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The Ibrox Disaster 1971

Ibrox in 1967

© SNSpix

Football stadium disasters carry a heavy resonance in British culture that goes far beyond the communities affected. The loss of life seems doubly tragic as the victims were off their guard, enjoying themselves, where tragedy shouldn't have been encroaching. Kenny Dalglish summed it up after Heysel: “You go along to watch a game. You don't go along expecting that sort of ending, do you? Football's not that important. No game of football is worth that. Everything else pales into insignificance.”

And so the name of the stadium, Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford and Ibrox, becomes inextricably linked with senseless deaths.

The Old Firm ne'erday derby of 1971 was such a game when death would have been the farthest thing from the 66 victims' minds. The game was played in a good atmosphere on a Saturday afternoon when many in the 80,000 crowd would still be recovering from their Hogmanay celebrations but knowing they still had a few days off before going back to the grind of work.

And for the 90 minutes nothing did occur. It was only after Colin Stein had equalised Jimmy Johnstone's 89th minute opener in the last minute that the disaster happened as the crowd made their way out through exit 13, leavings scores of dead, hundreds injured and countless supporters traumatised.

The Glasgow Herald football reporter Andrew Young was called out of the press box to report on something more poignant that day than the thrilling climax to the match.

He described the aftermath of Scotland's worst ever football disaster: “Eventually at the top of the terrace the true horror became apparent. Half a dozen lifeless forms were lying on the ground. Rescuers were tripping over the dead and injured as they struggled back with more victims.

“A wedge of emptiness had been created part of the way down the long steep flight of steps leading to the Copeland Road exit. In it were the twisted remains of the heavy steel division barriers. They had been mangled out of shape and pressed to the ground by the weight of the bodies.

“Lying all over the steps were scores of shoes that had been ripped off in the crush. Beyond, the steps were still dense with groaning people.

“There was almost complete shocked silence at this stage. Occasionally we would hear the sounds of coins falling from the victims pockets as they were lifted away.”

Rangers fan William Mason was so traumatised by the events he was caught up in as an 18-year-old, he didn't attend a football game for another 17 years.

He said in the Aye Ready website: “It was well after the final whistle when my five mates and I made our way towards the Stairway 13 exit, as was usual at that time there was crushing at the top of the stairs, especially at big games. As I started down I was lifted off my feet by the press of the crowd, again not unusual, but about a quarter of the way down I began slowly falling forward.

“The crush began to be unbearable until about half way down the crowd stopped moving but the pressure continued. I was trapped, being crushed and lying almost horizontally, I managed to somehow free my upper chest and just managed to breath. Around me I could hear shouting and cries but as time went on, these decreased until it was almost silent. I just wanted to sleep, but the man nearest to me slapped my face to try and keep me alert.”

Stairway 13

© BBC

The list of the dead included one woman, 18-year-old Margaret Ferguson from Falkirk, who only days earlier had made a doll for Colin Stein's young daughter and taken it out to his house. Her father David was worried about the increasing violence at Old Firm matches and didn't want her to go but after the family had gone out to watch Falkirk, the teenager slipped out of the house to go to Ibrox. Her family must have heard the disaster unfold on the radio, not knowing their daughter had been crushed by it.

Prison Officer James Sibbald also died. The match was played on his son Leslie's fifth birthday. Did the 28-year-old from Edinburgh get grief from his wife for going out on his son's birthday?

Single man Walter Raeburn covered the walls of his lodgings with Rangers pennants and photographs. He too, would never see his team again.

The youngest person to die was eight-year-old Nigel Pickup, who was visiting his Scottish relatives from Canada, when his stepfather David McPherson took him to the game.

The mini bus driver for the Glenrothes Rangers Supporters Club eventually grew tired of waiting for five teenagers from Markinch at the end of the game and left without them. None of the boys made it back and the tiny Fife village closed down for the day when they were buried with 1,000 out on the main street to watch the cortege pass.

The immediate reaction was to blame supporters for rushing into the ground to celebrate Colin Stein's goal, which kept Rangers in touching distance of the league title. However as early as the Monday following the Ibrox disaster accounts from eyewitnesses from flats on Copeland Rd described teenagers disappearing under the crowd surging down towards the exit.

Perhaps the increase in hooliganism made supporters an easy scapegoat for the accident, which was not the first to happen at this stairway. In September 1961 two were killed, then on September 1967 eight were injured and again on 2nd of January 1969 twenty-four were injured.

The enquiry that followed the disaster proved inconclusive, although it was suggested that a supporter tripping on his way out could have triggered the horrific chain of events.

Unlike most public venues, Scottish football stadiums did not need to be licensed with safety certificates, even though as many as 100,000 supporters had to be catered for. The inquiry and the Wheatley Report of 1972 led to the Safety of Sports Ground Act of 1975 which introduced safety certificates for the first time

Incredibly football went on. After a week and a half of attending funeral and memorial services the Rangers players started training again. The away game at Cowdenbeath was cancelled before the same starting 11 who played Celtic ran onto the Ibrox turf to play Dundee United. One paper suggested that it would be good for the players as it would stop them brooding about the tragedy. John Greig recalled in programme notes to mark the twentieth anniversary: “One thing I'll never forget was the next time we played at Ibrox against Dundee United on the 16th of January was the atmosphere inside the park. It was the strangest game I ever played in.”

Written by: Gordon Cairns



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