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 with just 15 days to familiarise himself with the role before the match, he said.
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.
He 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.
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.
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.”
Questioned by Miss Lambert about match-planning generally, Mr Duckenfield claimed safety could not be separated from the segregation of rival fans.
Miss Lambert then asked the witness: “What, so far as you were concerned, were the main objectives of match-planning?”
Mr Duckenfield answered: “The main objectives were safety and I align that with segregation, because if segregation was ensured, then safety usually followed, because of your planning.
“You can’t separate the two.”
During evidence immediately after a short adjournment in the proceedings, Mr Duckenfield said he had experienced hooliganism while working as a inspector at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground in the mid-1970s.
“Those were the challenges that we were facing in the 1970s. It seemed to be very sadly ... the fact of life that fighting and hooliganism was the main feature of policing football matches.”
Mr Duckenfield said “you became conditioned” to dealing with hooliganism and added: “This is the mindset that, shall we say, the 70s and 80s created around public order and public disorder.”
Mr Duckenfield claimed he was told nothing before April 1989 about a previous crushing incident at Hillsborough during an FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham and Wolves in 1981.
He told the hearing: “Specifics I can’t recall but I wasn’t told anything about the history of the ground that should cause me concern.
“I have learned since of the crushing incident (in 1981) only, I would say, in the last couple of years.”
Asked about concerns expressed by police about the capacity of parts of Hillsborough in 1981, Mr Duckenfield told the hearing: “This is an area where I am confused, in that I have heard (another senior police officer) since the unfortunate incident in April 1989 make mention of that, but I have no specific recollection of him saying to me ’You must bear in mind this, this and this’.”
The inquest jury was also told that another police officer had compiled a report in 1986 calling for access arrangements to the Leppings Lane terracing and Hillsborough’s West Stand to be made more efficient.
The report, the inquest heard, said that a re-design of turnstiles behind the West Stand did not “give anything like the access to the ground needed” by away supporters.
Asked about the report, Mr Duckenfield told Miss Lambert: “In general terms ma’am, I would have asked about policing problems associated with the ground but no one had advised me of this report.”
Jurors also heard Mr Duckenfield intended to have a day-long “one-to-one” briefing with Mr Mole before he took over from him as match commander for the 1989 semi-final.
That meeting did not happen as he expected, said Mr Duckenfield, who had heard “speculation and rumour” that Mr Mole was moved to another post after “matters of indiscipline” within his division.
Describing his memory of his meeting with Mr Mole before the Hillsborough disaster, Mr Duckenfield told the court: “I do recall him saying to me ’I have made all the arrangements, it’s all sorted out – you have no need to worry about the (match policing) order. I have done the order, I have picked all the staff’.”
The witness maintained he did not know debriefing notes from the semi final in 1988 existed.
He added: “Ma’am, let me take you back to when I took over the job, in taking on the job I asked for information that might be useful to me to enable me to police the football match.
“So prior to the game every piece of information I received – was the ground safe, the operational order caters for our needs, the staff are efficient, we have no concerns whatsoever.
“Because of that, I did not go searching for something because I did not know anything existed.”
Mr Duckenfield was also asked again about his familiarity with the ground.
He continued: “Ma’am, with hindsight I can almost say, knowing the events of the day, I should’ve spent the majority of my time as the new commander down there, but I did in the light of the information, available what I considered necessary, and if there was a failing, well I apologise.”