Michael Cunnah: Bringing football home

Eighteen months later, shortly after the curtain came down on Terry Venable’s attempts to win the European championships on our own soil, the decision was taken for the home of English football to remain at Wembley. It was a controversial, if entirely predictable choice.

The stadium – twin towers and all – was sold to the English National Stadium Trust shortly after, and Chelsea chairman Ken Bates was installed as head honcho of Wembley National Stadium.

Following a period of intense legal wrangling, bitter political arguments, serious problems with the financing and the odd high-profile resignation, the demolition teams finally moved in to destroy the beloved twin towers.

So, almost a year on from that momentous day, how has the situation progressed? You only need now to look out of chief executive Michael Cunnah’s window to see things are coming along nicely. Sorry to disappoint all the doom-mongers, but it looks like Wembley will be built after all.

‘You can learn to live with it,’ says Cunnah, when asked how the intense media speculation affects his job. ‘There were times when it did delay the project because we had to work super hard to prove that what we had was a valid business case.’

Unfortunately for Cunnah and finance director Roger Maslin, financial issues have reared their ugly head again after Robin Saunders, the banker that tied down the £426m loan from German bank WestLB, left the bank under a cloud of controversy.

‘It’s not really going to affect it at all,’ says Maslin. ‘Although WestLB syndicated and underwrote the full £436m loan initially, it then went through the process of spreading the loan out among a number of other banking parties, so WestLB have a much lower level of exposure.’

Earlier this month, national newspapers reported WestLB could be facing a criminal investigation in Germany. The Wembly project has not been connected to this controversy, but Maslin and Cunnah appear keen to put some daylight between themselves and any potential scandal.

‘At the end of the day, Robin Saunders and her team created a new part of the bank so our loan has nothing to do with the asset portfolio that Saunders has taken. We are not really associated with that part of the bank at all,’ says Maslin.

Which is a good job. Maslin and Cunnah are in the midst of one of the most important phases of financing: trying to persuade would-be clients to part with considerable amounts of cash to secure corporate seats at the 90,000-seat stadium.

‘We are ahead of expectations, but we haven’t really given out any numbers yet,’ says Cunnah. ‘Although we have a lot of expressions of interest, our sales team is grinding through getting every one of those into signed application forms and then deposits. We are in that period when they’ve got 28 days.’

Cunnah is keen to point out how reasonable the corporate packages are: ‘You can pay for one day at Wimbledon for what we are asking for a whole year,’ he says, but adds that marketing budgets are not what they used to be.

Corporate boxes are available on three, five or seven-year contracts with prices ranging from £60,000 to a frightening £270,000 a year. Single seats range from £5,600 to £16,100 for a 10-year licence, with season tickets costing between £2,000 and £5,450. No small outlay by any stretch of the imagination.

Despite this, and a general downturn in fee income for the first time in a decade, the Big Four accountancy firms are expressing interest. ‘We haven’t received any cheques, but they’ve shown a lot of interest,’ says Cunnah with a smile.

It is this very means of financing Wembley that has fans, and opponents to the stadium, up in arms. Corporate seats will account for over 18,000 of the 90,000 seat capacity. Roy Keane’s infamous ‘prawn sandwich’ comments seem particularly in tune with the new Wembley experience.

‘What you have to realise is that you’ve got a whole breadth of different customers that are going to come to the stadium,’ says Cunnah.

‘We are designing something for everyone here, regardless of what they want, we believe we have designed it in.’

While true fans will splutter into their pints at being described as ‘customers’, it is a reality of modern football. Central government sees no need to subsidise an industry that appears, on the surface, to be looking after itself quite nicely.

‘That’s one aspect that Roger and I should probably say no comment to,’ says Cunnah. ‘Somebody from government was telling me that the Singaporean government was over because they are building a national stadium, and they only have one event a year. But I’m not going there.’

The fact remains that the government has a great deal to gain out of a successful Wembley stadium project. With the capital chasing the 2012 Olympic games, proving to the committee that Britain can successfully build one of the most impressive stadiums in the world on time, and on budget, could swing the decision.

‘Inevitably, the International Olympic committee will come to Wembley and see how we’re doing,’ said Cunnah. ‘By 2005, when they make that decision there will be something really tangible to see here. It will support the bid.’

So it’s full steam ahead for everyone involved. Cunnah claims to be on schedule for completion in March 2006, with some saying that it may even be late 2005. Both men are obviously relieved to be able to make such claims and have the financial negotiations behind them. ‘There were times when you think, “God, this is much harder than I imagined it would be”, but the sense of achievement, even when we just got the money and could start the project, was enormous,’ says Cunnah. ‘I honestly dare not think ahead until the stadium opens. I will be bursting with pride when that happens.’

Or should that be if it happens? ‘No [there was never any doubt that the stadium will be built]. We just had more things thrown in our path quite often,’ says Cunnah.

As qualified accountants, both Cunnah (CIMA) and Maslin (ICAEW) believe they have the right background to be involved in such a huge, expensive and public facing project. ‘It’s testament to how finance people are often good all-rounders,’ says Maslin. ‘They are good at co-ordinating and leading. This is what good accountants do well. Get out there and drive business.’

‘Funnily enough,’ says Cunnah, ‘if you look at our board we have quite a few finance people on it’.

‘It’s good fun for me,’ retorts Maslin. ‘Lots of beady eyes.’

How can the Welsh do it for £114m?

The Wembley debacle was not helped by Cardiff building a world-class stadium for a fraction of Wembley’s £757m budget with barely any fuss.

It is obvious that Michael Cunnah, chief executive of Wembley National Stadium, has heard the taunts before. ‘Do you think we are building the same as the Welsh?’ he snaps.

So what do we get for our money? Cunnah describes it as the first of the fourth generation of stadiums. ‘I like to think of Heathrow terminals and then compare it to the airfields of 50 years ago,’ he says. ‘In the old days people used to go, get on the plane and fly. Now they are mini cities.’

‘If you ask anybody what their memories of the old Wembley were, well it was bloody awful. You couldn’t get a drink, you had to fight your way into the loos. It was just awful. We could have cut back on the facilities, in particular the extent of hospitality that we’ve got. But quite frankly that’s the profit motive behind the stadium. That’s what’s going to fund it and subsidise the 70,000 people in the public seats.’

Wembley facts:
  • 90,000 seats
  • Stadium roof rises to 52 metres
  • 2,000 toilets – more than any other building in the world
  • No obstructed views
  • Every seat has more leg room than the royal box in the old stadium


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