Bob Stubbs, the hard man who spiked Zaha Hadid's Cardiff opera house, is bringing his poker-playing skills to bear as chief executive of the National Stadium. And with struggles with government, council and consultants in the offing, it looks like he'll need them all.
This week sees the publication of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's select committee report on staging international sporting events. One key issue it addresses is whether the new National Stadium can host Olympic-standard athletics events as well as top football matches.

The report draws on evidence presented on 15 April by the two men in charge of delivering the stadium – Chelsea FC chairman Ken Bates and Bob Stubbs, who are respectively the chairman and chief executive of Wembley National Stadium Ltd.

If the committee has taken any notice of Stubbs, it will question why Wembley has to provide a running track at all, when the planned infrastructure is not up to hosting the Olympic Games, World or European Athletics Championships.

Stubbs' point is: why have a world-class football venue married to a second division athletics venue? He argues that sight lines for football are compromised by the need to provide room for the running track. And the stadium must incorporate a track – it was a condition of its £120m lottery grant. This means that expensive retractable seating will have to be installed, all for a running track that may never be used for a major event.

Bates and Stubbs left the select committee in no doubt that football is its priority. This is not football fascism – Stubbs is not even a football supporter – but plain business sense.

Stubbs says if a running track (or space for one) has to be provided, why doesn't the government back a serious Olympic bid to make it all worthwhile?

The 44-year-old Londoner says: "Blair or Prescott has to say 'we are going for the 2012 Olympics and Wembley will be the focus of our bid'. If nobody is going to take this opportunity to stage the Olympics – which basically means doing a major land acquisition around Wembley in one form or another – why are we building a stadium capable of taking the Olympics? We are not going to be thanked by Joe Public if spectators are pushed 40 yards further back because of athletics events that are never going to be staged."

Deadlines, blackmail and poker

The delay in exchanging contracts with Wembley plc, which finally happened in January after two years of negotiation, has piled pressure on the project timetable.

But Stubbs has made it clear that the stadium will not be held to ransom over what he regards as extraneous obligations. "If the athletics authorities want to try to stage the 2003 World Championships at the National Stadium, those demands, if they come, will have to be funded by a third party."

The local council is also putting the squeeze on Stubbs. Brent wants £30m worth of planning gain to transform the area into a destination worthy of the Olympics, and the timetable allows it to exert leverage. Stubbs instructed architect Foster and Partners/HOK+Lobb to start detailed design last month, and changing it will not be easy. He hopes to submit a planning application to Brent in October 1999 with a view to getting assent by March 2000 – and March 2000 is the same date that FIFA will decide the venue for the 2006 World Cup.

Stubbs is expecting trouble: "If you look at some of the big projects that had a given day to open by – Jubilee Line Extension, Millennium Dome, Limehouse Link, Cardiff Arms Park – always a ransom demand comes over them. If you have to be open by a certain date, you tend to be over the barrel when it comes to other people making demands."

He is also prepared to meet any threat from Brent head-on. "The board is united that we are not going to be held to ransom by Brent.

Most of these projects get done because one or two bloody-minded people just get it done. You can look for consensus and we will still be talking about this in 10 years

If we have to, we'll go to appeal and we'll win. What we'll lose in the process is probably the World Cup and the World Athletics Championship. So, effectively, Brent will be holding the country and the government to ransom."

So, how is Stubbs going to keep the massive project on track? "Most of these projects get done because there are one or two bloody-minded people who just get it done. With the dome, Heseltine and Mandelson just drove it through. I think Ken [Bates] and myself are just about the right people to do it. You can go around looking for consensus and committee-style management, and we will still be talking about this in 10 years' time."

And Stubbs is not out of his league. As chief executive of the then English National Stadium Development Company, he is credited with driving the deal to purchase the stadium from Wembley plc for £103m.

The FA was so impressed with his style that when it bought ENSDC in January, it asked him to stay on as chief executive of its successor, Wembley National Stadium Ltd.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Stubbs, who clearly has nerves of steel at the negotiating table, is a mean poker player. As a third-year maths student at University College, London, in 1974, he lost £1000 on one poker card. But by the time he graduated, he had won enough back from his wealthy Middle Eastern card-playing contemporaries to buy and furnish a flat. "Poker at that level is a lot like business," says Stubbs, his usual blank expression breaking into a wry smile.

On the business side of construction, Stubbs' reputation as a hard-nosed operator dates back to the mid-1980s.

After a stint as finance director of London Docklands Development Corporation, he joined accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward to set up an economic development consultancy arm. In 1996, he and a partner bought out the consultancy, retaining the BDO Stoy Hayward name.

Lottery operator

As a consultant, Stubbs has tested the business cases of many of the biggest lottery projects, including the Millennium Dome, Cardiff Bay Opera House, the Welsh Rugby Stadium and the Nottingham Ice Rink. "I was the person who famously rejected the Cardiff Bay Opera House – according to [opera house trust chairman] Lord Crickhowell," he says.

Stubbs has no qualms about identifying himself with a decision that roused opprobrium of the architectural world. "A lot of those big projects I would call design-led. Often, what you see is an architectural concept which may be a brilliant building, but actually may be overdesigned, overscoped, too expensive or difficult to function.

"A lot of these projects start from the wrong position which is that we are building a building, not a business. They forget that they have to run it profitably for 50 years."

How does this resolutely commercial approach square with the creative aspirations of Wembley's architectural dream team of Foster and HOK+Lobb ? Stubbs' loaded reply, "they know they have got a client", is typical of his no-nonsense approach.

Architects don’t know anything about operational issues in buildings. If you don’t have a management team on board, the architect makes assumptions. I am not saying they are completely useless. But if they are 75% right, it doesn’t help us

"Architects don't know anything about operational issues in buildings. If you don't have a management team on board, the architect makes assumptions: I guess what you want is this or that. I am not saying they are completely useless. But if they are 75% right, it doesn't help us. And architects will never be 100% right."

For the past month, Wembley National Stadium has been meeting with the design team twice a day. And it sounds as though the architects, which may be novated to the contractor, are having a testing time.

Stubbs says: "A stadium is basically a stadium. A bowl is a bowl. I know the architects have done a lot of theory about the geometry and the sight lines and all the rest of it and they have a good handle on that. But actually once you get up to 90 000 seats, the variations in terms of design are fairly limited.

"It may be the first time that they have worked with people who know as much about stadium design and operation as they do.

"You look at what Ken Bates has done at Chelsea. Our commercial director Paul Fletcher was chief executive of the Reebok Stadium in Bolton and before that the McAlpine Stadium [in Huddersfield].

"We have very firm opinions about how the stadium should be operated. We are quite capable of arguing that out with them. I don't think it's a conflict situation. I think they get a lot of clarity from it."

Stubbs says the board's top priority is to avoid the sterile atmosphere of the new, hi-tec Stade de France in Paris and to recreate Wembley's unique atmosphere.

"The designers were saying the other day that we should have a light, airy stadium. We said no, we want the roof to be dark, pulled down on you, so everybody feels like it's closed in and you're focused on the pitch." With a brief to recreate Wembley's unique acoustics in the new stadium, engineer Mott McDonald Care is attending football matches, checking sound levels and recording reverberation times with a Bose digital recording system.

Stubbs says Wembley National Stadium is talking to the FA, the Premier League and the Football League about relocating their headquarters to Wembley. The stadium development may therefore include 10 000 m2 of offices. It will also include a 200-room luxury hotel, a banqueting hall, a visitor attraction based on Wembley and the history of football, and 5000 m2 of themed restaurants.

If Wembley National Stadium gets planning consent in March 2000, demolition of the stadium will take place from September 2000. Its replacement will be completed in the first quarter of 2003.

Stubbs says the National Stadium will be procured through three main contracts – demolition and site clearance, shell and core, and fit-out.

He says the procurement route will be chosen after construction director Geoff Taylor joins Wembley National Stadium from Bovis in the summer. Tenders will be issued in early 2000.

"I doubt there are more than four or five firms capable of building this," he says.