Stadium 'was a duck, not a swan'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 12:00am

Hong Kong Stadium's former manager could not be blamed for failing to turn 'what was effectively a duck into a swan,' the Court of First Instance was told yesterday.

Adrian Huggins SC told Mr Justice William Stone that Wembley International (HK) had inherited a pitch with inherent defects. 'It did all that it reasonably could to maintain what was a very far-from-satisfactory pitch in the condition in which it was first handed over.

'Any implicit suggestion that Wembley had somehow undertaken and was obliged to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear is untenable,' Mr Huggins wrote in his closing submission for the company and its British parent Wembley plc.

The companies are defendants in a breach-of-agreement case launched by the government, which alleges mismanagement of the stadium.

Wembley signed a 10-year management agreement for the stadium in So Kon Po in March 1994, but it was terminated in May 1998. The court has heard the pitch was left in such a poor condition that it could not safely be used for football or rugby matches. The government is seeking unspecified damages from Wembley for 'serious or persistent breach of its obligations'.

Gladys Li SC, for the government, said Wembley should be held responsible because it could not deliver on its promise to adequately manage the stadium's pitch.

But Mr Huggins said the government's complaints were 'window dressing' designed to justify 'a cynical and irresponsible decision to make Wembley a scapegoat for what had become an embarrassment'.

He said the decision to prematurely terminate Wembley's management agreement was 'injudicious, arrogant and irresponsible', considering no laboratory tests or expert reports had identified the defendants' management of the pitch as the problem.

'The [stadium's] board of governors knew very well at the time it sacked Wembley that there was a real dispute about whether the problem with the pitch was a structural or a maintenance issue,' Mr Huggins said.

The court has heard that a report released in May 1998 showed the pitch was sandy, uneven, lumpy and infected by algae. It said the grass cover was estimated to be less than 20 per cent and that the surface was virtually bare. The report concluded the pitch could not safely be used for football or rugby matches.

Ms Li said: 'If one assumes to manage this pitch in a particular environment, you cannot complain that the environment was too difficult with Hong Kong stadium's shading and climatic conditions.'

Ms Li said the pitch was in such a poor condition that the organisers of 1998's Rugby Sevens tournament had threatened to sue the then Urban Council for damages.