Wembley ready for action?
It has been one of the biggest debacles in English footballing history, but now, a mere 46 weeks after it was due to open its doors, the new Wembley stadium is nearly ready.
First off I should qualify the fact that the stadium is not yet ready to see any football action, at least not of professional quality, but it will, on the first weekend of March, open its doors to the Brent public.
40,000 will descend upon the country's new flagship sporting arena, in order to test the stadium's turnstiles, toilets, security arrangements and catering facilities and eventually try to convince the local council that it is worthy to receive the first safety certificate it requires.
The stadium still needs two other 'ramp-up' events to be held before it's allowed to play host to an event like the FA Cup Final - pencilled in with uncertainty for May 19 - and even then, there is a lot left to do to instil confidence in a project that has lasted nearly seven years.
Apparently there is 'no reason why the FA Cup final should not be held at Wembley in 2007', according to those that know; although legal disputes continue to hang like a thundercloud over the development.
Still, by all accounts it will have been worth the wait.
Boasting the longest single roof structure in the world (the arch), the new design ensures that there are no obstructing pillars in the stands and along with a sliding roof, covered seats and 90,000 capacity, there is more than enough 'wow' factor to placate the supporters.
The arch itself is an engineering masterpiece, holding up the north roof, and a majority of the south roof as well, it also contains a maintenance monorail and is large enough to fit a Channel Tunnel train inside.
Elsewhere, banks of red seats ascending towards the sky, a pitch that will rival the best in the world and a total circumference of 1km will make this laboured development stand up to be counted amongst the world's elite.
With 107 steps to climb in order to reach the trophy presentation party (compared to the previous stadium's 39), the new Wembley is also a daunting prospect for those who will play there.
FA chief executive Brian Barwick was certainly impressed when he saw it last week: 'The arch was lit up, the floodlights bathed the pitch and the sound system was cranked up to full volume. Quite frankly, the stadium looked and sounded fantastic,' he said.
Yet for everyone involved, and those watching from the sidelines, the development has taken far too long. Inching its way along a long road, the project still has further to go and the path ahead is strewn with court cases, compensation payments and lawyers' fees.
Builders (Multiplex) and the stadium's owners, a subsidiary of The Football Association (Wembley National Stadium Ltd) have been embroiled in a row since the beginning over a number of legal and financial issues.
It wasn't until May 2002 that the FA were able to broker a loan agreement with a German bank, meaning that work could actually start. Even when it did begin, problems in construction, including the death of a worker and disputes over pay, continued to dog the development.
The culmination of these problems came in March 2006, after work was delayed further by the falling of a steel rafter, evacuation of workers and then a failure with the sewer system below the ground, which forced a number of planned concerts to be cancelled.
With neither side willing to shoulder the blame for the setbacks, it was announced that the date for completion was to be moved to 2007, and eventually it required a further payment of £36million to get the stadium ready for the FA Cup final in May.
Compared to the erection of Arsenal's new Emirates stadium at Ashburton Grove, just a stone's throw from Highbury, Wembley has been a disaster and as well as losing money, the FA have lost credibility.
Construction at Arsenal began in February 2004, and by July 2006, the first match was held - a testimonial for the departing Dennis Bergkamp.
In contrast, initial demolition work at Wembley was planned to start in 2000, but didn't actually begin until two years later - and now in 2007, the much-maligned stadium is finally ready for its viewing public.
However, not only the length of time, but also the rising cost angered many onlookers. £790million is an incredible sum when you consider that the Arsenal project took a third of the time, and came at half the price.
For the fans, travelling to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff each year has been an inconvenience, and a costly one at that. Congestion at Arsenal's Emirates doesn't bode well for the new generation of Wembley fans either, with 30,000 more expected, the travel networks are already under strain as it is, and there are no plans for improvement.
But thankfully, all the wranglings over contracts, blame and back-stabbing have now been suspended, for the time being at least, while the stadium is finished. Both WNSL and Multiplex have buried the hatchet (not in each other's backs), and things look brighter for the future.
They keys haven't been handed over yet, but if everything goes to plan in March, the FA will stage a women's international and an Under-21 game before the FA Cup final.
'This is still dependent on the final building issues being completed and a number of 'ramp-up' events being held successfully beforehand,' Barwick was careful to point out.
'But if we get the green light, hopefully there will be an opportunity to play our first England international at the new stadium, in late May, against significant opposition.'
Plans are already afoot for American football's NFL to play a regular season game at the stadium in October 2007. It will be the first time that an NFL game has been played outside the American continent, and will bring with it 65 million TV viewers, as well as a full-house in the ground.
With London building up towards the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as the start of the Tour de France later this year, the future looks bright; and Cardiff hasn't even been booked as an alternative this time around.
'You won't be disappointed', Barwick tells us. Hopefully not, although after the last seven years, it is hard to imagine how it could get much worse.