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Pitch battles curse football

AGENDA

There's a lot of demand for new and upgraded football grounds but, given the grief that some contractors have experienced on such jobs, firms should think carefully before taking on such work, writes Tom Cullen

FANS OF Southampton Football Club are experiencing surreal times.The team lies fifth from bottom, has sacked its manager just four games into the new season and is looking to a rugby union coach to turnaround its dismal performances.

The more superstitious Saints fans put the misery down to one thing - their ground is cursed. During the construction of the £24 million St Mary's stadium, or so the story goes, one naughty subbie - a fan of bitter rivals Portsmouth - buried his team's strip beneath the pitch, casting a hoodoo on Southampton's new home.

Contractor Barr will be happy the curse hit the club post-construction. St Mary's is one of very few modern-day football stadium projects that was built with relatively few problems.

New build projects and even ground extensions are becoming, to use a football cliche, potential banana skins to contractors. If football schemes continue on this downhill slope they may soon have as much appeal as the reeling tram industry.

Glancing at current projects there seems to be no end to the turmoil.Wembley has been hit by a series of contractual problems, while Arsenal's Ashburton Grove has seen steel erectors relocated to Heathrow's T5 following a pay dispute.

And landowners are once again contesting compulsory purchase orders in the High Court for the commercial element of the huge £357 million development, which Sir Robert McAlpine is building.

In the north-west, Carillion waits while Liverpool's new stadium appears to be in abeyance until a row between chairman David Moores and millionaire businessman Steve Morgan is over.Following the collapse of a deal with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Reds have been reliant on the Redrow founder's proposed £70 million cash injection to assist the stadium project.

Mr Morgan and Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, are now also at loggerheads.Mr Morgan would only say: 'The two sides had failed to agree on how the £70 million investment would be split between the club and shareholders.'

Across to Stanley Park and neighbours Everton are equally unsure as to the future of their proposed stadium move. Having been turned down by their friends in red on a proposed ground share they are awaiting the outcome of their own boardroom battle.

But perhaps the best example of a cursed stadium project is outside the Premiership.Cast an eye over to the relocated Wimbledon, now known as MK Dons.

Following six months of negotiation between the club and Alfred McAlpine, blueprints are hanging precariously over the waste bin.With the contractor's estimate coming in at almost £10 million over the club's budget, Alfred McAlpine has proposed a radical redesign with all plans being scrapped - a move that would require a reapplication for planning permission.The club has a vision that is not compatible with McAlpine's figures. No matter how many times its estimators punch in the numbers they cannot hit the £35 million fee the MK Dons are willing to pay for the 30,000-seat complex.

One insider said: 'Times have changed in football ground construction.A whole host of individuals have different financial interests now. At Milton Keynes, price wasn't immediately recognised by the club and it was shocked when McAlpine's cost came in over their budget. People are tugging and pulling in different directions. Historically football stadiums were used once a week and, believe it or not, they were used for people to play and watch football.Not anymore.'

How true.Nowadays you can check into a hotel room at a footie ground;

you can lose your replica shirt at the built-in casino or do your weekly shop at the attached supermarket. Stadiums are home to banquets, conferences and gymnasiums. Chelsea even has its own village.

If it's not the club, it's the architect. HOK has designed the Milton Keynes bowl so that each seat has 1.8 sq m of space.The source added: 'That's not viable on the space available, the capacity desired and the funds at hand.'

If it's not the architect it's the funding. Laing O'Rourke, the contractor charged with building Coventry City's new stadium is on site and well into the £60 million project, but not before time.The scheme, originally named Arena 2000, had been close to collapse when Portuguese bank Banco Espirito Santo withdrew support following a row with the council over who would guarantee it. Last-minute council funds eventually saved the project from being canned.

One veteran estimator of stadia projects said: 'Not so long ago the sexiest thing a chairman would ask for was a club shop.Now they demand something iconic. Something unique.And with these things come problems.'

And plans for the new Milton Keynes stadium are certainly unique.The club and architect are asking Alfred McAlpine to build an aerofoil roof that appears to be floating. It is a concept untried in this country, forcing McAlpine to look abroad for specialist subcontractors who can handle the job.

And if it's not the cash it's the planning. Brighton and Hove Albion sit patiently after the Deputy Prime Minister re-opened the inquiry into possible sites for the club's new ground.The Seagulls, who nearly went bust a few years ago, have spent £3 million already on plans to build the 23,000-seat complex in Falmer on the outskirts of the city and contractors interested in the project must be as patient as the club.Club chief executive Martin Perry said the scheme 'faced huge jeopardy' as it sits in the hands of John Prescott.

It is with this time that contractors could quite wisely think long and hard about bidding the scheme, even if it is given the nod. Some industry sources question the sense of Alfred McAlpine's decision to climb into bed with the MK Dons.

One said: 'Stadia no longer have any bearing on club status or success.

You don't have to be a genius to see that building a 30,000-seat stadium for a club that is only taking 4,000 spectators a week creates financial question marks.There could well prove to be problems further down the line.Non-Premiership clubs just don't have the money any more but the ambition has not disappeared along with the resources.'

Building entire stadia from scratch is also a relatively new approach. Expanding grounds was a far more attractive system in the past.Alfred McAlpine turned a dour looking Molineux, home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, into a 30,000-seat stadium by redeveloping three stands in three years at a cost of just over £20 million.

Sometimes expansion is not always possible of course.Many grounds - like Anfield and Highbury are slap-bang in the middle of tight residential areas and expansion is not always viable.Try telling that to Nottingham Forest.

The construction of their West Bridgford End seemed cursed from the outset with one single homeowner refusing to sell his property.The result was the construction of a bizarre stand which is both two-tiered and one-tiered to account for the space that the owner refused to sell.

So why do things often go wrong with football grounds? One builder sighed: 'Deadlines.The thing about football stadia is you are hugely restricted by deadlines. Every job must be complete by a certain date - often the start of a new season - and that is under no circumstances flexible.The problem here is that not only does the contractor and the club know this, so do the workers and so do the press.'

Wembley is a case in point.Steel workers currently manning the picket line know all too well that Multiplex has a deadline to hit. Despite Hollandia insisting the completion date will not be effected by steelwork hold-ups, it has certainly far from helped.And if it is not the steel guys who will delay completion, could it soon be the sparks, the brickies or the chippies?

The source continued: 'Football stadia are inevitably high-profile.On these jobs, the workers hold the cards and the press are circling for dispute.'

With stadium schemes causing huge construction headaches, what does the future hold? There will no doubt be a constant flow of new build football projects.Clubs coming up through the ranks will always need extensions, refurbishments or even entirely new grounds. Sheffield Wednesday is about to look to the market for a huge revamp of its iconic Hillsborough Ground - but will the builders be there?

One veteran football ground estimator admitted: 'I, for one, am seriously questioning whether I ever want to be involved in another football ground project again. It's just not worth the aggro.'

One scheme that will go ahead is the new home of Portsmouth Football Club, along with the Pompey Village residential complex. Barr, the firm that built St Mary's along the coast remember, will be carrying out the £100 million work later this year with completion scheduled for the 2006/07 season.

Southampton shirt anyone?