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Honouring The Ibrox Disaster Victims, 38 Years Later

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Back in 1971, before the restructuring of Scottish football, there were only two Old Firm league games a season. On Saturday January 2nd 1971 the two bitter rivals clashed at Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium. It was, of course, a huge, and eagerly anticipated match.

Celtic, from the east end of the city, had been enjoying a period of dominance. They had won the Scottish league every season since 1965-66 a sequence that was to result in a run of nine consecutive championships. They had also become the first ever British side to lift the European Cup when, in 1967, they had beaten the mighty Inter Milan in Lisbon, 2-1.

This record would haunt Rangers until they too won nine on the trot between 1989 and 1997. The rivalry extends a lot further than these mere football statistics and is rooted in the not exclusively, Catholic (Celtic) tradition, and the largely Protestant (Rangers) background.

The days leading up to any Old Firm match, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and even families can find themselves divided as the excitement surrounding the approaching match begins to take hold.

As Celtic arrived at Ibrox on that particular day in January 1971 they were without doubt the favourites to win the match. Their team, managed by the legendary Jock Stein, contained several great players such as European Cup winners Jimmy Johnstone, and Bobby Lennox. The previous season they became the first British side to reach a second European Cup final this time losing to Holland’s Feyenoord.

Meanwhile Rangers, managed by Willie Waddell, boasted the likes of captain John Greig, Sandy Jardine, and striker Colin Stein. Despite talent of this calibre Rangers were suffering from inconsistent form and needed the points to try to prevent Celtic from winning yet another trophy.

The game was played with all the passion, and commitment expected from an Old Firm match and yet had seemingly reached a stalemate with the score set at 0-0 and time running out. Many of the fans at the Rangers end of the 80,000 all ticket crowd sensed that there would be no late dramas and began to head for the exit. The most popular exit for the East terrace was Stairway 13. It was the one nearest to the subway station.

Ibrox had been the scene of a previous catastrophe when in April 1902 the newly developed stadium witnessed the first major football related tragedy in the UK. During the Scotland v England match, part of the new wooden terracing collapsed killing 25 spectators and injuring over 500 others.

The ground gradually evolved during the interim years and by 1971 consisted of a huge bowl shaped stadium large enough to hold the massive crowds that an Old Firm match always attracted. The capacity was at one time just short of 150,000, making it the largest club ground in the UK.

The ill fated staircase had already seen incidents in 1961, 1967, and 1969 but no one could have anticipated the size of the tragedy that would change football in Glasgow forever.

The events on that tragic afternoon, at the end of a game that had been played in a largely good natured atmosphere, would change Ibrox, and the future of football stadium design.

The huge volume of people leaving the ground before the end could only listen when in the 89th minute the Celtic end went wild with delight. International winger Jimmy Johnstone had scored to put the visitors 1-0 up. 

With the goal coming so late in the game Celtic, and many Rangers supporters, must have thought that the match had taken its final twist. However almost directly from the kick off Rangers attacked and striker Colin Stein dramatically equalised. There was no time left in which to restart the match and it ended 1-1.

Many people left the ground totally unaware of the horror that was developing on Stairway 13. Several theories have been offered over the years regarding what happened. The most common is that some of the surge of Rangers supporters who either left early with the score at 0-0, or headed for the stairs when Celtic scored, turned to try and get back in when they heard the roar that greeted Rangers’ equaliser.

The official enquiry revealed that it was more likely that someone lost their footing and the crowd behind, unable to stop or even see the steps below, fell in one horrible mass of bodies.

The players had returned to their dressing rooms totally unaware of what had happened. The Rangers team were busy celebrating Stein’s last gasp equaliser when the news of an ongoing tragedy broke.

Sixty six fans were destined never to return home. Current day Rangers manager Walter Smith witnessed the tragedy as did the visiting, former Rangers defender, Sir Alex Ferguson, and former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh. The emergency services were overwhelmed by the enormity of the incident but worked tirelessly trying to separate the injured from the pile of bodies.

As the death toll rose the full horror was gradually revealed. Five schoolboys from the village of Markinch in Fife were among the dead. The collective shock cut across the Old Firm divide. These events went beyond tribal rivalry, beyond partisan feelings, and effected all parts of, not only Glasgow, but of football the world over.

Rangers manager Willie Waddell went to the stairway and saw first hand the human carnage. The dressing rooms, club gymnasium, and the club offices were all used as temporary mortuaries and hospitals for the countless injured. The medical staff of both clubs were actively involved trying to help those they could. Bob Rooney, the Celtic physio, was seen with tears streaming from his eyes trying to resuscitate victim after victim.

The local Southern General Hospital could hardly cope with the influx of dead and injured. The photographs taken of the stairways and its twisted barriers revealed the true extent of the horror.

Anyone, myself included, who attended a big match during that period, could so easily have become one of those victims. I can remember losing my footing as a young boy whilst descending a staircase whilst leaving a 63,000 crowd at the Chelsea v Manchester United game at Stamford Bridge in 1969.

I was lucky that day, we all were, and despite the fear that I felt, no one was hurt, let alone killed. At Ibrox two years later that wasn’t to be the case.

Ibrox and football has changed almost beyond recognition since that day in January 1971. The fierce rivalry still exists between the two clubs of course and you wouldn’t expect it to be any other way. For this day though a city was united in its grief for those who so needlessly lost their lives on those stairs.

The religious divide agreed on one thing. There for the grace of God ……………..

Within a few years the huge terraces, and staircases at Ibrox, Celtic Park, and Hampden had been bulldozed to be replaced by the impressive all seater stadiums we see today.

Unfortunately there would still be more tragedy at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Hillsborough, and Bradford to come. The lives lost at Ibrox are today remembered by a statue of the Rangers captain for that fateful match, John Greig, near the scene.

For more information the best site is Glasgow Rangers’ own official account of the tragedy.

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About Jeff Perkins

  • http://iainduff.wordpress.com/ Iain

    To absent friends

    Lest we forget…

  • Ally Brown

    I’m a season ticket holder at Ibrox (and a very infrequent writer for Blogcritics!), and I wanted to say this is a very good piece Jeff.