Former Sheffield Wednesday secretary defends role at Hillsborough inquests

Fans try to escape the crowded pens during the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989.
Fans try to escape the crowded pens during the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989.
Have your say

The man in overall charge of stadium safety at Hillsborough denied ‘pointing the finger’ at others as he was questioned about the football disaster today.

Graham Mackrell was secretary of Sheffield Wednesday FC when 96 Liverpool fans were killed at an FA Cup semi-final at the club’s Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

Former Sheffield Wednesday Football Club secretary Graham Mackrell.

Former Sheffield Wednesday Football Club secretary Graham Mackrell.

He told the new inquests into the deaths that, although his position made him ultimately responsible for spectator safety, he relied on the advice of others.

Mr Mackrell told the hearings in Warrington, Cheshire, that although his role gave him responsibility for overall control of safety at the ground, in reality he deferred to the advice of Dr Wilfred Eastwood, the club’s adviser and engineering consultant.

Pete Weatherby, representing 22 of the victims’ families, asked Mr Mackrell: “You are quick to point the finger at Dr Eastwood, aren’t you?”

Mr Mackrell replied: “No, not at all. Only to areas of his responsibility and the process that was in place when joining the club.”

Mr Weatherby continued: “Was there anything you did or did not do that contributed to this disaster?”

Mr Mackrell replied: “In hindsight, relying on other people.”

The witness said when he got the role at Sheffield Wednesday he had 12 years’ experience as a club secretary elsewhere, but there was no handover from the previous secretary and no job description.

He said no club at the time had an independent safety officer, it was simply an ‘add-on’ to the role.

Mr Mackrell said he had inherited an already established system of safety regulation at the ground, involving among others Sheffield Council, South Yorkshire Police and Dr Eastwood, an engineer and man of ‘strong opinions’ who ‘knew his own mind’ and he had ‘no reason’ to believe existing safety arrangements were inadequate.

However, Christina Lambert QC, counsel to the inquests, put it to the witness that, although Dr Eastwood was the engineering adviser, the club secretary was the man with ultimate responsibility for safety.

She said that, while engineers, fire, police and the local authority, all part of the Officer Working Party, and the safety committee at Hillsborough can advise and help, the ultimate responsibility for the safety of spectators was the management in charge of the ground.

Mr Mackrell said Dr Eastwood was and his firm was employed by the club to ‘carry out the safety function’ and neither he nor anyone else at the club had the expertise to do that.

He said: “Nobody had raised with me that any of the matters in relation to match day safety were inappropriate or inaccurate.”

The jury has heard fences had been introduced on the Leppings Lane terrace creating self contained pens.

However, while the maximum capacity of the whole terrace was 10,100, there was no way of ensuring which of the pens fans went into, no system for checking safe numbers inside each pen and a main tunnel under the seated upper tier led directly to the central pens behind the goal.

There was also just 23 turnstiles for the 24,500 Liverpool fans on the day, compared to 62 for the 29,000 fans of their opponents Nottingham Forest FC.

Nick Brown, representing 74 of the victims’ families, asked Mr Mackrell if ‘the penny did not drop’ that all 10,100 fans in the Leppings Lane terrace could go down the central tunnel to pens three and four under this arrangement.

Mr Mackrell told the jury he believed the police had a system for checking if individual pens were becoming too crowded.

Mr Brown put it to Mr Mackrell ‘if you had engaged your brain’ he would see the system was ‘deeply flawed’.

Mr Mackrell replied: “In hindsight, I believe you are right.”

The inquests continue.