As billions of pounds have flooded into Premier League clubs, the majority of football fans are no longer happy to stand on an uncovered terrace with a lukewarm pie and plastic cup of Bovril at half-time. Manchester United is the latest club with big decisions to make about what next for its ageing stadium. So Dave Rogers asked the experts behind other iconic ground developments for their advice

Old Trafford

Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground since 1910, is the biggest club football stadium in the UK with a capacity of 74,140. But it is showing its age and has been overtaken in terms of facilities by sleeker, more modern rivals. So the club has hired consultants to evaluate the options

“They can’t help themselves.” A contractor is wincing as he reads aloud what Manchester United might do with its ageing Old Trafford ground. An LED pitch, a fanzone roof. “They have to make it complicated,” he sighs.

But he is not looking at a blueprint of what the club plans to do with its stadium right now, parts of which date back more than 100 years. He is looking at an article that appeared in a technology and culture magazine more than eight years ago, imagining how Old Trafford could enhance its atmosphere.

Executives had reportedly commissioned an acoustic engineer to look at improving the sound, so worried were they about the flat vibes at the Theatre of Dreams. In the absence of the official report, the magazine, Wired, went to go-to stadium architect Populous to ask what it reckoned might be done.

This time it’s for real. The club last month said it had hired a team of consultants, including Populous, to look at what to do with its 75,000-seat ground. It essentially boils down to two options: refurbish it or rebuild it.

If it is to be the latter, the job would immediately become the most high-profile construction scheme in the country, simply because of who the client is. To coin a phrase, what could possibly go wrong?

“Stadiums go wrong”, the contractor explains, “because they are unique designs and, typically, the design isn’t completed at the start. My advice to Manchester United would be this: design it right at the start, don’t rush it and take your time.”

wembley2 copy

Wembley Stadium opened several years late in 2007, four years after demolition of the previous stadium finally began. England played international matches at club grounds around the country and the FA Cup, and other finals were held in Cardiff 

Arguably, not since Wembley Stadium, completed in 2007 ahead of that year’s FA Cup final between Manchester United and eventual winners Chelsea, would a stadium project be the centrepiece of UK construction. For those with longer memories, the mention of stadium schemes evokes bust budgets, missed deadlines and egg on the industry’s face. 

Wembley, with its landmark arch, left Multiplex nursing a £250m bill. Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium is widely attributed as a factor in  helping to bring the once mighty John Laing  into the arms of O’Rourke for £1 following a £40m cost overrun. On the new Spurs stadium, as whizzy as it is, Mace ran into that age-old problem: it was late, eventually opening towards the end of the 2018/19 season when it had been planned to be ready at the start.

Other, smaller-scale jobs have suffered, too. The main stand at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, built by Carillion, may have only opened a few weeks late in 2016 but the delay was high-profile enough to make headlines and forced the club into the rescheduling of an early season fixture. In the late 1990s, Christiani & Nielsen, long since gone bust, ran into problems helping to build a new roof at Aston Villa’s ground.

>> Also read: Old Trafford dilemma: how six other major stadium projects fared

>> Consultants drafted in as Manchester United starts to look at Old Trafford revamp

Are stadium jobs, then, always destined to be a byword for problems? Not if you ask Sir Robert McAlpine project director Clare Gallagher. She worked on the Emirates stadium for Arsenal, opened in 2006, and later the 2012 main Olympic stadium – both regarded as beacons of success in an area fraught with woe.

“Getting the brief right in the first place is absolutely key,” she says. “If you change it during construction, it presents more challenges. It puts pressure on the budgets and times. 

“To get the budget right, you have to get the brief right. FM is absolutely key as well. Stadium security and safety have to be built in, so you have to get the end user involved in the process from the start.”

Arsenal construction

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was built at the same time as Wembley. In contrast to the many problems encountered at the national stadium, its construction was regarded as a beacon of success 

Gallagher, who was a senior engineer on the Arsenal project, adds: “The client knew what it wanted and communicated that. The brief was very clear from very early doors. We were all very much one team. All decisions were made in the interest of the project.”

Arsenal’s then manager, Arsene Wenger,  became involved too, especially with the layout of his office and the changing rooms. “He asked for a column in the changing room to be moved,” she recalls. “He wanted to be able to walk in and have eye-to-eye contact with everyone. So, the column got removed.”

She says she preferred working on the Emirates over the 2012 stadium. “If a decision needed to be made, it could be made there and then. With a government project [like the 2012 stadium] it’s a bit more like running it by committee. You can’t get as quick a decision-making process. It doesn’t happen on a public project.”

Arsenal’s ground was being built at the same time as Wembley. At the start of 2006, the national stadium was given a 70% chance of opening that May by Martin Tidd, then Multiplex’s UK managing director. But he cautioned to a crowd of journalists, brought up to check out progress at the venue, that for that to happen everything had to work “like a Swiss watch”.

Despite the seats starting to go in, mainly because it looked good for invited television news crews, it seemed to some that the job would not be ready that year. And that proved to be the case as work dragged on to the following spring. “Credit to Multiplex, they could have walked away, but they got it finished,” is the assessment of one person who worked on the job.

They’re very emotive from the fans’ point of view and in terms of the local community. Everyone has an opinion on them

Jon Leach, sports sector lead, Aecom

He adds: “Commercial buildings go wrong, like stadiums – but the difference is is that one is like Lego and the other is like ‘design the Lego and see if it works’. Commercial buildings are like boxes. They are known. Stadiums are much more bespoke. If Wembley was just a ring and a few columns holding up the roof, would you remember it?”

John Rhodes is HOK’s design director and the architecture practice’s lead on its sports and events work. He has worked on schemes such as a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons NFL side and a refurbishment of the venue for another American football team, the Miami Dolphins.

He says the tribalism of supporters in the UK puts more pressure on jobs than there already is. “If you have the right design team and the right contract, there is no reason why a stadium should be any more of a challenge than other jobs.

“But these projects have an end date which you can’t shift. It puts pressure on progress; they’re in the public eye. There are lots of eyes on them. When Spurs’ [stadium] was late, there were lots of Arsenal fans pointing that out.”

Aecom’s sports sector lead Jon Leach, who has worked on schemes for the Rio 2016 Olympics as well as the Zaha Hadid Architects-designed Al Janoub stadium, formerly the Al Wakrah stadium, for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar at the end of this year, adds: “They’re very emotive from the fans’ point of view and in terms of the local community. Everyone has an opinion on them. They are very high-profile. People have pride in their club and they want to have pride in their stadium.”

Rhodes says Manchester United will face similar scrutiny and warns that refurbishment – which could seem to be an easier option – is fraught with difficulty. “You’re carrying out work on a live site. You only have a limited time period over the summer when you have ‘clean air’ to get on.”

One major contractor agrees. “Refurb is harder than new-build. You never know what you’re going to find. You then have arguments about what was foreseen and what wasn’t foreseen.

“Should a competent contractor have foreseen such and such? It then starts to spiral. You fall out with the QSs and the client and, all of a sudden, battle lines are drawn.” 

Refurbishment will also only get a club so far, Leach adds. A stadium is seen as a key revenue generator for the future. No longer are they places where fans turn up on Saturday afternoon and come back two weeks later. What to do with it when a football match is not being played?

People expect more than a dodgy pie and a warm beer. For them it’s an experience; we live in an experiential world

John Rhodes, design director, HOK 

“You need clear decision-making about what the stadium needs to be,” adds Leach. “Is it mixed-use, residential, education, hotels, leisure? If you pay for a piecemeal approach, you end up with a compromised product.”

And, in the battle between the sofa and being at the actual ground, clubs have to offer more on match days. “People expect more than a dodgy pie and a warm beer,” says Rhodes. “For them it’s an experience; we live in an experiential world.

“There are about nine levels of premium from general admission and that little bit extra to a product – like a chef’s table. There’s also a move back to safe standing that needs to be factored in, and technology is a big thing. People expect wifi. To be in that kind of arms race, you need a premium offer.”

He reckons that Manchester United would not  get much change out of £500m if it went for a rebuild. “If they want all the bells and whistles,” he adds.  He thinks a rebuild could be done in two years,  but it could be tight. “I’d say 30 months would be better. Three years, you should be able to do it [a new-build] in that.”

But he says that football clubs, especially underperforming ones like Manchester United, who have just racked up their lowest points total in Premier League history, have to weigh up competing issues on the pitch. “If you need to invest in new players, can you afford to invest in a new stadium?”

Spurs old and new

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium taking shape in 2018 beside the club’s former ground at White Hart Lane

The Spurs stadium was expected to cost around £380m but is believed to have ended up costing at least twice that. Multiplex pulled out of the bidding, worried about signing up for a fixed price when it had concerns over the roof – the key part of any stadium design.

In the end, Mace carried out the work under a construction management contract. “The design continued to be enhanced after Mace got it,” remembers one firm who worked on the job. “It would have been carnage if it was the main contractor route. On jobs like this, you have to get the right design and the right budget.”

Under the deal, Spurs signed up to play its home games at Wembley while the new ground was built. The club ended up spending nearly two seasons there and, in the latter part of 2018, the Spurs website became a bulletin board for how late the job was running. Clients on office jobs, for example, never feel compelled to put out statements on how late such and such a job is running.

“With stadiums, there is scope creep, the brief changes,” Aecom’s Leach offers by way of explanation. “These are once-in-a-generation investments. The business cases for them are trying to look 20, 30 years into the future.

“They need strong leadership on the client side, a clear vision from a small group of stakeholders. They need to put together a really robust feasibility study and concept design.”

Multiplex and its steelwork contractor on Wembley, Cleveland Bridge, which last year slipped into administration, famously fell out while the job was still ongoing. When, in 2006, the two firms headed to the old Technology and Construction Court  for a High Court trial over who owed what, the stadium was still more than a year from completion and very much a national topic of conversation. 

As such, it helped to fuel an unprecedented media interest in a legal bust-up over what was, in essence, a rather dry, technical battle over the interpretation of a contract. Multiplex said that Cleveland Bridge walked off the job; Cleveland Bridge said it was thrown off.

Nonetheless, on the trial’s first day, newspaper reporters jostled with their counterparts from the trade press to grab a spot in the temporary media gallery at the back of the court, while camera crews and photographers hung around on Fetter Lane outside to capture some of the main combatants.

Not every stadium job ends in a media frenzy like this. But their newsworthiness means that they will attract more attention when things go wrong. When, in August 2018, Building revealed that faulty wiring was behind the delay at the Spurs stadium, the news was splashed across the back pages of national newspapers.

Learning from experience

Here’s a thought: how about those football clubs thinking about rebuilding their grounds put together a brains trust on how to do it? 

“They need to speak to people who’ve done it before,” says one firm. “Football clubs tend to be one-off clients. How much do they really know about building stadiums?” He adds: “If you had a non-executive advisory with people who’ve done this before, imagine how many problems you could solve?” 

Sir Robert McAlpine’s Clare Gallagher says stadiums have been described as “the cathedrals of the future”, so it would make sense, surely, to call on those for advice who have enjoyed the best of times and endured the worst. 

Another firm adds: “Clubs should talk to those who have taken on the risk and have the scars. It would be good to talk to those who lost, find out how they lost and why – and how you could prevent it on your job.”

So, getting the brief right at the start is critical. Some weeks into the trial between Multiplex and Cleveland Bridge, Mr Justice Jackson asked Cees van Rooijen, the commercial manager of replacement contractor Hollandia, how much the steelwork contract had cost. He was told around £180m so far. The original contract with Cleveland Bridge was supposed to be for £60m. One person involved in Wembley remembers that the amount of steel Cleveland Bridge priced was around 17,000 tonnes, but a third more than that was needed in the end.

No doubt Manchester United will have been told all of this by its team of consultants. One contractor adds: “If you don’t have the right budget, you are going to get second division subcontractors. Poorly performing subcontractors will hold up the good ones.”

See also>> Old Trafford dilemma: how six other major stadium projects fared

Whatever Manchester United decides to do, the club can probably rest assured that the appointed contractor will finish the job no matter how bad things are. Multiplex stuck to its task, finished Wembley and rebuilt its reputation. John Laing, all those years ago, did so at Cardiff too. 

A refurbishment is quite challenging. A stadium needs to be about the fan experience. You have to consider the sight lines, the acoustics, technology. Is there a draught? Are the seats comfy enough?

Clare Gallagher, project director, Sir Robert McAlpine

“Laing decided to finish it and maintain the reputation of the brand,” says one boss who worked on the job, which met its opening deadline – the 1999 Rugby World Cup that autumn which included hosting the final – by the skin of its teeth. It seems washing your hands of a high-profile job like a stadium is far worse than haemorrhaging cash on it.

Manchester United has much to ponder, then, in the coming weeks and months – not least where it will play its home games if the club decides on a rebuild. Barcelona, for example, is relocating to the Olympic stadium in the Montjuic area of the city for 2023/24 season while work is carried out on the Nou Camp. 

But where would United play in the event of a rebuild? Could United really contemplate playing its home games at city rivals Manchester City? More to the point, could its supporters?

For McAlpine’s Clare Gallagher, a rugby fan, there probably is only one option that a club like United can choose. “A refurbishment is quite challenging. A stadium needs to be about the fan experience. You have to consider the sight lines, the acoustics, technology. Is there a draught? Are the seats comfy enough?

“If you want to have the kudos of the Emirates or the Tottenham stadium, a rebuild would be the preferred option to achieve that level that those stadiums have delivered.”