THE kick-off for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield should have been delayed, a football policing expert has told the Hillsborough tragedy inquests.
A retired police chief said a “competent” match commander would have reacted to the heavy build-up of fans outside the Leppings Lane end of the ground by putting the match back.
Turnstile figures showed that up to 5,800 Liverpool supporters had still not entered seven turnstiles to the Leppings Lane terrace with just 30 minutes to the 3pm kick-off.
But instead the game started on time and was abandoned at 3.06pm as fans were crushed in the central pens after match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield ordered the opening of an exit gate.
Giving evidence today, Douglas Hopkins - a former match commander at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium between 1987 and 1991 - also said Mr Duckenfield did not have enough experience for the role and should have first shadowed a senior officer at a high-profile fixture.
He said: “I think it was a step too far for him.”
Looking at CCTV footage of the outer perimeter gates to the turnstiles at about 2.30pm, Mr Hopkins said: “Just looking on that image I would already be considering putting the kick-off back or going to a ticket-tearing entry system to relieve that pressure on the crowd.”
He said Gate C, which Mr Duckenfield ordered to be open at 2.52pm, was an “obvious candidate” to be opened partially for ticket-tearing and added that reserve officers - with “plenty available” - should have been been deployed to the scene.
Moving on to footage of congestion outside the turnstiles between 2.35 and 2.40pm, Mr Hopkins said police were being “reactive when you need to start getting proactive” and it was “obvious” the game had to be delayed.
Mr Hopkins added: “You have got to calm that crowd down and you have got put the kick-off back.
It’s not rocket science. If you ask anyone in this room to look at a crowd and show them different pictures of it and say ‘when does it become crushing?’, I am sure you get a reasonable answer.Douglas Hopkins, former match commander at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium
“That crowd there has one intention. They want to see a football match and they want to be in by kick-off.
“If you can get the word out that the kick-off is being put back it will immediately calm that crowd.”
Mr Hopkins said Sheffield Wednesday had the “invaluable resource” of being able to count the number of people as they entered its turnstiles - although the jury has heard Mr Duckenfield say he was not aware he could access the figures.
By 2.45pm, a total of 4,600 ticket-holders had still yet to come through turnstiles A to G, which Mr Hopkins said “would tell me that I have definitely got to put the kick-off back”.
Earlier this week Mr Duckenfield admitted that his failure to close the tunnel leading to the central pens after opening Gate C was the “direct cause” of the 96 deaths.
He had been prompted to open to it when Superintendent Roger Marshall made repeated requests outside and finally said “someone would be killed if the gates weren’t opened”.
Mr Hopkins said Mr Marshall should have been asking to make sure the tunnel was closed before he made his first request “if he had an awareness of the situation inside (the ground)”.
He added that he thought it would only have needed two or three officers to have closed the tunnel.
He said the management and monitoring of the filling of the standing terraces at sell-out matches was generally the responsibility of the police control room and the match commander, or whoever was appointed to do that.
Mr Hopkins said a “basic question” in the control room leading up to kick-off was ‘how many have we got in?’.
He said: “In my experience it was a question that was always asked and often asked.”
Jonathan Hough QC, counsel to the inquest, asked: “Would you have expected a competent match commander outside the capital to have some method of assessing whether a pen was full or overfull?”
Mr Hopkins replied: “Well it’s not exactly rocket science, sir. If you look at a crowd, if you ask anyone in this room to look at a crowd and show them different pictures of it and say ‘when does it become crushing?’, I am sure you get a reasonable answer.”
Looking at footage of the central pens at 2.40pm, Mr Hopkins remarked: “I think most match commanders would have concluded that it was overfull and I would have been taking steps to prevent any further people going into it and encouraging people to move out at the back.”
Earlier Mr Hopkins said considering the ticket allocation and segregation for the game he would introduced have a filtering system for 24,000 supporters approaching just 23 turnstiles.
He added that the police command structure for the match was “a little clumsy”.
He said that Mr Marshall, who was responsible for the policing of the Liverpool fans, should have been responsible for the fans from the road, through the outer perimeter gates, past the turnstiles, into the concourse and on to the terraces.
Whereas it has been suggested at the inquests that Mr Marshall’s responsibility notionally ended at the outer perimeter gates.