FAILINGS by Manchester United contributed directly to the death of a lifelong fan at Old Trafford during a derby match in 2017.
United stewards were found to be shockingly at fault after John Whale, 80, plunged headfirst down concrete steps in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand while leaving the game against Manchester City, sustaining fatal head injuries.
A coroner was so concerned by the evidence at a three-day inquest that she was moved to write a Report to Prevent Future Deaths to the club and local authority, stating: “In my opinion, there is a risk that further deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
At the inquest, a jury found that the behaviour of two of the club’s stewards ‘blocking an exit to the concourse at the stadium’ had contributed to the death of the retired mining engineer.
The grandfather, who had supported the club since he was a boy, was leaving the match around 10 minutes before full-time when tragedy struck. At the hearing in Stockport, a jury was shown damning CCTV footage which showed two stewards blocking the exit. They appeared to be watching the match and oblivious to Whale’s attempts to leave.
As a result, the pensioner was unable to reach the handrail at the side of the exit. The heartbreaking clip shows Whale, forced to go through the middle of the pair, suddenly disappear.
Following his fall he was taken to Salford Royal Hospital but died the next day surrounded by his family.
At the conclusion of the case, the coroner felt strongly enough to file the Report to Prevent Future Deaths with a series of recommendations about changes the club needed to make. Though the cause of death was ruled as accidental and no blame was apportioned, three damning contributory factors were recorded: Stewards impeding the exit; their obstruction of access to both handrails; and their lack of awareness of their surroundings.
All three were listed on Whale’s death certificate.
United were also found not to have filed an accident report after the fatal fall.
In her subsequent report, coroner Alison Mutch OBE wrote: “During the course of the inquest, the evidence revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
She added that Trafford Council had issued a list of recommendations to United following Whale’s death, but stated: “There was no mechanism in place for discussion of those recommendations or to ensure that they had been followed.”
The coroner stated that there was no evidence the stewards, who United accepted were not complying with the code of conduct, were regularly audited.
Police launched an investigation but found no evidence of criminal activity.
Whale, who played golf three times a week, had worked all over the world and was a much-loved family man, the court heard, and the impact of his death had been devastating.
His wife, June, was too upset to talk when contacted at her home in Hale Barns, Cheshire.
She told the court she had asked her husband to wrap up warm for the game and was at home preparing his favourite dinner when she received a phone call telling her to go to the hospital.
The inquest, in November 2018, raised serious questions over fan safety at Old Trafford despite the vast sums one of the world’s biggest clubs spends on players.
A United spokesperson said: “Everyone at Manchester United was deeply saddened by the death of Mr Whale and the club continues to extend its sincere condolences to his family.
“The health and safety of all supporters and visitors at Old Trafford is of utmost importance to Manchester United and we go to great lengths to ensure procedures are monitored and adhered to at all times.
“We work with independent safety inspectors from the local council, as well as national stadium safety inspectors, to ensure the correct procedures are administered.
“We were fully compliant with all applicable regulations at the time of this tragic accident and the coroner’s investigation resulted in a conclusion of accidental death.
“However, we constantly seek to learn and improve on our procedures and we welcomed the observations in the coroner’s report on opportunities for further risk reduction, which we have now implemented.”
United would not tell Sportsmail what changes had been made.
A spokesperson for Trafford Council said: “Following the inquest into this tragic incident, the council worked with Manchester United to implement the recommendations of the coroner to ensure the safety of all fans and visitors to the stadium.”