By Simon Stone
WEMBLEY officials are adamant the new £757m stadium will be the ‘greatest in the world’ - when it is eventually opened.
FA chief executive Brian Barwick has finally brought the axe down on any hope this season’s FA Cup final could be staged at the stadium and refused to set a new opening date.
Given the speculation which has rumbled throughout the winter over whether the rebuilt stadium would be available as promised on May 13, it has correctly been pointed out the FA have no wish - or need - to back themselves into a corner a second time by confirming precisely when the ground will be available.
The Community Shield on August 13, or an England friendly three days later, still remain the most likely dates for Wembley to throw open its doors. But Barwick’s decision not to even speculate on such a scenario suggests there remains some doubt.
With 3,500 staff currently working on the project, constructors Multiplex remain optimistic the handover to the FA could still take place as planned on March 31.
At a cost of £1m a week in compensation once that deadline passes, the Australian company have no wish to drag the situation out any longer than they have to, given they have already lost substantial sums of the £757m fixed-price contract.
But, after a site visit with Wembley chief executive Michael Cunnah and Multiplex managing director Martin Todd, Barwick felt he had little alternative other than to order a sixth Millennium Stadium FA Cup final and also move England’s two pre-World Cup friendlies to Old Trafford, a decision that also triggered the Football League into switching their prestigious play-off games to Cardiff.
"Due to the magnitude of the FA Cup final, we are not prepared to compromise or take any risks on the stadium being unable to stage such a significant event," he said.
"Multiplex and Wembley National Stadium Limited remain committed to delivering the stadium at the earliest possible date but were unable to give us 100% certainty that the stadium will be completed in time for the FA Cup final."
Barwick reached his conclusion with reluctance, knowing it would just attract more negative publicity to a project which has been dogged by controversy since its inception six years ago.
Ironically, the move away from Wembley will allow the FA to take advantage of an expanded Old Trafford as Manchester United’s own redevelopment work will have been completed well before Hungary visit on May 30.
That match was agreed mainly because of the added poignancy of the Magyars being the first team to beat England at Wembley in 1953. Instead, the Eastern Europeans will play at the Theatre of Dreams, which will by then hold 76,000, just 14,000 below the capacity of the ‘new’ Wembley.
There are many who will view the latest development as yet another example of the stadium being nothing more than an expensive white elephant, which will hang heavily around the FA for years to come.
Yet those involved with the project remain enthusiastic about its completion, believing it will set the standard for new stadiums across the world.
"I am disappointed by this news," admitted Cunnah. "It is still too early to say exactly when the stadium will be open but the ultimate success of Wembley Stadium is not contingent on opening in time for the FA Cup final.
"Wembley will be the greatest stadium in the world and our priority now is to work with Multiplex to finish the stadium to the highest standards.
"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a world-class stadium and we are working together to ensure both the quality of the stadium’s facilities and the quality experience it offers our visitors."
The recent experience of both the Millennium Stadium and Old Trafford of holding major events will ensure the transition takes place without too many problems, although the Football League will have their fingers crossed the elements do not conspire against them.
A shift in venue means the Championship play-off final - dubbed the most lucrative single match in club football - will be held just 24 hours after rugby union’s showpiece Heineken Cup Final, raising the possibility of a match worth an estimated £20m being reduced to the lottery of taking place on a heavily churned-up pitch.
"We are relaxed about the situation," claimed Football League spokesman John Nagle.
"The pitch is being relaid before the FA Cup final anyway, so ours will only be the third match on it and should the weather go against us, there is also the option of closing the roof.
"It is not uncommon these days for rugby and football to be played on the same pitch and in this instance, we do not envisage any problems."