Builders doubtful over England's Wembley debut

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The Independent Online

For the image-makers of the new Wembley, the disclosure that Hungary had been lined up as England's opposition in the first football international at the £757m stadium was to have been a rare good news day.

But within hours the fixture was thrown into doubt when the Australian construction company Multiplex gave a further twist to the tortuous saga of the national stadium by giving a downbeat statement yesterday to the stock exchange in Australia.

The company said there was "material risk" of not meeting deadlines for the stadium to be ready for the FA Cup final on 13 May next year - just two weeks before England are due to take on Hungary. Multiplex, which warned shareholders that profits would be 77 per cent down on forecasts, with Wembley largely to blame, added that its losses on the project could rise to £87m.

The company said that between the end of January and the end of March there would be a gradual handover of all works essential to staging a match, leaving sufficient time for health and safety checks. But a spokesman added: "There remains a material risk that these dates will not be achieved and the stadium will not be available for the FA Cup final."

The Wembley project has been dogged by trouble since its conception in the early 1990s. First the site had to beat a rival claim from Birmingham. Then, a plan to incorporate a running track was scrapped after pressure from football bosses - despite lottery money being granted on that basis. In the building stage there have also been a series of setbacks. Multiplex agreed with the Football Association a fixed price for the job and then saw steel prices rise sharply. Other costs borne by Multiplex include the 13 months of litigation that followed a row with a steel contractor, Cleveland Bridge, whose successor Hollandia did not agree to a fixed-price contract.

Although the new Wembley's giant steel arch - inspired by the architect Norman Foster and standing at 133m - is already established among London's landmarks, much still needs to be done to make the 13 May deadline. The FA has put Cardiff's Millennium Stadium - the venue used for cup finals since Wembley was demolished four years ago - on standby.

Builders are considering delaying non-essential projects, such as fitting out office space, to complete the three concourses, the longest of which is 1,000m in circumference, fit roof panels and install the remaining 50,000 of the 90,000 seats.

Insiders believe that a more realistic opening date for the stadium is for the Charity Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser to the Premier League in August. By that time the FA may have lost the revenue from several potential sell-outs - as well as considerable face.

The FA insisted there was no panic, saying: "There is a critical construction plan in place and, as you would expect, that is being followed. There is certainly no fresh concern or panic at the FA today in light of the statement issued to the Australian stock exchange."

As well as domestic cup finals and England internationals, Wembley will be host to a rugby league final and a series of lucrative rock concerts with Bon Jovi - the last act at the old stadium - and the Rolling Stones already on the roster.

Saga of a stadium

* DECEMBER 1996: Wembley is chosen as the preferred site for a new national sporting venue, to replace the Empire Stadium

* SEPTEMBER 2000: Australian construction company Multiplex signs on to build a new stadium for up to £326.5m

* OCTOBER 2000: England lose 1-0 to Germany in the last game at the old Wembley

* SEPTEMBER 2002: Demolition of the old Wembley begins

* SEPTEMBER 2005: Leaked FA report shows officials think Wembley has a '50-50' chance of staging 2006 FA Cup final