The Old Firm and football’s ‘forgotten’ disaster: Ibrox Stadium, January 2nd 1971

The end of the old year just passing and the bringing in of the new one to come is an event which is celebrated and commemorated with varying levels of pomp, pageantry and cultural flavouring around the world. For those in Scotland, the New Years celebrations marked the social pinnacle of the year, with Hogmanay (New Years Eve) and Ne’erday (New Years Day) a time where families reunited, made merry and toasted to a successful future in the year to come. Whilst the event itself often took on an anti-climactic and bloated feel – primarily due to mass over-consumption of food and drink on offer over Hogmanay and Ne’erday and the longer festive holiday period – there was always the football to look forward to; as a distraction from the trivialities of family small talk and as a spur to get oneself out the house. In Scotland these ‘holiday’ fixtures invariably involved head to head clashes between teams nearest rivals – ‘derby’ fixtures – which in the case of Glasgow meant bringing in the New Year with an ‘Old Firm’ meeting between two of the bitterest rivals in all world football, Rangers and Celtic.

In a fixture which often defies logic and rationality in explaining its undertones and significance to so many people who aren’t born into it, the ‘New Years game’ between the two hated Glasgow rivals takes on more cultural and sporting resonance than the rest; its a reference point for who you are and what you stand for, your identity, your feeling of community and its associated sense of pride and self-worth … all this felt more intense and magnified around this specific New Years fixture than the multiple other times the two teams often met throughout a season of fixtures. As it is with the study of history events cannot be taken completely in isolation, thus a brief background context is required for those unfamiliar with the fixture (maybe when they change the GCSE or A-Level syllabus to include ‘History of Football’ this wont be an issue!).

Glasgow is a city which can best be described as a fervent hotbed of football, and one which has exerted an historical influence and footprint on the game which belies its current status as a city with a wider population of some 1.7 million people in the wet, windy and often gloomy extremities of North-Western Europe. Once proudly self-proclaimed as the ‘2nd city of Empire’ due to its status as a nexus of trade, commerce, industry and finance during the heyday of the British Empire, Glasgow has suffered more than most the ravages of post-industrial decline and decay and for many of its inhabitants the transition from industrial powerhouse to service-based economy has been a painful one which has left them behind (Glasgow often dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ to this day due to its performance on multiple indices of health, wellbeing and poverty). During the city’s – and its surrounding industrial heartlands – days as a powerhouse of empire and industry many migrants were drawn to the regions shipyards, factories, coal mines and mills to find employment and a better life. Of these new migrants to Glasgow and surrounding regions a huge number – my own ancestors included – made the short ferry ride over the Irish Sea, the Irish escaping what had been a century of misery and famine for many during the 19th century.

As with all migrant populations, their arrival ‘fertilised’ the native culture with new ideas, cultures and customs (similar to the ‘Melting Pot’ of the USA) they brought with them, which have contributed to the unique culture and identity of Glasgow today. However, as with any mass migration into a specific city or region, there were also flashpoints and areas of resentment between native and newcomer and 19th century Glasgow – booming, belching and grinding with industry, expansion and commerce – was no different. The reference point of being ‘the other’ in Glasgow manifested itself through religion – the native Scots being Protestant (overwhelmingly Presbyterian) in their beliefs and moral compass whilst the majority – although not all – of the Irish newcomers were of the Catholic religion. From this seed of simple faith-based difference grew generations of suspicion, isolationism, resentment and paranoia, whilst at the same time also harnessing a sense of defiance, siege mentality and associated pride in ones community and culture.

Glasgow’s boom years coincided with the explosion in growth and popularity of a new sport borne out of the English public school system, and one which the Scots took to with particular vigour, passion and skill – Football (what has happened to us since?!). Football naturally became a reference point and rallying call for competing towns and cities, different districts and different communities as it attracted mass followings from the working class – who now had a bit more free time on their hands with the workplace reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Glasgow two clubs came to define and be the champions of their respective communities based on religion; Celtic – completely by design as they were formed as a specifically Irish Catholic club to represent their religious community, and Rangers, the club of the ‘natives’ who – whilst founded first in 1872 were never founded on any religious or sectarian basis – quickly assumed the role as the main rival to the immigrant upstarts of the Irish Catholic community and took on the identity as the sporting champions of Glasgow’s Protestant majority accordingly.

Both teams have been at each others necks ever since that first game in May 1888, and have played each other 421 times in total with Rangers (thankfully!) just having a slight edge on their rivals in the head to head rankings. For outsiders – or those who simply just don’t understand or ‘get it’ – the rivalry may seem petty, inexplicable, immature or almost medieval in how two teams from the same city can generate so much hatred and energy from within towards the ‘other’ based on identity and faint notions of religious beliefs – especially in the 21st century. For those of us born into it, its a heady – and at times explosive – mix of passion, expression of self-identity and belief and love for each of the clubs and the game of football itself. Whilst defeats in these games are a real low, theres one fixture from all the years which stands out from the rest as not only the darkest day in the long history of the fixture, but also the darkest day in Rangers history and the history of Scottish football itself – the 2nd January 1971.

As stated earlier, the ‘New Years derby’ takes on a significance and meaning all its own in what is already a unique and iconic sporting rivalry. Often this fixture takes place around the midpoint of the season thus neither team are – usually – completely without hope in terms of making it a successful season with a victory here often seen as a springboard to success in the new year ahead, whether it be to re-enforce an existing lead or to reduce the gap between your team and the team ahead. The unique attraction and aura around the two clubs means that its not only a rivalry played out between those from in and around Glasgow; fans from all over Scotland and Ireland have a passion for one (never both!) of Glasgow’s ‘big two’ and this further adds to the spectacle and intensity of the rivalry.

Thus so it was on a leaden grey, ‘dreich’ ( a great Scottish word that) and gloomy Saturday morning that Scotland gingerly awoke from its New Years celebrations/hangover with fans of each of Rangers and Celtic galvanising and steeling themselves for the sporting battle which was to come. In the case of Rangers fans, this was perhaps more in hope than in expectation as Celtic were enjoying a run of unprecedented success both in domestic as well as European football and were the favourites to prevail that cold gloomy day in January 1971. However, as any fan of either club knows, no quarter or concession is given despite the odds indicating otherwise and in such cases it as much about defending your territory and what is sacred to you from the hated rivals.

Ibrox Stadium in 1971 was a behemoth of a stadium, in fact Glasgow had 3 vast footballing bowls which – in their heydays two of which had accommodated upwards of 100,000 people (Hampden’s record crowd was 149,000; Ibrox 118,000) and Celtic’s Parkhead hosting 92,000 record attendance – given the city’s wider population has been around 1.5m for over 100 years gives an indication of the passion and devotion many ‘Glaswegians’ (name for natives of the city) have for the game. As previously mentioned Rangers and Celtic also act as a magnet for fans across the wider ‘central belt’ (the name given to the densely populated lowland region of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh – and slightly north and south of it – where over 70% of the Scottish population live) thus fans made their way not only from the tenements and streets of Glasgow to the stadium but also from towns and villages across the country in their supporters buses, which would have been journeys full of new year spirit and celebration of ones sporting and cultural identity.

My own grandfather was part of this ‘sporting exodus’, traveling the 30 miles or so from the small Ayrshire mining town of Auchinleck with his fellow Rangers fans in their supporters club, as were 5 teenage lads all from the same street in a similar small mining community from the opposite side of the country in Markinch, Fife. Ibrox was a grand, imposing yet somewhat austere stadium from contemporary accounts of the period, one of the best not only in Scotland but also the UK, yet very much a product of its time with vast swathes of uncovered standing terracing and rudimentary facilities which todays football crowds would find almost alien compared to the comfort and ease of access they enjoy. The maximum capacity had been reduced from its 1930s heyday of 118,000 to a more manageable 80,000 by 1971. Whilst the likes of my grandfather – who would have been in his early 50s – took their places to watch the game in the main ‘grandstand’ enclosure section younger, more vivacious and animated fans congregated in the ends of the vast bowl behind the respective goals. For Rangers fans this meant the Copland Road end of the stadium and specifically the section which the access point was ‘Stairway 13.’

Contemporary accounts of the game point to it being pretty much a non-event in what I – and many others – would like to portray as an often explosive, exciting and captivating sporting rivalry, showing that you shouldn’t trust everything your teacher says. In keeping with both teams respective form around this time in History, Celtic edged themselves into a (very) late lead in the 89th minute with a headed goal from who must have been the shortest player on the pitch, Jimmy Johnstone. Unperturbed, and perhaps imbued with the spirit of defiance which Rangers are famous for, Rangers promptly went up the other end of the pitch and scored their own even later goal through Colin Stein, equalising with what was basically the last action of the game and sending the majority of the 80,000 capacity crowd into raptures of joy at salvaging something from a drab game they thought they had contrived to lose so late on. As both sets of fans set off on their respective ways home – across Glasgow, across all of central Scotland – the Rangers fans would have been noticeably more jubilant and happy, although neither side had too much to complain about. Fans filed out of the stadium towards their supporters buses, cars and public transport stops with eyes no doubt on continuing the remainder of the New Years holiday festivities once they returned safely home. However for many of those leaving the stadium, returning safely home to family, friends and loved ones was something they were never able to do.

The overwhelming majority of the crowd exiting Ibrox that cold January afternoon were completely oblivious to the tragedy that was unfolding in their midst on the steps of Stairway 13, such was the nature of the incident. Conflicting accounts over the years since have muddied the waters of what actually happened on the ill-fated Stairway 13 that day, with a now discredited myth that the crush happened when fans leaving the stadium attempted to gain re-entry to the stadium upon hearing the roar from the stands which obviously marked Rangers late equalising goal, and met with fans already leaving which resulted in a crush. This was discredited at the subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry where one witness said to do so would have been like “running into a brick wall”. But it was a myth that was to endure for decades.

The most likely explanation as to the immediate ‘trigger’ cause of the disaster would be that whereby a jubilant young fan on his fathers shoulders fell forward into those in front of him, which in turn created a domino effect of fans colliding into and ultimately falling on top of one another. This situation reached a sickening and tragic crescendo between the 1st and 3rd landings of the stairway, where hundreds of fans found themselves trapped in a tangled mess of limbs several bodies deep, with according pressure and lack of chance to get a breath in suffocating many. In a surreal description of the aftermath it was noted that ‘little blood was spilled and few limbs were broken … the victims just looked like they were sleeping.’ The dead and injured had the pressure finally relieved when human chains formed in advance of the disaster area to stop more fans – remember full of joy and happiness at the late goal – descending unknowingly to their deaths, and the process of saving the lives of those they still could began in earnest. In a rivalry which is clearly defined by bitter deep-set hatred, staff members and management of both clubs laid aside differences to help those in need and ferry the injured to ambulances; Celtic’s assistant manager Sean Fallon – a former life-guard – saved one fans life by administering the kiss of life amongst other tales of heroism from a desperately sad situation.

“(it) was like a pack of cards that had been thrown forward; the lower ones were horizontal, others were semi-upright and the last were upright.”

Eye-witness account of the disaster, 1971

“I’ve still got the pictures of that day in my head. They will never go away. I remember coming out of the shower after the game and seeing people being brought in and laid out on the floor.

Derek Johnstone, Rangers player. He himself was only 17 years at the time

The tangled and twisted mess of metal barriers – there ostensibly to make things safer for the crowd exiting the steep stairway – and debris of personal belongings such as watches, wallets, Rangers scarves, glasses as well shoes ripped off by the force of gravity told its own tragic and heartbreaking story. In an area no bigger than the penalty box of a football field 66 souls lost their lives and hundreds more were injured. The majority of victims were teenagers and their 20s, the supposed prime of their lives where youthful freedom and adult opportunities exist side by side. The youngest victim was a 8 year old boy from Liverpool – in a sad irony a fan of Liverpool FC who would face their own tragedy from being involved in similar stadium disasters in the 1980s which his father had the sad experience of being in attendance for both of – and the oldest only 43 years old. One female fan died in the tragedy, and those 5 best friends from the same street in a small mining town in Fife – who were full of wide-eyed hope and devotion to the cause of supporting their team and who had their whole lives ahead of them – perished together on the steps of Stairway 13.

Given the nature of how young and how many fans had perished in the crush – and the profile of Rangers as a club which runs through the heart of Scottish society – the scale of sadness and mourning was on an unprecedented scale with Rangers players and management attending almost every funeral they could ( 20 funerals taking place on the same day in Glasgow alone). Celtic manager Jock Stein – a Rangers fan as a boy and young man before signing for Celtic as a player as well as actively running stretchers back and forth in the aftermath of the disaster itself – called for an end to the poison and toxicity which surrounded the fixture and for fans to forget the ‘divide’ which separated them from the ‘other.’ And for a while at least, stunned into shock, contemporary accounts and sources from the time do indicate – an albeit temporary – softening of hostility and entrenchment between either side of Glasgow’s eternal footballing conflict.

This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches. When human life is at stake this kind of hatred seems sordid and little. Fans of both sides will never forget this disaster.

Jock Stein, article in ‘The Celtic View’ club magazine, 1971
Rival managers Willie Waddell and Jock Stein tend to the injured and dead on the Ibrox pitch in the aftermath of the crush.

Sadly it didn’t long for the tragedy to be ‘weaponised’ and used as a means to antagonise and dehumanise fans of Rangers by a minority of rival fans, with graffiti often seen around Glasgow mocking the dead and distasteful songs sung towards Rangers when playing both Celtic and Aberdeen. Even the sanctity of the minutes silence to commemorate the victims – held every year at Rangers nearest home game to the 2nd January which invariably is against Celtic every other year – is not considered sacred by a minority of rival fans who find themselves incapable of remaining silent for 60 seconds in respect of the dead, instead preferring to imitate coughing fits, shouting political slogans or refusing to enter the stadium until after the silence is over. These fans – and those who see fit to mock other football related tragedies such as the Munich Air Disaster or Hillsborough also – would do well to look back on how Jock Stein conducted himself both during and in the aftermath of the tragedy and take his lead in showing human decency in memory of what at the end of the day were fellow football fans out to watch a game; no different to what they are doing when going to watch their own teams in the present day.

“It was hellish. There were bodies in the dressing rooms, in the gymnasium and even in the laundry room.

I will never forget the sight of Bob Rooney, the Celtic psyhiotherapist, with tears in his eyes giving the kiss of life to innumerable victims. He never stopped, nor did the Rangers doctors, nor the nurses and ambulancemen.”

Rangers manager Willie Waddell recalling events of the fateful day

My own grandfather was one of those exiting Ibrox that day completely oblivious of the tragedy which had unfolded in his midst. By virtue of both his age and geography of where he lived, he was very unlikely to use the Stairway 13 exit – which would have been more common for those living north of the River Clyde (Glasgow’s main river and demarcation line between ‘north’ and ‘south’ sides) who would use the Glasgow Subway to get home and those who lived to the east and north of Glasgow in places such as Falkirk, Edinburgh, Clydebank and Fife. Instead his supporters bus making the short journey south would have left from a different location thus facilitating use of a different exit to get away easier. Also given his age he was more likely to watch from the ‘Enclosure’ terracing within the main grandstand instead of the more boisterous and youthful Copland Road end terracing. Still, this didn’t stop my grandmother worrying as news of the unfolding tragedy slowly filtered across the airwaves in that pre-internet and pre mobile phone – and often pre phone of any kind in many households – age, as waited anxiously on his safe arrival through the door. This scene was replicated throughout Scotland as many fans wouldn’t find out until much later and went to the pubs and clubs to continue the New Year’s celebrations than make sure to check in at home and say they were safe and well. And what of Rangers themselves; did they as a club have a case to answer in their Ibrox Stadium not being fit for purpose for hosting crowd of such magnitude safely? Did they act upon these tragic events and use it as the catalyst for building a positive legacy of spectator safety and comfort?

The answer to the first question is ambiguous, given the findings of the official government ‘Fatal Accident Inquiry’ and the proceeding civil case raised against the club by a widow of one of those who perished that day. Despite what we would look upon as primitive and archaic facilities with the benefit of hindsight, Ibrox was of a higher standard than other stadiums of the era and as such it was decided by the Fatal Accident Inquiry that Rangers did not have a case to answer in terms of criminal negligence in their role in the disaster; it was, as eye witnesses and the general perception of events both then and now still are, a tragic accident which could have happened anywhere at any time. Yet this isn’t the whole story in terms of that specific stairway at Ibrox Stadium, where two prior crushing events had happened in the preceding decade, one of the crushes resulting in the deaths of 2 fans. Whilst Rangers had acted upon these incidents and made amendments and ‘improvements’ to the stairway in due course, these ultimately helped exacerbate the scope for an even bigger tragedy to occur as by strengthening the barriers and limits of the stairway it ultimately left less scope for fans trapped to escape a future crush, as sadly transpired that fateful Saturday in January 1971.

The civil case raised against the club was damning in finding Rangers hadn’t done enough to mitigate the scope for a future crush event occurring on Stairway 13, and awarded a considerable sum of money in compensation to the widow who raised the case against Rangers. Ultimately though, the world was a different place back in 1971, and the nature of going to sporting events was a different experience entirely to today. Its easy to look back with hindsight and say ‘they should have done this/that’ but the nature of society then was different as were its value judgements, risk assessments and principles on a whole range of issues, with football fans comfort and safety not particularly high on the agenda.

Sadly the tragic events at Ibrox were replicated all too often in the years which followed, with fans perishing in tragic accidents from Sheffield to Bastia to Moscow to Bradford and countless other crushes involving fans who simply went to watch a game of football which all -with hindsight – could have been avoided. ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of History are doomed to repeat it’ they say, and in the case of football and those in charge of governance and organising the sport they sadly didn’t learn from the events of Ibrox in 1971, or if they did it was all too slowly.

“You cannot judge an event in 1971 by the science that we know and understand now. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. But at that time, this was common practice, there hadn’t been a disaster.”

Professor Keith Still, expert on crowd control, 2020

The same however, could not be said for Rangers as a club. Understandably shook to the core by the deaths of so many within their ‘family’ at their place of worship – Ibrox Stadium – the club and specifically manager Willie Waddell had a more ambitious and futuristic vision in terms of eradicating any future scope for tragedy within Ibrox Stadium, and set Rangers on a path to having the most advanced, modern and most importantly safe stadium in Britain by the 1980s. Modern Ibrox is a testament to this vision and – if anything can be termed us such as given the tragic waste of young life that day on Stairway 13 – a fitting legacy to the memories of those fans no longer with us as a result of the tragic events.

Growing up as a Rangers fan in the 1990s I couldn’t help but be in awe of our magnificent stadium and how much better it seemed than any other stadium in the UK at the time. Rangers were, for a while, arguably the most progressive and forward-thinking club in Britain – debates over a contentious unwritten signing ‘policy’ which was couched in the intricacies of Glasgow and west of Scotland society and culture notwithstanding – at the forefront of not only stadium design and spectator comfort but also in laying the foundations for changes in European club football being one of the key architects behind the now omnipresent UEFA Champions League. We often had an exciting and successful team to compliment our magnificent surroundings during the 1990s and 2000s and, whilst the dynamics of football have shifted and Rangers and Scottish football find themselves marginalised and very much the poor relations of the bloated corporate entity masquerading as a football league to the south in England, we will always remain one of the truly iconic and tradition-laden clubs of world football

Modern Ibrox, with its combination of old and new, is in essence a memorial to the 66 and their memory lives on in the hearts of ever Rangers fan, player and everyone involved in the club. The last decade in particular has not been kind to us in a footballing sense, but our troubles pale into relative insignificance when compared against the tragedy of 2nd January 1971. No football fan should ever go to a game and not expect to return home. Whats in the past cannot be rectified or made better for their grieving families, but we can continue to honour their memory in a respectful and dignified manner each year on the anniversary of the tragedy and in terms of what those poor souls who perished that day would have wanted, win as many games and trophies as possible in their memory. Starting with the game tomorrow, the Old Firm which will be for the first time ever played in front of empty stands at Ibrox Stadium due to the ongoing covid restrictions. A fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of that tragic day would be for the current Rangers team to march onto victory and raise a smile to the faces of Rangers fans the world over on a day where we remember those not as fortunate to return home safely from our stadium.

Relevant Documentaries & Articles on the Ibrox Disaster

The five boys who didn’t come home: The Story of the 1971 Ibrox Disaster

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