BUILDING work on a new 22,000-seater Southend United stadium is expected to start in May with a developer appointed within two weeks, it has been revealed.

Blues chairman Ron Martin says he and supermarket giant Sainsbury’s have whittled a shortlist of four developers down to two, with a decision imminent on whowill build the long-awaited replacement for Roots Hall, plus a new retail park.

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In an hour-long interview with the Echo, Mr Martin said he would receive final bids from both companies this week.

He said: “We will then announce the successful developer or developers.

“Both have been asked to cost development of the new stadium, the supermarket and the replacement of St Mary’s Court.

“It could be one of them does all the building or we use a combination of the two companies.

The club board and Sainsbury’s will make the decision before we announce it in the next fortnight.

“We have been through three stages of tender.”

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He said building the stadium and new homes would take a year, before work on the supermarket begins.

The new stadium has been in the pipeline since the late Nineties and Blues fans aren’t getting their hopes up until they see bulldozers on the Fossetts Farm site.

Ken Jarvis, who runs www., a fans’ forum, said: “We have heard the start date so many times before, and would all truly love to see the diggers turn up on the day.

“That is what 90 per cent of the fans want, but I don’t think we will really believe it until we see them arrive with Ron and his beautifully coiffeured hair with a hard hat on. It is more promising that we are now hearing about a developer being selected, because that is something we have not had until now.”

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The club is in partnership with Sainsbury’s, who will build a new store on the Roots Hall site, the purchase of which will part fund the development.

Mr Martin said funding was in place for the first phase of the project, which includes building three sides of the stadium, retail park access, the supermarket and replacement homes for council flats at St Mary’s Court.

These face demolition to make way for the Sainsbury’s store at Roots Hall.

There are still a series of legal agreements to be signed between Sainsbury’s, the club, and Southend Council, including over a £3.5million contribution to the authority to boost town centre shops, to offset the expected impact of the new retail park.

Mr Martin added: “These will all be signed on the same day.

We are in a position to do it, but it will not happen before the developer is selected.

“We cannot afford to delay beyond May. If we do there will be inflation back in the construction market.”

He said the development should wipe the club’s debt and long-term financial problems, but bank borrowing may be needed for phase two, including the fourth stand.

A council spokesman said: “The planning agreement is now in an agreed form and all signatories are anticipating it will be completed very shortly.

Certainly, the council is in a position to complete.

“The developer is currently negotiating with prospective occupiers of the retail park which forms part of the development.

The timing of the sale of the council’s freehold interest is linked to the implementation of the developments of both the Fossetts Farm and Roots Hall sites.”

It is understood a deal for the club and Sainsbury’s to buy the nearby Prospects College site is also nearing completion.

This is needed to allow access to the new supermarket.