Hillsborough disaster: How the cross-examination of David Duckenfield was a shocking landmark in the tragic saga

When it was all over you could have heard a pin drop in the light industrial unit on the outskirts of Warrington

“I hope I will be no more than 90 minutes,” said Paul Greaney QC on Tuesday morning. There was a significance in what was about to unfold taking the span of a football match, though it was neither the time nor the place for ironies.

When it was all over – and Liverpool fans had heard the extraordinary answers to what will now always be known as “the five questions” – you could have heard a pin drop in the light industrial unit on the outskirts of Warrington which has been converted into a courtroom for the Hillsborough inquests.

The relatives of those whose lives were claimed by the football stadium disaster had waited a quarter of a century simply to hear the voice of the man who was testifying in the court, let alone those answers of his.

He was David Duckenfield, match commander at the Sheffield Wednesday stadium; an individual who has been barely seen or heard of since the immediate aftermath of that bright April day in 1989 when sons, girlfriends, fathers, sisters and friends never came home.

He had, on his own admission “hidden himself away and could not bear the word Hillsborough” – and the Liverpool families certainly felt the same way as they waited to understand why Mr Duckenfield ordered the fateful opening of the ground’s Gate C, allowing fans to funnel into the Leppings Lane end, where so many died in the crush.


Why had he told authorities that Liverpool fans had forced Gate C? Why had he called for police dogs to come to the ground, not ambulances? Hopes of any answers had been forlorn until the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report shone new light on the tragedy two years ago.

There had been some extraordinary testimony over 158 days of evidence at the inquests which were triggered by the HIP. But nothing like the evidence Mr Greaney, the barrister representing the Police Federation, elicited by quietly, persistently – you might say brutally – taking Mr Duckenfield back through the events of that day.

“What I aim to do is draw together some of the strands of your evidence from the perspective [of the] rank and file: the police officers. Do you follow me?” he asked Mr Duckenfield. “I do sir,” the former Chief Superintendent replied, clearly and brightly.

It sounded like a routine sixth day of evidence before the inquest for this man, who had started this testimony with some confidence: upright, broad-backed, proud Yorkshire, sipping water at first, and then orange juice. A man who had been defining the scope of his answers.

“Let me put it like this ma’am…” “It was not how I recall that, sir.” By the time Mr Greaney had finished questioning him, he was slumped in the witness box, wearing the hollowed-out look of a very weary man.

Not all of the retired police officers who have taken up that same courtroom seat have been as emotionally equal as Mr Duckenfield to the task of describing the day which has lived with and defined them all. Few who witnessed former Superintendent Roger Greenwood testify last November will forget his description of frantic, hopeless attempts to communicate to his superiors that an emergency was unfolding, before running on to the pitch to order the referee to stop the match. The inquest was briefly adjourned that day as Mr Greenwood sought to recompose himself. The jury saw footage of the officer frantically motioning to the Leppings Lane crowd to move back and gesturing to his superiors, including Mr Duckenfield, in the ground’s control box. He received “no response”.

We heard fragments of what life had brought for Mr Duckenfield since the enormity of Hillsborough had forced him to leave the South Yorkshire force, on a full pension. Post-traumatic stress, depression, the need to take tumblers of whisky before testifying at Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry.

Day one of his testimony brought an admission he had not been the best man for the job. Day two had brought an admission he lied by blaming supporters for forcing open the gate, his apology for what he had done, and a reaction that this 70-year-old had perhaps not expected from some of the 200 relatives who were in court. A video about the disaster had led him to “think very seriously about the families,” he said. Several walked out. One called out in court: “I don’t want your apology.”

The Hillsborough disaster cost 96 Liverpool fans their lives (Getty)

And then Mr Greaney climbed to his feet, to address him. It was the beginning of the journey on which the QC set out to drive a wrecking ball through Mr Duckenfield’s suggestion that what he had done on the day in question – allowing that gate to be opened without consideration of the consequences – were based on his inexperience and ignorance of the geography of the ground.

Mr Greaney threw at him evidence which suggested that Mr Duckenfield had the knowledge to foretell exactly how disastrous his actions might be. He unearthed testimony from the Taylor Inquiry at which Mr Duckenfield declared he had attended a match when Millwall visited the ground which had produced the same cramming in the central pens where Liverpool’s fans died. He turned up the fine detail of a Duckenfield letter to his own Chief Constable, suggesting he had also experienced the same crush in 1979.

He knew, Mr Greaney put it to him. There could be no sanctity or shared responsibility in the idea that he ought to have been helped to be better prepared for that day. There could only be an acceptance that he had been in a complete state of panic and had frozen.

“I can’t comment, sir, whether I froze or not,” the former officer replied.

“Mr Duckenfield, only you know what was in your mind at the relevant time. Won’t you help us and tell us?” the barrister responded.

“Freezing is a physical action, is it not, or am I mistaken?” he replied.

“What I am describing, just so you are in no doubt,” the barrister said, “is this: to use a 19th century expression, although one that is rather evocative, you bottled it, you panicked, and you failed to take the action that you knew needed to be taken to avoid consequences that you had foreseen. Now, does that describe your state at the time?”

“I disagree with you, sir,” said Mr Duckenfield.

“Why?” Mr Greaney asked.

“Because that’s my view,” Mr Duckenfield replied.

“Why is it your view?” asked Mr Greaney.

“Because it is my view, and there can be no other view than mine,” Mr Duckenfield said.

“That’s your position, is it?” Mr Greaney asked.

“It is, sir,” the former officer replied.

David Duckenfield in 1989 (PA)

A mere five minutes had elapsed before Mr Greaney came at the subject again, with a different conclusion this time. No substantial build-up was needed and no further forensic detail required from the minutiae of 25 years of paper work. Mr Duckenfield was worn down by the inquisition, resigned, the colour drained from his face.

The only requirement for the QC was to propose to him, “as a matter of fact and logic” that people died in a crush in the central terrace that day; that they would not have died had the flow down the tunnel into that terrace been prevented; that closing the tunnel would have saved those lives; that the failure to do so was his own; and that his failure was the direct cause of the deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough. “Yes, sir,” Mr Duckenfield replied, in the courtroom’s wrapt silence, to four of those questions.

“I did, sir,” he said to the suggestion he had failed.

And after that there was little left to say. “I am just within 90 minutes,” Mr Greaney said, just before he sat down.

The time span of a football match to deliver the moment that the people of Liverpool and their supporters had waited a quarter of a century for. They could barely believe they had witnessed this.