A SENIOR Sheffield Wednesday official twice withheld 250 tickets from sale for big matches prior to the Hillsborough disaster because of safety and public disorder fears.
Ex-club secretary Richard Chester said he took the initiative himself because the club had not revised its maximum capacity for the Leppings Lane end after the terrace had been divided into three pens.
Ninety-six fans died in a crush following overcrowding in that terrace at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
Mr Chester told the inquests into the deaths of the supporters that he would have expected the 10,100 capacity for the terrace to have been adjusted “because there is lesser space for people to stand”.
He explained he had taken it upon himself for “a little bit of protection” to take out 250 visitors’ tickets for sale at two all-ticket matches in the 1984/85 season.
He said: “I wanted a little bit of protection and a little bit of back-up.
“You appreciate that if you have taken an area of terracing out that is not available then logically you cannot have the same number of people (there).
“Quite clearly we did not want to be involved in a safety problem or a public disorder issue.”
Mr Chester went on to say he sat “aghast” at home when he realised that Liverpool fans had been awarded the Leppings Lane end in the 1988 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, who were awarded the larger Kop end.
He said it “did not make sense” because the travelling support of Liverpool was “probably twice” that of Forest.
During his time at the club, Mr Chester said he officially raised an objection to Sunderland fans being given the Leppings Lane end and Norwich the Kop end in the event of a replay in the 1985 League Final.
He said the club contacted then-Football League secretary Graham Kelly and within 48 hours the decision was reversed.
Mr Chester, club secretary at Hillsborough between 1984 and 1986, did not give evidence at the Taylor Inquiry that followed the disaster nor the original inquests.
He said he did make a statement to West Midlands Police, the independent force who probed the tragedy, in May 1989 but did not mention to them the two occasions when he took out the Leppings Lane tickets from sale.
He told Christina Lambert QC, counsel to the inquest, that he did not know why he had not said anything to the police at the time.
Sheffield Wednesday was granted its safety certificate in 1979 but it was not revised before the tragedy despite the division of the Leppings Lane terrace into three pens in 1981 and later into five pens in 1985.
Mr Chester said he thought it was “ultimately the board of directors” who would be responsible for any shortcomings of a safety nature.
He said he could not think “of a single occasion” at his time at the South Yorkshire club when the need for stadium safety was compromised on the basis of cost.
He recalled a copy of the safety certificate was in his office but he was “90% sure” there were no plans attached to it.
Mr Chester agreed with Ms Lambert that a safety certificate was not complete without annexed plans.
Gate numbers hard to break down at Hillsborough
The inquest was told that the maximum stated capacity for Hillsborough was 50,174, with maximum figures broken down for each individual stand and terrace, and that it should not be exceeded and gate records must be kept for inspection.
Mr Chester said gate records were kept from collating the number of spectators entering the different parts of the stadium but he accepted an accurate breakdown of fans in the Leppings Lane end could not be given because it had no dedicated turnstiles.
Ms Lambert asked him: “You are agreeing with me that the simple method of counting up the number of spectators passing through the turnstiles was insufficient to discharge or meet the conditions in the safety certificate.”
He replied: “Yes, I would say so.”
The barrister continued: “The only way, is this right, in which the safety certificate conditions could be complied with would be if effectively you had dedicated turnstiles for each part of the stadium - the west terrace, the west stand and the north-west terrace (all Leppings Lane) - that once folk had passed through those turnstiles they did not have a choice as to where to go.”
Mr Chester said: “That was the problems as the far as the pens are concerned.”
He confirmed to the coroner, Lord Justice Goldring, that he was aware of the issue at the time when he was club secretary.
The court, sitting in Warrington, heard there were club discussions in August and September 1984 about the need to update the drawings to accompany the safety certificate.
Ms Lambert suggested that was “a golden opportunity” to raise his fears but Mr Chester said that he thought his concerns arose “slightly later”.
The witness went on to say: “I can truthfully say during my time at Hillsborough there was not an incident that caused me a safety concern and crowding concern.”
Ms Lambert reminded him of an incident at a game between Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley on January 7, 1984 when the centre tunnel leading to the Leppings Lane terraces had to be closed and the kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes.
The inquest was told there had been an incident on the motorway prior to the game which held up the arrival of Barnsley fans and Mr Chester said the decision to put back the kick-off was “precautionary”.
The central tunnel was closed again before a game against Liverpool on February 2, 1985 when it was said Liverpool fans had turned up late “for no particular reason”.
Mr Chester said he and the match commander, Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, asked the referee to delay kick-off but this time was refused by the official who he said was “adamant”.
He said he did not know if that decision was made because “fans might have brought it upon themselves”.
He said: “My view was to try and get the crowd in as sensibly and as safely as possible. In all the circumstances, I don’t think any club could dictate to a referee, some referees.”
The jury also heard there was an event of overcrowding in the Spion Kop end in 1985.
Hillsborough had been certified safe
Each year the club’s engineering consultants, Eastwood and Partners, would certify to the local authority that the club was safe to host football matches, the inquest heard.
But there was a period of time in the mid-1980s when that certification was not lodged or if was it was defective because it was restricted to barrier testing and not the general condition of the ground.
Ms Lambert asked Mr Chester: “Whose responsibility was that?”
The witness replied: “I cannot ever recall a concern being raised by the issuing authority.”
Ms Lambert went on: “One of the curious features of the safety certificate is if there is a breach of any of the conditions there is potentially a criminal liability, not on Dr (Wilfred) Eastwood (owner of Eastwood and Partners) but on the club, at least potentially.
“Do you think with that potential criminal liability went a responsibility?”
Mr Chester said: “It clearly reverts back to the club.”
He denied the possibility that the relationship between Dr Eastwood and the club “might have got a little cosy” and in contrast to previous descriptions of Dr Eastwood being “dogmatic” and “bombastic” he considered him “a consummate professional”.
When he left the club in 1986 he said he passed on his concerns about the capacity figures to then chairman Bert McGee and board director Keith Addy, whose responsibilities covered stadium safety.
When asked about the response, he said: “From Mr McGhee it was pretty much ‘thank you, I will take a note’.”
Verdicts of accidental death from the original Hillsborough inquest in March 1991 were quashed in December 2012 after the Hillsborough Independent Panel delivered its final report on the disaster earlier that year.
Lord Justice Goldring asked Mr Chester: “Did you tell anyone that you held back 200 to 250 tickets?”
Mr Chester replied: “You this morning are the first people to know.”
The coroner went on: “Did you tell anyone at Sheffield Wednesday that is what you were doing?”
He said: “I have just answered you. This morning you are the first ones to know.”
In 1985 the Leppings Lane terrace was divided into five pens with the erection of another radial fence and a 25 square metre “no man’s land” area, along with another hatched area at the mouth of the central tunnel. Both the latter confined areas were not intended for spectators.
Ms Lambert put it to him that the safety requirements could not be achieved with that layout.
Mr Chester, who had also been club secretary at Lincoln City and Sheffield United, replied: “No, not really. It didn’t take into account the capacities into the pens or the movement into the pens.”
Ms Lambert continued: “If you carve out an area of 25 square metres from a pen, does it not follow, as the night follows the day, that the safe capacity of that area of the terrace must be reduced?”
The witness said: “Yes.”
He agreed with Ms Lambert that those alterations should have reduced the capacity figures.
The barrister said: “That was not done and you accept that this is the club’s responsibility?”
“Yes,” he repeated.
He said he believed he would have solved the capacity problems at Leppings Lane if he stayed on at the club and help reduce it downwards.
He confirmed he did not leave the club because of the way it was run or his safety concerns.