Looking Back on the Disaster

Last updated : 02 January 2003 By Grandmaster Suck
Stairway 13
We live in a different world from that in which the 1971 Ibrox Disaster took place.

It barely seems credible that in 1985 The Sunday Times could describe British football as a "slum sport, played in slum stadiums and increasingly watched by slum people." Sky money, the banning of alcohol in Scottish grounds and the Taylor Report have changed the game and the experience of watching beyond all recognition.

As a kid I can remember being packed in belly to back with bottles whizzing over my head with the Hampden dust storm swirling around. I can remember one Scottish Cup Final against the Sheep and our mob being treated to our choice of beer, lager, whisky or sherry from crates of cans and a variety of bottles neatly stacked on the terrace and used as a communal off-sales by a group of middle-aged men.

In those days a ground was considered full when A/ you couldn't physically get more people into the ground or B/ there were no more people outside wanting to get in.


You put up with it because that was the way it was. Would you nowadays choose to be squeezed in like animals? Would you be happy to see kids "lifted over" the turnstiles or adults without tickets bribing their way in with a backhander to the turnstile man and overcrowding the gaff? The view was terrible because of the slope and the distance you were from the action as the running track added another discomfort factor. And for all the talk of how good the old Derry End was I certainly don¹t recall a midweek fixture against St Johnstone generating any better atmosphere than you get now.

The first Ibrox Disaster occurred in 1902 during an international between Scotland and England. Ibrox was chosen for the game because of £20,000 spent in the previous two years and was considered the best venue (Queen's Park and Celtic also bid for the game).

Up at the Celtic End of the ground the terracing had been extended with a 50 foot high bank of terracing consisting of planks on a iron framework. The planking gave way in the first half with 26 people dying and 587 more falling through the gaping hole and being injured. Incredibly the game was allowed to continue after an 18 minute break with most of the 75,000 crowd unaware what had happened.

Thereafter packed earth banking would form the terracing for all of Britain's football fans. Conservatism would reign supreme in the design of Britain's ground design.


Ibrox was actually one of the best appointed grounds in Britain at the time of the Disaster - unlike Hampden for instance it featured metal crush barriers and concreted terraces. The crucial weakness was Stairway 13.

Because of the way the ground was hemmed in the busiest way out for people looking for the subway was down Stairway 13 and into the cul-de-sac of Mafeking St. The housing at Harrison Drive (Rangers Pools office) meant there was no space to widen 13 or open another stairway in that corner to relieve the pressure. (It's hard to believe how the physical dimensions of the ground have shrunk since the cutting of the capacity and the removal of the running track - the turnstiles for the old Ibrox were where the bollards are now on the walkway at Mafeking Street - about 100 yards away from the entrances to the Stadium now.)

Throughout the 60s warning about Stairway 13 were ignored - two people died and 44 were injured after a Celtic match due to crushing in 1961. Eleven were hurt in 1967 and another 30 were hurt in 1969.

One of the few measures which was taken was to inadvertently add to the crush in 1971 - the reinforcement of the stairway fencing with concrete embedded railway sleepers was to leave the victims with no chance of escape from their confinement - in previous incidents the pressure had been relieved when the fences collapsed and people escaped.

I was saddened to read in last year's Scotland on Sunday newspaper an article in which Sandy Jardine repeated the urban myth about fans wanting to celebrate Colin Stein's late equaliser rushing back up the stairs and causing the crush. The fatal accident enquiry established 30 years ago that the Disaster happened after the final whistle and was not related to the late goal. Simply too many people were trying to get through too small a space.


Undoubtedly the villains were the directors of the club who ignored three direct warnings in the previous years and took no action to rectify the situation. I presume that they simply did the bare minimum they had to because they could not imagine that Ibrox after hosting vast crowds for so many years could possibly be a disaster waiting to happen.

The attitude these men had is best summed up by their attitude to the victims of crushing in 1969. The Rangers minute book records that they agreed to offer the 30 victims two complimentary tickets to a game of their choice. At the next Board meeting the directors considered an opinion from their insurers that the club could not be held responsible for the crushing. The offer of the tickets was withdrawn.


If Follow Follow is sometimes over critical of the club it is because of behaviour like this in the past - this fanzine will never take chances with the safety of fans nor take chances with the well-being of the club in any area of operations. The directors may be guardians of the club but the require to have their actions scrutinised.

For all our making fun of security and operations staff like Alistair Hood and Lawrence McIntyre over the years I think every writer we have would admit that we wouldn't have the ability or the courage to be responsible for the safety of 50,000 people. Better to be safe in a subdued atmosphere than dead in a great one.


There was heroism on the 2nd of January 1971 and in it's aftermath - the police, ambulance staff, the Bears themselves, the players and background staff of both Rangers and Celtic certainly saved lives by prompt action on the spot. Too many on the night to name and I doubt if any of them would want to be named as a hero - they simply acted as decent human beings should.

On the day and in the aftermath there is no doubt that Willie Waddell was a towering figure. While people died many of the directors hid in the board room on the night and tried to wriggle free of blame during the fatal accident enquiry Waddell organised rescue parties and helped try to revive people.

It was Waddell who saw to it that the families were offered help and who represented the club at funeral after funeral. For Waddell and for players there were days when they had doors slammed in their faces by families who blamed them as representatives of the club for the deaths of their loved ones. It takes a special kind of courage to keep going in such circumstances.

In the aftermath Waddell took the club by the throat on the field and off the field - it was he who showed the foresight to marshal the resources of the club and to build the new Ibrox. Not for him a quick fix, not for him the false sentimentalism - he built the new Ibrox as a memorial to all those who died so that no-one should ever suffer the way the families suffered. Putting up a plaque or a statue is a nice touch but it is little in comparison to what Waddell did.

Waddell was not a man without his faults - cantankerous and moody - but as a player, a manger and an administrator he stands astride Ibrox like a colossus in a way that few figures (Bill Struth, James Bowie and Graeme Souness in my book) can lay claim to.


I was delighted that the new statue which stands at the corner of the Main and Copland Road stands not only remembers those who died in 1971 but those who died in 1961 and in 1902. The players, managers and directors come and go but the faceless and nameless crowd is the raw material out of which the club is made. Sadly those who died in the Disasters did not remain faceless and nameless. Remember them all and the reasons why they died.

But do more than that. Support your team in a safe and sporting manner. By doing so you honour their memories in the manner most befitting.