Today marks the fortieth anniversary of what could, with justification, be described as British football’s forgotten tragedy. Whereas the disasters of Heysel and Hillsborough took place in front of the nation, live on the television, and the Valey Parade fire of 1985 took places in front of photgraphers and television cameras which ensured iconic images that became instantly part of our mental imagery of the decay of the game during the mid-1980s, the Ibrox Disaster remains obscure in the memory, but it claimed the lives of sixty-six people and had ramifications that would go on to effect the way that everybody in Britain now watches the game.
The Ibrox Disaster is more correctly known as the Second Ibrox Disaster, as the ground had already tasted tragedy before in 1971. At a match between England and Scotland played there in 1902, a vast wooden terrace constructed by Archibald Leitch collapsed, killing twenty-five people. It was the first incident of this type at a British football ground of such a scale, and led to this type of wooden terracing rapidly falling from favour. Ibrox did, however, grow to become one of the three Glasgow super-stadia – along with Celtic Park and Hampden Park – with a capacity of 140,000 and which hosted what seems likely to be forever the biggest attendance for a British league match, with almost 119,000 people watching the Old Firm match played there in January 1939.
In line with the rest of football at the time, though, the prevailing attitude at the Glasgow clubs was to pack in as many people as possible with scant regard for safety and there were already known issues with parts of Ibrox. In September 1961, two people were killed in a crush on Stairway Thirteen, one of the major exits of the ground, and the club spent a substantial amount of money by the standards of the time – £150,000 – on making improvements to it. There were, however, further incidents there in 1967 and 1969 that led to a total of thirty-two people being injured, but the voluntary safety licensing system of the time meant that no-one had the power to force any clubs to make further improvements that clubs didn’t want or couldn’t afford to make.
As per convention, Rangers took on Celtic on the second of January 1971. There was a crowd of 100,000 present for the match, which was by all accounts largely uneventful until its very closing stages. Jimmy Johnstone gave Celtic the lead with a shot from a narrow angle with a couple of minutes left to play but, almost straight from the kick-off, Colin Stein equalised from close range to bring Rangers level. Stairway Thirteen was in the north-west corner of the ground, and was a regularly an access point for up to a quarter of those visiting Ibrox for matches and, of course, with Rangers having fallen behind so late in the game, many were already starting to leave the ground.
What happened next will never be known with absolute certainty. The commonly held myth was that Stein’s goal meant that many of those leaving turned and tried to re-enter the ground, causing a crush, but this has now been largely dismissed as the truth of what happened that day. The reality was almost certainly more mundane. It is likely that the incident didn’t occur until after the final whistle, because most eye-witness accounts stated that the whole of the crowd was moving down the stairway in the same direction at the time of the tragedy. It may have been precipitated by someone with a child on their shoulders stumbling, or by children picking up items dropped on the ground by others, but these specifics are, of course, broadly speaking irrelevant. According to one eye-witness, the crowd “just caved in like a pack of cards – it was as if all of them were falling into a huge hole”. The expensively installed steel barriers couldn’t, of course, control the number of people in the area, and they caved in. Sixty-six people were asphyxiated or suffocated, and over 200 over supporters were injured.
The disaster stunned and shocked the nation. Among the dead were five teenagers from the Fife village of Markinch that had travelled to Ibrox together, just one grim statistic from such a terrible day. Victims ranged in age from nine to just forty-five years old, with the majority being in their teens or twenties. Ironically, the police confirmed that the match had otherwise been one of the most peaceful Old Firm matches for many years, with just two arrests reported over the rest of the day. The club itself was thrown into a state of shock, and manager Willie Waddell insisted that the club was represented at each and every one of the funerals, and it was Waddell who summed up the horror of the day in the starkest possible terms:
It’s strange what comes into your mind, but when I first went to the top of the steps and looked down on the pile of bodies, my initial thought was of Belsen, because the corpses were entangled as they had been in the pictures which came out of the concentration camps but, my God, it was hellish, there were bodies in the dressing rooms, in the gymnasium, and even in the laundry room. My own training staff and the Celtic training staff were working at the job of resuscitation, and we were all trying everything possible to bring breath back to those crushed limbs.
Waddell would remain the Rangers manager until after they won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1972, but it was at the 1974 World Cup finals that he saw the template for the modern, all-seater stadium that Ibrox was to become in the form of the Westfalonstadion in Dortmund. Waddell started raising the £12m required to begin the work on the ground, which began in 1978 and was completed three years later. The new Ibrox had a capacity of 45,000, of which just 9,000 were still standing, and only the Bill Struth Main (or South) Stand – a listed building – remained from the old ground. It was, by a distance that is almost inconceivable today, the most modern football ground that British football had ever seen. A plaque had stood at the ground, but a larger memorial was unveiled in 2001, which features a statue of John Greig, the Rangers club captain in 1971, and blue plaques featuring the names of everyone killed in all three of the fatal incidents to occur at Ibrox.
In a broader sense, however, the second Ibrox Disaster had a major effect on many other British football grounds. The subsequent govermental investigation was led by the Right Honourable Lord Wheatley, and the Wheatley Report led to The 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act, which, amongst other things, introduced mandatory licensing from local authorities at all sports venues with a capacity of over 10,000 or in the First or Second Divisions of the Football League. While gaps in the Act would mean that the later tragedies at Valley Parade and Hillsborough would occur, it was the first time that legislation would be passed requiring safety certificates, fifty-one years after the first official enquiry into safety af sports grounds, which had been ordered after the events surrounding the 1923 FA Cup Final.
Willie Waddell died in 1992, having stayed at the club for the rest of his life and acted as Managing Director, General Manager and Vice-Chairman, and his lasting testimony to Rangers was the ultra-modern Ibrox that he oversaw the construction of. For the rest of us, the lasting legacy of this disaster was the beginning of a process by which safety came to be regarded as something that could no longer be completely ignored. While the Wheatley Report and The Safety of Sports Grounds Act of 1975 were both unsatisfactory in conclusion and implementation, they were at least a start – a change in culture after decade upon decade of clubs doing little more than packing as many people as possible onto a terrace and hoping for the best. There will be a minute’s silence at Ibrox before today’s match against Celtic and a memorial service at the ground tomorrow. It is to be hoped that other rivalries will be put to one side in order the remember those that fell on Stairway Thirteen.
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