Top cop in charge at Hillsborough admits he ‘wasn’t best man for the job’

NewsBy Sunday World
Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield
Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield

The most senior police officer on the day of the Hillsborough disaster told the inquests today that he was "not the best man for the job".

Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield, the match commander, conceded his hands-on experience of the planning and policing of football matches was limited.

And he agreed it was a "serious mistake" not to seek the assistance of his predecessor after being appointed to the job just 15 days before the match.

Mr Duckenfield, 70, gave evidence from the witness box, with around 200 relatives of those who died at the match listening in silence in rows of seats behind him in the courtroom in Warrington.

Ninety-six Liverpool fans died following a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace of Sheffield's Hillsborough ground as the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest kicked off on April 15 1989.

Mr Duckenfield gave the order to open gates, allowing 2,000 fans massing outside the turnstiles into the ground in the minutes before the fatal crush.

He later told FA officials wrongly that a gate had been forced open in comments repeated by the press.

Mr Duckenfield took over as Hillsborough commander just days before the semi-final as head of the local police division.

He was asked if at the time of the match he had any concerns about his ability to do the job, given it was a new role and he did not have much experience of policing football matches.

Mr Duckenfield, in a quiet, Yorkshire accent, replied: "All I would say is this, that after a period, I would say, I'm older, hopefully wiser, probably I was not the best man for the job on the day."

Mr Duckenfield said he had no recent previous experience of policing at Hillsborough before the match and his knowledge of the stadium was "very general."

And he agreed, while he had experience of public order policing, that was "totally different" to policing football matches.

He added: "At the time I should have thought about my limited knowledge of the role of a commander at a major event that was a sell out when I had not been in that responsible position previously."

Mr Duckenfield said, after first joining South Yorkshire Police as a cadet in 1960, he had been "delighted" to be promoted to the post of chief superintendent of F Division of South Yorkshire Police around March 1989.

And as Hillsborough was in the division, it became his responsibility.

The witness told the jury the job came with other major responsibilities, as the area was also home to a major hospital, the university and areas of affluence and deprivation.

He said, while the semi-final game was "obviously a major priority", it was only one of the priorities he had to deal with, adding: "I only had 15 days, and that was not 15 working days."

And he said to complicate matters, as he got the job the division was undergoing a major change by moving to another police station.

Mr Duckenfield said his understanding of the job of the match commander was that he would not be involved in the day-to-day or minute-by-minute duties and would only become involved in decision making on the day if something went wrong.

Christina Lambert QC asked him: "Did it not occur to you before the match that it was a job that called for deep experience?"

Mr Duckenfield said he had been "assured" by his boss the chief constable he could rely on the other experienced officers in his team.

He said he had one limited conversation with his predecessor, Brian Mole, who he took over from as the match commander.

Miss Lambert asked if he thought it was a mistake to accept the role and "not seek the assistance from others such as Mr Mole?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Ma'am, there was a culture in the police service at that time and the culture was you would be moved without any overlap and you would learn, dare I say it, on the job.

"So it did not cross my mind to say, 'I'm not up to the job'. I just got on with it."

Miss Lambert continued: "My question is, in hindsight, was it a mistake?"

The witness replied: "In hindsight, it was a serious mistake. Ma'am I did know what the job involved, but no one, including me, knew what might evolve on the day."