The stairway to hell haunting Ibrox
Published 30/12/2010 | 00:00
Tragedy is never truly authenticated in the modern world unless seen through the lens of a television camera.
Forty years ago in Glasgow, however, came a disaster that was almost hidden from view.
Unlike Heysel and Hillsborough, there are no graphic images of the Ibrox Disaster to be hauntingly replayed.
When 66 fans died on a stairway after a Rangers-Celtic match, it was only just beyond the horizon for the cameras which covered the match that day.
Ironically, 10 years ago on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, technology's quantum leap ensured that as many as possible were able to pay their respects to the victims.
Rangers held a memorial service at the stadium which was transformed by that fateful day of January 2, 1971.
More than 400 relatives joined the Reverend Stuart McQuarrie, whose service outside the ground was relayed on to Ibrox's two massive screens for the thousands inside.
David Murray, the Rangers chairman, then unveiled a memorial statue at the corner of the Bill Struth Main Stand and the Copland Road Stand.
The monument contains blue plaques displaying with the names of each person killed in three separate tragedies at the stadium.
A statue of John Greig, the Rangers captain at the time of the 1971 disaster, stands atop the monument.
If Murray’s predecessors had shown the same commitment as the millionaire who lost both legs in a car crash at the age of 23 — Murray pumped millions into keeping Ibrox at the head of stadium innovation — the disaster may never have happened.
Those 66 lives were a heavy price to pay for parsimony. The buckled railings on the infamous Stairway 13 — captured so vividly in newspapers rather than on television — remain an indelible memory for Rangers supporters of that generation, and are an epitaph of shame for those who ran the club four decades ago.
Just 10 years earlier, in 1961, two had died on the same stairway after barriers broke and the subsequent inquiry into the 1971 Ibrox Disaster found the club complacent in its attitude to previous problems there.
In those days, Ibrox, Celtic Park and Hampden were vast bowls where 80,000 people decanted from the huge terracings through narrow exits.
Everyone who went to football in the Sixties and Seventies encountered “the sway”.
The shifting tide of humanity may have looked atmospheric when caught on camera at the front of The Kop, but elsewhere, unseen, it brought only fear, even to those were big and strong enough to cope.
What made Ibrox a recipe for disaster were the vertiginous staircases from which it emptied thousands from the terracing.
It was like the 90m ski jump tower, with no chance of turning back.
The full truth never really emerged about the cause of the disaster.
Contributory factors, though, were the goals from Jimmy Johnstone and Colin Stein. Johnstone had given Celtic a 1-0 lead with just a minute to play, sending thousands of Rangers fans to the exits.
Once there, they heard the roars which greeted Stein's dramatic equaliser.
The inquiry found no truth in the popular theory that, in an attempt to scramble back up to see what happened, the fans turned back on the stairway only to meet the flood of people behind them.
One eyewitness said the crowd “just caved in like a pack of cards, it was as if all of them were falling into a huge hole”.
The steel barriers gave way and 66 people were suffocated in the crush. Several died upright, others were squeezed literally out of their socks and shoes.
Five of the victims were schoolmates from the town of Markinch in Fife.
Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia, with bodies being stacked up to six feet deep in the area. Over 200 other fans were injured.
Rangers grasped the need for total change after the disaster.
Under the guidance of the late Willie Waddell, general manager at the time, they spent £10m in just three years between 1978 and 1981 turning the ground into a virtual carbon copy of Borussia Dort
mund's Westfalenstadion and the Murray years have seen the addition of a new main stand with club deck and corporate boxes.
These days Ibrox holds 50,000 seated in comfort, it has UEFA five-star status and few stadia in Europe can match it— all of which is still too little and too late for the families of the victims on that fateful day four decades ago.
Prior to the Old Firm game at Ibrox, this Sunday, the teams will be led out by John Greig, who captained Rangers during the tragic derby, and Billy McNeill, a Celtic captain of that era.
A minute’s silence will be held before kick off and both teams will play wearing black armbands.
The Ibrox home side will sport a commemorative shirt and collections will be held across the stadium in aid of St Andrew’s First Aid, formerly St Andrew’s Ambulance, who tended to the wounded that day and who continue to offer first aid at matches.
In addition, a memorial service will be held at the ground on January 3 for supporters and dignitaries from both clubs, with Rangers announcing that a minute’s silence will be held at every game to fall on the anniversary in the future.
I fought for my life as Dad died
By John Kerr
Matt Reid remembers nothing about the Old Firm match of January 2, 1971.
He’ll never forget the aftermath of it, though . . . the panic, the mayhem, the horror — and then the almost eerie silence.
“You never forget something like that,” said Matt, now 59.
“We were pressed so close together that we couldn't move.
“I was standing face-to-face with this big guy who must have been on the step below me.
“The crush was so great that I watched helplessly as the life ebbed out of him.
“His face just got bluer and bluer and there was nothing I could do.
“I remember thinking to myself , 'Do I look like that? Am I going to die?'“
Matt, then aged 16, was at the game with his dad, also Matt, and friend Ackie Cunningham.
It was a medical quirk of fate that saved Matt when so many others perished.
He was born with paralysed feet and had both legs amputated below the knee by the age of nine and walked with sticks.
To compensate, he developed terrific upper body strength and a powerful chest.
It saved his life when Rangers fans were crushed leaving the stadium, as Colin Stein scored a last-minute equaliser for their team.
Matt, his dad and Ackie made their way to Stairway 13, the one they normally used, to leave the ground.
“There were just too many people trying to get out of the one small exit,” Matt remembers.
“The closer we got to the stairway, the crushing became more severe. Then we were swept off our feet and carried along and around the corner to the top of the stair next to the side fence.
“A sudden surge took us down part of the stair. It was like being catapulted out of a door. I grabbed on to a handrail and held on for dear life.
“I couldn't move anyway because I had lost my sticks but I knew I was strong and I said to myself, 'I am going to hold on to this rail until it's over,' because at that point everyone still thought the crowd would thin out. That's when the man next to me died.
“Then I heard this awful grinding noise like metal scaffolding going down and that was the handrails giving way. There was another surge and Dad was swept away.
“Then I went face down on the stairs with people walking and running over me.
“”I started to pass out and felt really peaceful. I remember thinking, 'This must be it'.”
When Matt came to, he was lying on his back but he had been turned right round and was facing up the stairs. There were three people lying on top of him, not moving .
The screaming had stopped and instead there was silence punctuated with sirens and the noise of oxygen being given.
He said: “It was eerie. At first I thought it was a dream.
“I could hear someone saying, 'This one's dead and this one's dead,' and I wondered, 'Do they think we’re all dead?'
“I couldn't shout because my face was pressed against other people's bodies.
“I was in a lot of pain but I didn't mind because it meant I was still alive.”
Matt was taken to hospital where he was treated for a broken femur.
His worst moment came when a policeman came to his bed and told him his father had become the oldest victim of one of football’s worst tragedies.
Ironically, Matt had managed to get an extra ticket for the game and had bought it for him for a treat. . .
Bodies were laid out on pitch as horror unfolded
By Malcolm Brodie
Never will I forget that eerie scene. A chilling fog swept across the stadium which half an hour earlier had been a vibrant, passionate cauldron.
Now the roar of the crowd was replaced by the wail of ambulance and police sirens. From touchline to goalposts, bodies covered in ghostly white sheets had been placed before departure for mortuary identification.
The date — January 2, 1971. The place — Ibrox Park, Glasgow, where Rangers had drawn 1-1 with Celtic, through Colin Stein’s stoppage time equaliser.
Within seconds of that goal disaster struck with 66 fans killed and over 200 injured.
Initial reports suggested the tragedy had been caused by supporters rushing back up Stairway 13 when the goal was scored and then being crushed by people leaving and the barriers giving way.
A public enquiry, however, dismissed this hypothesis and concluded deaths were the result of fans pouring down the stairway in the same direction and being crushed.
A newspaper strike in Glasgow meant that many journalists left the press box dead on the finish unaware of what had happened. A colleague, John Rafferty, Scottish football correspondent of The Observer, asked if he could use my Ireland’s Saturday Night telephone to rewrite his introduction after that Stein goal and was fast approaching deadline.
“Go ahead,” I said. As I finished writing my report I noticed this crowd on the top of Stairway 13 on the Rangers end.
Surely this couldn’t be a row among fans? By now Rafferty had departed and so had most of the other reporters. I kept looking over while dictating and noticed the Stairway 13 crowd hadn’t diminished.
The police control point was situated at one end of the Ibrox Press Box so I kept the line to Belfast open and enquired from them what was the cause. “There has been a crush and quite a few casualties,” was the reply.
At that moment I realised this was a big story and concentrated on ascertaining the facts.
The two managers, Jock Stein (Celtic) and Willie Waddell (Rangers), both now deceased, walked together towards the pitch through the fog to the scene. Tears were in the eyes and emotion filled the bodies of these hard-bitten men.
Gradually over the next hour the horror of what had happened emerged. Thousands had left the stadium unaware of what had unfolded and but for that telephone request I could have been one of them.
This disaster led to a huge development at Ibrox, spearheaded by the progressive thinking Waddell, who visited Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion for guidance and ideas. Ibrox was subsequently converted into an all-seater stadium and awarded the UEFA five star status. Gone was Stairway 13.
Still preserved, however, was the Edmiston Drive façade, which remains a mark of Rangers’ mystique and a symbol of Scottish football.
Ten years ago on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Rangers unveiled a monument at the corner of the Copland Road and Bill Struth stands. On top is a statue of John Greig, Rangers captain on that dreadful day, and there are blue plaques with each of the people killed in the disaster and the two other incidents at the stadium in April 1902 (25 killed when part of the West Stand collapsed at an England-Scotland game) and 1961 (two fatalities crushed on the ill-fated Stairway 13).