The police officer controlling the Leppings Lane end on the day of the Hillsborough Disaster took operational advice from a TV cameraman and made the fateful decision to open gates into the stadium because the colleague who asked him to looked so traumatised.
The disclosures from ex-Superintendent Roger Marshall came during his testimony to the Warrington inquest into the disaster which revealed the chaos of the police operation, on April 15 1989. The retired officer said that he had not thought of finding a higher vantage point to view the escalating crush of Liverpool fans at the turnstiles until TV cameraman Ian Young walked past him, 20 minutes before the game’s scheduled kick-off. “He said I would be better jumping on the parapet and getting a better view,” Mr Marshall said. “I took his advice.”
The fateful decision to open gates A, B, and C into the stadium, which eased the crush outside the turnstiles but funnelled fans into the stadium crush which killed 96, was taken after his colleague, Chief Inspector Roger Purdy, urged him to do so. “He was not specific about which gates but he had anxiety written all over his face. You could see [his concern] from his health ,” Mr Marshall said. “He said you have to open the gates and that confirmed my perception of the situation.”
Mr Marshall described a stadium and a South Yorkshire police force which were unable to cope with events. The turnstiles at the Sheffield ground were “antiquated” he said, and “two of them were subsequently found to be broken.” He admitted he had not read the stadium’s safety certificate before the 1989 FA Cup semi-final game and did not know the crowd capacity it allowed. He even needed four attempts to radio the control room with the plea to open the gates. On the first three occasions there was no answer.
Yet despite these systemic failures, the retired officer still maintained the controversial argument that Liverpool fans’ drinking was a contributory factor in the disaster. Though in early evidence he had said that their consumption of alcohol from 11.30am on the day of the disaster had not been a problem and that “the behaviour was quite good,” he ended his testimony with censure. “I’m sorry to say that when I went into the stadium after the tragedy the smell of alcohol was palpable,” he said. “It is a very sad thing to say that but that was my perception. As time progressed, the cooperation [of fans] was not evident, nor self-discipline, self-control or mutual respect for anybody else. Those are the kinds of things we value in this country.”
Mr Marshall also insisted that supporters determined to get into the ground had been pushing. When video evidence played in court clearly revealed no pushing, he insisted that a broader visual perspective was needed. Yet he admitted making two fundamental errors. He did not use the powers at his disposal to request a delay to kick off time, to ease the congestion. “I could have requested a delay to kick off,” he told the court. “I can tell you that it is one of my most profound regrets that I didn’t do so."
He also regretted the decision to open the gates. Asked had he not thought that the swell of people in the stadium might not cause a crush, he said: “I have to say that, sadly, it did not occur to me at the time. I was on autopilot [afterwards]. I linked the awful events to my opening of the gates.
The ex-officer was asked whether he thought the officers in the control room, including match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, should have anticipated the crush that opening the gates would cause, he said; “I don’t know. You will have to address that question to them.”
Mr Marshall’s testimony revealed that the South Yorkshire force approached the game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest comfortable and confident in the belief that the previous year’s semi-final, between the same two teams, had gone well. The inquest has heard evidence that the threat of crushing had been evident the year before. Fans complained of severe congestion in the tunnel leading to pens behind the goal in 1988. But ex Supt Marshall said that he had not attended a debrief for the previous year’s game – “It may have been my day off but I don’t remember going,” he told the inquest at Warrington” – and that he believed the 1988 event had “problems but was a success.”
A knowledge of the safety certificate would have told Supt Marshall the number of turnstiles the Sheffield Wednesday had allocated for the Liverpool fans: 23 in total to feed over 24,000 Liverpool fans into the grounds and seven for the 10,100 Liverpool fans who would gain access to turnstiles. He was not aware of that.
Ex Supt Marshall’s confidence that the event would run as smoothly as 1988 kept him convinced at around 2.15pm on the day of the disaster that there would be no problem. Though 5,700 fans still needed to get into the ground as late as 2.30pm, Supt Marshall still did not take the elevated position because “I just didn’t think of it,” he said.
The retired officer dismissed claims from his former colleague, Supt Frank Brayford, that Supt Marshall had wanted a policing role outside of the stadium because of a fear of crowds. Ex Supt Marshall said: “I have a soft spot for Frank. We go back 40 years and I am sorry to hear he is [now] ill. But when I read his statement, my conclusion was that this was rubbish. He talks in his statement about me being averse to being in crowds but he fails to recognise the fact that I had been running football matches for three years. I love big occasions and I get a buzz out of being in the middle of a big crowd.”
Asked what alternative steps he might have taken, on hindsight, he replied: “In the cold light of day very few, because I was in the crowd, waving and shouting and gesticulating….I think you can always say you could do more. In every situation in life, every decision you take is capable of being improved on. But disasters happen because of lots and lots of different factors. I was not standing around with my hands in my pockets.”
The inquest continues.