and hype, the new Wembley can live up to the legend.


Born: 1958

Education: Aston University, Birmingham.

Career (first job, 1974): started out working for National Coal Board.

1982-84: Internal auditor, Unilever.

1984-87: Financial controller, United Medical Enterprises.

1987-96: Various jobs at Guiness, including vice-president of finance forthe group's Red Stripe Brewery.

1996-98: Corporate finance director, Coca-Cola Schweppes.

1998-2001: Finance director, Football Association.

Since 2001: Chief executive, Wembley National Stadium.