Home » News

Match commander’s failings led to 95 Liverpool fans’ deaths, Hillsborough trial hears

The match commander during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final had “criminal responsibility” for the deaths of 95 Liverpool fans, the Hillsborough trial has heard.

Match commander’s failings led to 95 Liverpool fans’ deaths, Hillsborough trial hears
David Duckenfield | Image credit: ©Bruce Adams / Associated Newspapers/REX/Shutterstock

The former South Yorkshire police chief David Duckenfield, 74, who denies the gross negligence manslaughter of the fans crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s ground, had demonstrated “extraordinary bad failings”, according to Richard Matthews QC, acting for the prosecution. 

Jurors at the trial, which opened on 14 January at Preston Crown Court, were told that “many individual failures” contributed to the tragedy, which unfolded during a FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, South Yorkshire on 15 April 1989.

However, Matthews said that it was the prosecution’s case that Duckenfield’s failures to discharge his personal responsibility contributed substantially to the deaths of the 94 victims who died at the ground on the day and Lee Nicol, who died two days later from his injuries. Duckenfield cannot be charged in relation to the death of a 96th victim, Tony Bland, because a manslaughter charge in 1989 could not be applied if the victim died longer than a year after the alleged criminal acts took place. The Liverpool fan sustained severe brain damage in the crush and remained on life support for four years before his family sought a court application to turn off the machine. 

Sheffield Wednesday’s former safety officer Graham Mackrell, who appeared in court alongside Duckenfield, has pleaded not guilty to two health and safety offences relating to the stadium. He pleaded not guilty to one charge of contravening Sheffield Wednesday FC’s safety certificate for the ground under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, and one offence of failing to protect the fans under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The BBC reported that the ground’s safety certificate had not been updated or amended since it was granted in 1979, a decade before the incident. Matthews said: “Few of those involved with the safety certificate appear to have performed their function diligently.”

On the day of the FA Cup semi-final, the court was told that 10,100 Liverpool fans had to pass through seven turnstiles at the stadium’s Leppings Lane end. The fans were crushed in standing-only “pens” at the Leppings Lane terrace.

The Independent reported that there were fears of injuries at the turnstiles outside the stadium and a large exit gate known as Gate C was opened “following requests for Duckenfield to do something to alleviate the crush.”

The prosecution told the jury that a large crowd was “naturally drawn” through a tunnel directly in front of the turnstiles, down a slope and into fenced pens where there was “no means of escape”. 

Duckenfield, the prosecution argued, “gave no thought to the inevitable consequence of the flood of people through Gate C. He made no attempt to even monitor what was occurring, let alone take a step to avert the tragedy.”

The prosecution added that the match commander’s failure to identify the potential confining points and hazards to safe entry at the stadium was “extraordinary”. 

But defence QC Ben Myers argued that it was “wrong and unfair” to apportion personal blame to the former South Yorkshire police chief for the catalogue of failings that led to the disaster. 

Myers told the court on 16 January that the tragedy was an inevitability “by virtue of bad stadium design, bad planning, some aspects of crowd behaviour, some aspects of police behaviour, mistakes by various individuals and genuine human error.”

The defence added that Duckenfield, who was brought in as match day commander three weeks before the FA Cup semi-final, should not be judged by 2019 standards of policing at football events. 

In June 2018, Judge Sir Peter Openshaw lifted a prosecution ban, known as a “stay”, which had been imposed by Mr Justice Hooper in 2000 to prevent further legal proceedings being taken against Duckenfield. 

According to The Telegraph the case is due to last until May.

Three other men face criminal charges in relation to Hillsborough: Donald Denton, a former chief superintendent for South Yorkshire Police; Alan Foster, a former chief inspector and Denton’s deputy; and Peter Metcalfe, the solicitor who acted for the South Yorkshire Police. All three are charged with perverting the course of justice, relating to changes made to the witness statements.


Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner


  • Once again we are finger

    Permalink Submitted by Jeremy Rowland on 22 January 2019 - 12:55 pm

    Once again we are finger pointing and trying to appoint personal blame for a terrible tragedy that was inevitable due to the poor design of the stadium and the natural human behaviour of the fans. We should spend more time trying to ensure that this never happens again and the first area that should be looked at are any venues where large crowds are likely to be in attendance to make sure that there are no 'dead ends' where people could become crushed, perhaps having a timer on turnstiles to prevent people crowding although irritating could also be a possible solution to stop people just crowding through.
    By experience I have been trapped on a train where football fans were trying to crowd on even though there was no space for them, there was no reasoning behind this action just crowd mentality, this needs more examination to prevent this type of incident from being able to occur in the first instance.

  • I was at the ground as a

    Permalink Submitted by Martin Jones on 23 January 2019 - 09:10 am

    I was at the ground as a Forest Fan. We were in the stand directly opposite and it was obvious at even just gone 2p.m. that the central pens were absolutely heaving, with side pens sparsely populated. I've also attended as an 'away' fan many times at the ground and stood in the same Leppings Lane stand the Liverpool fans were housed in. Having been herded through narrow tunnels into the pens, I agree that the Stadium design is poor and have been uncomfortable passing through the tunnel. That all said, as earlier, it was blatantly obvious that the pens were full and to not close that tunnel (there's a gate at the end which is easily closed, this usually hapens) was inexplicable from Mr. Duckenfield. He had a perfect view from his position to know this HAD to happen and to not order this was a compelte abdication of his duties. Even 20 or so minutes into the disaster unfolding, he was also instructing Officers to push paersons back into the pens instead of opening escape gates at the front. Even to me, 100 yards away and with no knowledge of what the contributing factors with the crush outside were, it was obvious this was a life or death situation, but Mr. Duckenfield dealt with it still as a hooligan issue.


Add new comment