Inside Leicester City FC’s new training ground
Main contractor McLaren faces a race against time to get the Premier League football club’s state-of-the-art facility ready before next season
Project: Leicester City Training Ground
Client: Leicester City FC
Contract value: £95m
Contract type: JCT design and build 2016
Main contractor: McLaren
Project manager: Arcadis
Cost consultant: Turner & Townsend
Structural engineers: ME Engineers
Landscaping and design consultant:EDP
Steel erector: BHC
Start date: 7 January 2019
Completion date: 29 June 2020
The death of Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash in October 2018 sent shockwaves around the world. Thousands of people, including the Duke of Cambridge Prince William, paid tribute to the Thai billionaire, who died alongside four others.
The influence of the colourful owner on the football club had been profound, with the Foxes winning promotion to the top tier of English football in 2014 and extraordinarily securing a first league title in their 132-year history two seasons later.
Just eight months before his tragic death, the club unveiled a major off-field investment plan, in the shape of a new state-of-the-art training ground designed to offer facilities that should rival any in the world.
Before tragedy struck, McLaren had been in discussions with the club about working on the project. After the crash, the plan was placed into uncertainty, but Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s son Aiyawatt – also known as ‘Top’ – the vice chairman, vowed to continue his father’s legacy and pressed on with the ambitious training ground.
The complex, on the site of a former golf course in rural Leicestershire, will feature 11 full-size training pitches including one under a steel roof, eight smaller pitches, five training grids and two goalkeeping areas.
The main training centre building will include 35 bedrooms so players can stay at the site. Several other buildings need to be delivered, including one for a turf academy – where Leicester City’s ground staff will train those keeping pitches for other clubs.
Other facilities include a pitch for the club’s academy sides with a 499-seater stand, which will host matches on a regular basis.
In 2019 the facility went out to tender and McLaren won the job. But that was just the beginning of the contractor’s challenges.
Leicester City is determined the complex will be up and running for the start of the 2020/21 football season, giving the firm a 77-week timeframe for completion.
McLaren project director Martin Burge says: “Perhaps with a different client and a different structure you’d say ‘we need a bit more time’, but here it wasn’t within the client’s gift – they have a hard and fast holding point.
“The Premier League season starts when it starts and we have to be ready for that.”
Among the features of the training complex is that it has curved designs, to blend in with its rural setting near the village of Charnwood.
Conservation: re-homing the site’s great crested newts
A former golf course with several ponds dotted throughout, the site was home to hundreds of great crested newts – a European protected species.
The amphibians can only be moved under license from Natural England, and only when the temperature is above 5 deg C.
The complexities around this early work put off one of McLaren’s competitors for the job, according to project director Martin Burge.
The main contractor, alongside consultant EDP, came up with a strategy to manage the early construction works around the removal of the newts so as not to delay the job.
In the end, 348 great crested newts were re-homed during the project, along with a further (non-protected) 257 smooth newts and 245 common toads.
Early works also saw some 4,000 trees lifted from the training areas of the site and re-planted close to what will remain a golf course.
Around that area a further 38,000 trees are being planted.
Football teams do not build training grounds very often, and few are on the scale of Leicester City’s premium version, which makes the client-contractor interaction on the project a little bit different.
“The relationship is really good. You often push that when you think there’s going to be a repetition of work with retailers, supermarkets, that sort of thing. With this one, it’s very much a one-off,” Mr Burge says.
“A different contractor with a different mindset might think - it’s only a one-off so we might as well just get everything we possibly can out of this because there’s not going to be a next job that comes up.” McLaren, he says, aren’t doing this.
Mr Burge is a Leicester native who has supported the club all his life. He joined McLaren from Simons Group ahead of starting the job and his enthusiasm for the work was clear when ConstructionNews visited the site.
The influence of the club’s owners can be felt throughout the scheme, which includes the retention of nine holes of the former golf course for use by players and staff.
Current chairman Top Srivaddhanaprabha is said to be a big golf fan – and personally asked for improvements to the original plans for the course.
The turf academy will be made available to those from the world of polo, another sport where the late Mr Srivaddhanaprabha had large interests, both personally and financially.
Throughout their time as owners the Srivaddhanaprabha family’s Buddhist beliefs have been felt around the club, with national newspapers reporting that monks were often being flown in ahead of home games to bless the players during their title-winning season in 2016.
This approach was similar on the construction job too, with the client looking to hold a blessing ceremony for the start of works on the main training centre building – and requesting a six-week delay to the start to facilitate it.
Mr Burge says: “Buddhism is very spiritual. They said it had to be done on a certain day, as some days are luckier than others and in that building it had to be a certain [element of the] steel [structure], as certain areas of the building are lucky and others aren’t.
“It went to and fro for weeks about what the date was going to be and then we had to make a compromise in the end because we knew where we wanted to make a start in the steelwork.”
In the end, the contractor agreed to delay that work for two weeks so that the ceremony could be held to bless its first steel column.
Club officials including Top Srivaddhanaprabha, manager Brendan Rodgers and stars of the playing squad – including Jamie Vardy and Wes Morgan – came to the site for the ceremony which took place in a specially-erected marquee.
“It was a really good ceremony. They blessed the steel – tied ribbons round it, and showered it with flowers and coins – and it was cracking to be part of that,” Mr Burge says.
“It had to be done at exactly 10.20am, that morning. It was orchestrated to the second.
"We had the crane there with the steel basically hanging from the steel erectors, and we had a countdown from five to one then had to drop it down onto the holding down bolts, tighten it up and release it.
“It was one of those where suddenly you’ve got loads of people watching and a bit of steel hanging there and you are thinking – this could go so wrong.
“There was an enormous sigh of relief when the steel was there and down.”
Having narrowly avoided a six-week delay on the training centre building for the blessing ceremony, the contractor soon had to deal with another potential four-week delay relating to steel work.
The largest structure on the project is the roof of the covered full-size training pitch that is to be used by the club’s top academy players to get used to a stadium-type environment.
Designers on the project came up with a curved roof structure leaning in to walls covered in grass to give the impression that the pitch is moulded into the rural landscape.
The 1,560 tonne roof will feature diagonal braced steel frames, with 13 trusses of 23.4 tonnes each, covered on top by a layer of transparent ethylene
tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) plastic, and set against concrete walls, which give support to the mounds of earth against the sides.
Mr Burge recalls: “We originally thought the steel frame would stand up on its own with the columns that support it all, and then we would follow along with reinforced concrete works after, as that is quite a slow process.
“But then the structural engineers at the steel erectors ran a model on it and realised that because of the span, which is over 80 m, without the support of the reinforced concrete walls the truss rafters would drop, the columns at the side would spall outwards and you’d never get them back again.
“So we had to change our entire strategy on that and do the reinforced concrete walls first.
“At one point we were looking at the jaws of disaster, from a programme point of view on that one,” Mr Burge says.
“We delayed the start of the steel by four weeks and pushed on with the concrete in advance.”
The roof was made of four parts, with two at each side locked together before a tandem lift was carried out and the structure bolted together at a central point.
And, despite starting four weeks later than planned, Mr Burge says the team recovered the time during the process and got that element of the programme back on track, praising the work of steel erector BHC.
If the external and internal time pressures on the build were not enough for the contractor to deal with, McLaren is also trying to help the club negotiate what could be another hurdle to full operation of the facility.
A condition of its planning permission is that the training centre cannot be put into use before improvement work has been carried out at the closest junction of the A46 dual carriageway, to cope with increased traffic.
On the face of it, this is a relatively straightforward job which will improve a junction layout to help traffic flow across the central reservation safely, but it is made challenging by the job’s tight timeframe and the bureaucracy involved with roadworks.
“As McLaren, we can push this and get all the buildings done and fitted out, but if that road’s not done they can’t take occupation. It’s a big risk, a client-held risk, and we’re helping them to try and get that done as quickly as possible,” Mr Burge explains.
The contractor has submitted a plan to Highways England and is awaiting permission for it to be signed-off and has three of its highways subcontractors currently pricing up the job.
“[And after the sign-off], you often have to wait up to three months to do road-space booking [to do the work], so our nightmare would be that when we want to do that, you could have Severn Trent [water] in the road or British Telecom or somebody,” he says.
“What I’ve suggested to the club is: we’ve got a design we think is okay, we might as well get it out to the supply chain now, pick a contractor that we think is competitive on the basis of the initial design that we’re happy with and get that road-space booking in ahead of Highways England’s sign-off.”
While the cost-certainty won’t be there at that time, Mr Burge says this is one of the ways the contractor is trying to help de-risk the job for the client.
Staying on target
When CN visited the site, it was extremely muddy, after heavy rain over the previous few weeks.
It was another complicating factor, which had delayed the suction lift of glass panels for the main training building for a few days, and work needed to be carried out to keep paths around the site passable for vehicles.
With all the challenges taking place while Leicester City rides high in the Premier League, will the £95m training complex really be ready to open in July 2020, just 77 weeks after work started?
Mr Burge says: “Some bits are ahead, some bits are behind. The weather has killed us recently, it’s been an absolute nightmare – but we are still on target.”