It was a bitterly cold day in Glasgow. Temperatures never made it above zero and a freezing fog lingered over the city for much of the day. In the traditional New Year derby, the Rangers and Celtic players had battled with their usual level of intensity in front of 80,000 fans at Ibrox.
In the 89th minute Jimmy Johnstone scored a goal that seemed to guarantee victory for Celtic. The away end erupted in joy, while many Rangers fans left as soon as the ball hit the net, assuming that the match was over. But, with the last kick of the match, Colin Stein scored a dramatic equaliser, shooting home after meeting a curling free kick from Dave Smith. Now it was the Rangers’ fans who celebrated. Those who left early, heard the roar and celebrated the goal as they left the ground.
Both sets of fans headed off into the cold evening, reasonably happy with their lot. As the players disappeared up the tunnel, PA announcer Kenneth MacFarlane made the usual safety announcement over the loudspeaker: “Spectators are requested to exercise care in leaving the stadium.” But as he spoke, on the exit stairway leading from the east terracing onto Cairnlea Drive a tragedy was unfolding which would claim the lives of dozens of supporters – crushed to death under the sheer weight of thousands of fellow fans.
Plenty theories have been put forward for the cause of the accident. The most commonly repeated is that departing fans, hearing the cheers for Stein’s late goal, tried to return to the terraces and collided with supporters trying to get down the stairs. It is an account that was discounted by eye-witnesses, whose evidence showed the tragedy occurred several minutes after the final whistle. Due to the sheer weight of numbers, it would also have been physically impossible for anyone to have turned around and walked back into the solid wall of spectators leaving the ground. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the myth persists to this day and is regularly repeated in print.
The most likely theory is that someone stumbled on their way down the stairway – possibly a youth who had been on a friend’s shoulders – causing the crowd to cave in. As more fans left the terraces, the crush intensified, resulting in the collapse of several steel barriers that ran up the centre of the stairway. Because there were so many people, there was simply no escape for those caught up in the crush.
In the end 66 people lost their lives on what became known as Stairway 13. Each of the victims had their own poignant story. They ranged in age from nine to 43 and came from all walks of life and all parts of Scotland. More than a third were still in their teens. There was one female among the dead – 18-year-old Margaret Ferguson. Just days earlier she had made a doll as a Christmas present for the baby daughter of Colin Stein, and handed it in personally to his home. Less than a week later Stein was attending her funeral. Five schoolboy friends from the same street in the Fife village of Markinch travelled to the game together and died together. Their funerals all took place on the same day, each attended by a Rangers player.
An estimated 145 fans were injured. Many received life-saving treatment as they lay on the stairway. Rangers manager Willie Waddell and his Parkhead counterpart Jock Stein helped the emergency services treat the injured as the dressing rooms were turned into makeshift casualty wards. Meanwhile those who had perished were carried from the stairway back into the stadium where they were laid out in a line on the playing field, their bodies covered with jackets and coats. It was a harrowing sight for all those who witnessed the scenes.
Survivor David Stirling was a witness at the subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry, held at Glasgow Sheriff Court. In his evidence he gave his description of events on the stairway. He told in graphic detail how the central barrier collapsed under the weight of numbers and how he and others were swept down the slope by the crush.
I was at the bottom, lying half on top of others and there were three young lads at my side and bodies on top of me. About 30 or 40 minutes after that I got free. It took so long because there were bodies at the front of me and bodies at the back of me to be cleared away first. And bodies on top of me. There were some young boys to my left and to my right. I don’t know if they were the same young boys I had been with before. There were three lying on my left and a sandy-headed lad, I turned his head around and there was nothing.
As news of the disaster spread, Glasgow and the rest of Scotland was united in shock and sorrow. Messages of sympathy came from all over the world along with promises of financial assistance for the families of the victims. US president Richard Nixon sent his condolences as did political leaders in New Zealand, Germany and elsewhere. The Pope also expressed his sympathies for the victims, one of many religious leaders to lend their voice to the tributes.
Within hours of the disaster, Glasgow’s Lord Provost Sir Donald Liddle, who had been at the match, set up a fund to raise money for all those who would suffer financially. Rangers quickly announced they would donate £50,000 to the appeal. Celtic also made a contribution and there were donations from many other clubs around the world. Offers of help also came from senior football figures in Brazil, Spain, West Germany, Portugal and Italy.
Sandy Jardine, Rangers right back, learned about the unfolding tragedy with his teammates in the Ibrox dressing room. He recalled:
Somebody came in and said you’ll have to get out the bath quickly, but did not explain why. There was no urgency. Then they came through and said there’s been an accident, you’ll need to get out really quick.
We were in the process of getting changed into our clothes when they started bringing bodies in. I remember trying to find out some information before getting into the car to go home to Edinburgh. They said a barrier had collapsed and two people had died. By the time I left the stadium it had risen to 10, then 22 then 44. By the time I got to Edinburgh, it was 66.
There was a feeling of disbelief. You could not comprehend it. Even then, Ibrox was one of the most modern and safe grounds in Europe, by the standards of the day. I can remember being on the ground staff as a 15-year-old and part of my duties were to sweep the terraces. I remember sweeping the stairs and the barriers were so solid you could not imagine them being twisted like that.
We were all told to come in on the Monday morning and we ceased to be a football club for three weeks. There are things I always remember. The first is the bodies being brought in. The second was seeing the people in the hospital and hearing them relate what had happened. How they had turned black because of the lack of oxygen and how they were lifted off their feet.
But the worst was attending the funerals of the young kids who had died. That was particularly traumatic.
Manager Willie Waddell took responsibility as the public face of the club in the aftermath of the tragedy, issuing statements and generally taking control of what was an incredibly difficult situation for all at the club.
It was his decision that Rangers players should attend the funerals of the victims and he also organised hospital visits by the squad to meet the injured.. The players listened intently as the survivors told their harrowing stories of the horrors they suffered and witnessed on the stairway. At the Victoria Infirmary, 25-year-old Stewart McMillan told players Willie Johnston and Alfie Conn of his terrifying ordeal. ‘The crowd were surging over the bodies like a tidal wave. I was caught by the crowd and jammed against a barrier. I am very lucky to be alive.’
Waddell later said that the players had been ‘upset and moved’ at what they had heard from the survivors. The emotional trauma would only only get worse, as the players attended a succession of funerals for the victims later in the week. On one tragic day, more than 20 funerals took place in Glasgow alone. Heartbreaking scenes were repeated in towns and villages all over the country, testament to the club’s massive appeal outwith the Glasgow boundaries. Among the most poignant scenes were in Markinch, where hundreds lined the streets to say farewell to the five young pals who lost their lives. In the Stirlingshire town of Slamannan, two brothers, Richard and John McLeay were laid to rest side by side in the same grave.
On Saturday 9 January a memorial service attended by more than 3,000 mourners and watched by millions on television took place at Glasgow Cathedral. Crowds gathered at the cathedral gates to hear the proceedings broadcast on loudspeakers. Rev Robert Bone, the parish minister for Ibrox, offered prayers for the ‘ordinary man in the crowd’ who put their own safety at risk in order to help others. He also praised the players who had done what they could to support the grieving. ‘We remember with pride the determination of these young men to share in the grief of all the bereaved. They have seen in a week as much sorrow as many do in a lifetime.’
As grief consumed the nation, thoughts turned to how and why this disaster happened. The question on most people’s lips was, why had lessons not been learned from the two very similar accidents on the same stairway in 1961 and 1969? The Prime Minister Edward Heath announced there would be two inquiries into the disaster – one would be a Fatal Accident Inquiry into what caused the 66 deaths and the other would look at the more general issues of sports ground safety.
The FAI began on 15 February at Pollokshaws Burgh Hall before Sheriff Allan Walker and was to last seven days. A succession of witnesses gave their harrowing accounts of what had happened, including pathologist Professor Giles Forbes who said that 60 of the victims had suffered asphyxiation and the other six from suffocation caused by their airways being blocked.
Former Rangers manager Scot Symon told the court how improvements had been made to the stairway after the previous fatal accident in 1961, while he was in charge of the team. Rangers director David Hope and chairman John Lawrence were also called to tell the court what had been done by the club in the wake of the previous incidents.
After more than two hours of deliberations, the jury returned their verdict. Their written statement concluded that the accident had happened because one or more fans had fallen on their way down the stairs, and that the pressure from the other departing supporters caused those at the front to fall over those who had collapsed first. The verdict ruled out once and for all the myth that the crush was caused by fans turning back after Colin Stein’s goal and also exonerated Rangers Football Club of direct blame.
A civil action taken later by widow Margaret Dougan was not so kind in its judgment of the club. Mrs Dougan, whose husband Charles died in the accident, was awarded more than £26,000 in damages and her case prompted Sheriff J Irvine Smith to issue a damning criticism of Rangers. Scathingly, he said little had been done to improve safety on the staircases after the previous incidents and found that the club appeared to have proceeded with the view that ‘if the problem was ignored long enough, it would eventually disappear.’
Meanwhile, the Government appointed Lord Wheatley to carry out a detailed review of safety at all British football grounds. The inquiry recommended that football grounds should be licensed by local authorities in much the same way as a cinema or restaurant would be. Councils would be able to call on the expertise of fire brigades, building inspectors, engineers and surveyors, among others, who would have the knowledge required to decide whether a ground was in a suitable state to be used by the public. Lord Wheatley’s reckoning was that Ibrox showed that a club could spend money on ground improvements, as Rangers had, but still not meet the standards of safety that were required.
The subsequent Safety of Sports Grounds Act of 1975 enshrined Wheatley’s recommendations in law. If a club did not meet the standards they would not be granted a safety certificate and therefore would not be allowed to use their ground. The certificate specified the total capacity of the ground, as well as the individual sections within, and insisted that entrances and exits met specific standards and were kept in a good state of maintenance. Areas considered unsafe had to be improved within a year and if they were beyond repair had to be completely closed down. Fines of up to £2,000 could be imposed for non-compliance.
Thirty years later, official documents were made public that revealed local authorities were prevented from taking control of safety at football grounds just six months before the disaster. The Scottish Office dismissed a direct request from councils to be given licensing powers over crowd safety at bigger grounds, saying that it would offer only ‘marginal’ benefits. In their written response, civil servants told the councils, ‘For the reasons given, (the Secretary of State) considers that the improvements which might follow the introduction of a licensing system would at best be marginal… and he therefore feels no step should be taken to introduce legislation to this end at the present time.’
The Ibrox disaster had demonstrated in the most tragic way imaginable that football had a responsibility for the well-being and safety of its supporters. While Willie Waddell set out to ensure that Rangers would never again find themselves mourning their supporters in such circumstances, other clubs were slow to react. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Ibrox was transformed into the most modern and safest ground in Britain. It took the Bradford fire of 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 to finally convince the rest of British football that the Victorian conditions endured by supporters were no longer acceptable.
Before the Old Firm game of 2 January 1991, Rangers unveiled a memorial to the victims of the disaster to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Sadly, the minute’s silence which preceeded the match was interrupted by jeers from Celtic fans, whose actions flew in the face of the united sense of grief that had engulfed Glasgow at the time of the tragedy.
The memorial itself, a small plaque, was considered inadequate by many and as the 30th anniversary approached, moves were initiated to create a more fitting tribute to those who lost their lives. The sculptor Andy Scott was approached by Senga Murray, the artist responsible for the murals painted in Blue Room at Ibrox which honour the club’s managers, captains and chairmen. Scott came up with a series of proposals and in the end it was decided to proceed with his suggestion of a statue of former captain John Greig – voted the Greatest Ever Ranger by fans.
Greig was seen as a figurehead for the club and was the captain at the time of the disaster. The sculpture is mounted on a red-brick plinth which a feature plaques bearing the names of all 66 those who lost their lives in the 1971 tragedy. The victims of the 1902 disaster and the accident in 1961 were not forgotten, their names listed on another plaque alongside.
The statue was unveiled at a sombre service at Ibrox on 2 January 2001. Thirty years to the day after the disaster, 471 relatives gathered outside the stadium to watch the ceremony take place. Inside Ibrox, more than 5,000 supporters gathered to watch the emotional service on giant video screens. Scarves and flowers from both Rangers and Celtic fans were laid at the statue.
The ceremony was an emotional occasion for the grieving families who had waited a long time for their loss to be marked by the club. Relatives sobbed during the service conducted by Rev Stuart MacQuarrie and stood in silent prayer as they laid wreaths at the foot of the bronze statue. For many it was worth the long wait simply to see their relative’s name on the plaque. Margaret Malcolm, who was now 86 years old, lost her 16-year-old son Russell in the crush. She said afterwards: “Russell had his whole life ahead of him. It has been worth the wait. I just needed to see Russell’s name up on that plaque.”
The business of football has changed beyond recognition since 1971, but the modern, safe Ibrox Stadium stands as a memorial to those who lost their lives on that dark day.