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The appalling tragedy that occurred at Ibrox Stadium on January 2nd 1971, claimed 66 lives and would ultimately affect the way that everybody in Britain watched football. But unlike other horrific events that we have witnessed in the years since there’s no graphic film or imagery to be hauntingly replayed over-and-over again; meaning that what happened that day is often considered something of a forgotten disaster.
The events of the 2nd of January 1971 are more correctly known as the Second Ibrox Disaster, as the ground had already tasted tragedy when a vast wooden terrace collapsed during a Scotland v England match in 1902, a disaster in its own right which killed twenty-five people.
In an ironic twist, what happened in 1902 actually led to the introduction of even more dangerous football stadia, as rotting wooden terraces were replaced by vast concrete stands capable of holding the weight of more people, but not necessarily able to cope with the consequences.
The huge rebuilding work that followed the first tragedy to occur at Ibrox meant that the home ground of Glasgow Rangers had become one of the three biggest grounds in Glasgow along with Celtic Park and Hampden Park. All three were seeing crowds of anything up to 100,000 at the time; but despite the stadiums growing rapidly there were few, if no, safety procedures in place to deal with the huge throngs that were now attending football matches week-after-week.
There was little regard for the safety and well-being of football fans back then – something which no doubt contributed to the death of two people in a crush at Ibrox, in September 1961 – a full 10 years before this mass loss of life on the very same spot.
The old firm fixture in Glasgow has always been as much part of the hogmanay celebrations as lumps of coal and first footing and 1971 was no exception; though in a rare break from tradition the game had actually been moved to the second of January, as outbreaks of violence and drunkenness that so often accompanied the fixture persuaded the authorities that things would be better if the match was put back 24 hours.
This didn't mean that Celtic and Rangers had no fixtures on New Year’s Day itself, they would just have to play twice in 24 hours; however, Celtic’s game was eventually postponed due to frost but Rangers did play and went down 3-1 to Falkirk.
The result meant that the Gers were now well off the pace in the league as Celtic looked nailed on to win the fifth of their nine successive titles under Jock Stein; but the significance of the result would be overshadowed by the sheer nature of the horrific events that took place when Celtic and Rangers did finally meet for their traditional New Year game.
Records of the attendance that day vary. Some say it was 80,000 and others have it higher, but one thing is for sure, it wasn't an all-ticket affair. Usually the match sold out quickly, but on this occasion, and due to Rangers’ poor showing in the league, it was possible to buy a ticket easily on the day of the game.
Despite the home side's struggles it didn’t stop a huge crowd gathering that day, as those from the green side of the city turned up to cheer their heroes on towards an inevitable title, while those in blue hoped they could at least raise their game against their fierce foe and delay the inevitable for a few weeks at least.
By all accounts the game was far from a classic. And on a dull, grey and smog-ridden Glasgow afternoon, the kind of day where it's difficult to tell whether it's night or day ,the game appeared to be meandering towards nothingness. That was until the final few minutes of the match.
As many spectators began to make their way out of the ground, assuming there would be little more to see Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone popped up in the Rangers box to score with a header that appeared to have won the game for the Hoops. An huge roar erupted from the Hoops fans gathered on the west terrace as they celebrated what they thought was a certain victory and another step towards the title.
But Rangers had other ideas and in the few seconds that remained, they were awarded a free-kick from which Colin Stein somehow prodded home an equaliser that sent the home fans, the ones who had remained, into ecstasy.
Nobody can really say what happened next. The initial consensus was that many of those who were in the process of trying to file out of the tightly packed terraces turned to see what was happening when the equaliser went in, only to be faced with a wall of spectators coming the other way, but a later investigation found there was no evidence to support this claim.
Subsequent reports and eye-witness accounts suggest that as the huge crowd all tried to exit the ground at the final whistle down the steep and narrow Stairway 13, all hell broke loose. This was the very same staircase where two fans had died ten years earlier, which was the only main exit at that end of the stadium and one which served thousands of spectators due to being the closest to the Subway station.
The exit was likened to being: “at the top of a ski-jump,” with no way of turning back once you had begun your “descent,” and, after a number of people lost their footing, it then caused a tragic sequence of events as hundreds of people fell on top of each other.
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 recently installed steel barriers couldn’t control the number of people all funnelling down that one staircase and buckled under the weight causing the crowd to tumble on top of each other.
As people fell to the floor and down the concrete steps a toxic crush ensued and in seconds the breath of life was literally being squeezed, from, from 66 spectators with over 200 others suffering terrible injuries.
Survivor Ian Loch, from Bearsden, near Glasgow, was one of thousands caught in the crush on stairway 13 as he left the Copland Road Stand that day.
“It was jam-packed,” he told the Daily Record some years later. “The guys at the front had obviously fallen and the others were coming in on top of them. At first everyone was shouting, ‘Get back, get back.' But then it gradually fell silent, because people had literally had the wind squeezed out of them.
“I crawled over the top of bodies and I still have no idea if the people around me died or not. Afterwards, I felt like I was in a bubble, I had no idea of time or anything like that. An ambulance man came up to me and told me I needed to be checked out because I must have looked awful. He took me back into the ground and there were bodies lying everywhere on stretchers.”
The nation was left stunned and shocked by what happened that day, even though news of the tragedy took some time to filter through. Victims ranged in age from just eight to forty-five years old, with the majority being in their teens or twenties including a group of teenagers who had travelled from the Fife village of Markinch together.
15 year old Douglas Morrison was the eldest of the group, which included Ronald Paton, Mason Philip and Bryan Todd. The youngest was 13-year-old Peter Easton, whose mother hadn't wanted him going to the game but changed her mind when her son pointed out that he'd done so well in his studies at Auchmuty High School in Glenrothes, the same school that all the boys had attended.
Then there was eight-year-old Nigel Pickup from Liverpool, whose stepfather had taken him to the match as a special treat. He lost his life in the deathly crush on Stairway 13 too. Another grim statistic from such a terrible day which, ironically, had passed pretty peacefully otherwise, with just two arrests for drunkenness being reported.
“My God, it was hellish,” explained Rangers manager Willie Waddell when describing what he saw that day. “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.”
The club itself was thrown into a state of shock, and Waddell insisted that the club was represented at each and every one of the funerals as the process of grieving began, not just across Glasgow, but around the world.
Future Scotland and Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson – who was playing for Falkirk at the time – was there that day and recalls what he saw.
“I remember leaving immediately after the equaliser went in,” he said. “As we drove home past the hospital we saw a huge number of ambulances heading towards the ground and thought, ‘Jesus, there must be some trouble going on there.’ It was only when I got home to my mum and dad’s that we realised what had happened. My brother Martin had been at that end of the ground and still wasn’t home. It was only after a few hours when he turned up that we knew he was okay.”
The two sides may have started out that fateful day as rivals but in the face of such a tragedy club allegiance was soon cast aside with Celtic supporter’s buses pulling over as fans ran to try and offer assistance to the injured. Only when they saw an increasing number of bodies being lined up along the touchline and behind the goal did many realise the sheer enormity of what had happened.
As with any tragedy on this scale, it’s hard to see what good can come from such a disaster, but the events of that day did set about wholesale changes in the way spectators watched football in years to come. Thanks mainly to manager Willie Waddell, who felt he owed it to those who had died, in 1978 work began to transform the ground from an outdated and dilapidated death-trap to a more modern and safe environment.
Three years later the new Ibrox Stadium was completed, with only the Main Stand – a listed building – remaining from what had stood before.
What followed was by far the most modern and groundbreaking structure football fans had seen and was later to be used as the blue print for most major British grounds following the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report of 1989.
On the 30th anniversary of the tragedy in 2001 a plaque, originally unveiled at the old ground, was replaced by a larger monument which featured a statue of John Greig, the Rangers club captain in 1971, and the names of everyone killed – including those in the previous two tragedies which also haunt Ibrox.
In a broader sense the second Ibrox disaster had a major effect on many other British sporting venues. That’s because the government investigation which followed led to the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act, which introduced mandatory licensing from local authorities at all sports venues, the first time that a safety certificate was required for major sporting events.
Of course, we know all too well from bitter and painful experience that legislation and hindsight would not eradicate the potential for tragedies to take place at sporting grounds in the years to follow and several high profile disasters showed there was still much to be done when it comes to crowd control and the safety of supporters.
But just because the events at Ibrox on January 2nd 1971 weren’t captured on film or broadcast live at the time, and those that were are now grainy black and white images, it doesn’t make them any less significant for those who were there that day or who were affected by one of the most tragic events to occur at a sporting event – not just in Britain – but anywhere.