The pain still burns for those left behind after 1971 Ibrox disaster

Ibrox’s 50 years of agony: 66 fans died in a stairway leaving Rangers stadium after a foggy Old Firm in 1971… and ahead of their next meeting with Celtic this weekend, the pain still burns for those left behind

  • Sixty six fans died at Ibrox during Rangers’ 1971 Old Firm game against Celtic
  • The disaster occurred in a concrete stairway and the horror sticks with the club
  • A memorial is to be held before Saturday’s Old Firm match taking place at Ibrox 

The symmetries with Hillsborough will bring pain to all those whose lives have been inextricably bound up with that tragedy, too. The desperately inadequate football stadium.

The ambulances and bodies on stretchers around the pitch. The makeshift morgue in a local gymnasium. And the desolate parents left with what ifs. ‘What if I had never let my child go to that game?’

Billy Rae knows as much as anyone about that kind of agony. He lost a brother at Ibrox that day, 50 years ago on Saturday, and if he’d had things his way would have been there himself, cheering his heroes on before filing out on to the dilapidated concrete staircase where 66 people died.

It has been 50 years since 66 fans died leaving Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium after an Old Firm clash

An ambulance is seen helping with bodies that had been crushed as part of the tragedy 

Rangers were in his blood. He was a 10-year-old, whose father regularly took him down to Ibrox on the supporters’ bus from the Waterside mining village in Kirkintilloch. His big brother James had promised to take him to the Old Firm New Year’s derby — a fixture which will be played again on Saturday — and he had little reason to doubt the offer.

There was a nine-year age gap between the two of them but they got on. ‘I got some boxing gloves one Christmas and he showed me how to use them,’ Billy recalls. ‘I got a cut to the eye, but it was him showing me the way.’

It was at 12.30pm on that matchday lunchtime — Saturday January 2, 1971 — that a knock on the door came and Billy discovered he would not be going to the game after all.

‘It was a lad we knew called Robert Carrigan,’ he relates. ‘I asked my mum what he was doing there. She told me, “You’re not going today wee man”.

‘I was devastated when the two of them headed through the door. They both died that day. It was just by chance that my parents weren’t grieving two lost sons that night.’

The match was not unlike many others between the two titans of Scottish football — a tight affair with neither side wanting to grant the other bragging rights.

In the 89th minute, Celtic’s Bobby Lennox struck a ball which hit the underside of the bar and fell for Jimmy Johnstone to score. The visiting team’s supporters were still celebrating when a Dave Smith free-kick from the left allowed Rangers’ Colin Stein to equalise.

Some of those leaving through the run-down back exit known as Stairway 13 had not actually seen Stein’s strike, but they heard it all right and there was a mood of jubilation. Many who lived to tell the tale remember the singing before everything that followed.

The Ibrox Disaster has left a mark on Rangers and its supporters and the pain still takes hold

Even by standards of the time, leaving the stadium was a deeply uncomfortable experience: 20,000 fans on the day in question, corralled into seven lanes divided by steel rails. Two fans were killed in a crush on Stairway 13 in 1961. Further concerns had been raised in 1963. In 1969, 26 fans were injured. Little seemed to change.

It has never been entirely clear what caused the scenes of devastation which remain burnished into Rangers’ history. Suggestions that Rangers fans made their way back up the stairway on hearing Stein’s goal have been widely dismissed.

A 10-year-old child falling from his father’s shoulders might have been the catalyst, with the heaving throng abruptly shifting to avoid him. It would certainly not have taken much to create mayhem on that death trap.

‘Millions of feet had worn down the long, narrow dirt steps, leaving their wooden rims exposed and easy to trip over,’ the journalist John Hodgman wrote, in a searing description of how he was swept into the stairway and ‘jammed like a wine cork’ during the 1961 incident, in which he was seriously injured.

‘I felt the terrifying sensation of being crushed,’ he related, describing his foot coming into contact with an individual’s stomach as he was swept helplessly along. ‘I peered down into the darkness and saw a pair of legs in trousers, kicking. There was a man, under the crowd, desperately struggling to get up. He hadn’t an earthly chance.’

From Kirkintilloch — where James Rae and his friend were among five teenagers lost — to the village of Markinch near the east coast, from which another five boys perished. They remember the same thing about the long hours which followed the crush. The fog. The dank, deep fog.

The names of the 66 fans who died in the post-match stairway crush are on a wall at Ibrox

A memorial will be held on Saturday prior to Rangers welcoming rivals Celtic to Ibrox

‘It gave families hope,’ says Rae. ‘It made them think that might be the reason someone hadn’t got home. But by about 7pm, word was coming back that something had gone wrong. The police came at around 9.30. They asked my dad to go to a morgue they’d created in Glasgow, to identify a body. He came home with the news just before midnight.’

Gisela Easton’s husband, Harry, had been asked to examine four bodies before identifying a fifth as their son, Peter. ‘He came home totally broken,’ Mrs Easton recounted in a devastating interview for a documentary in 2010.

The absence of external injuries struck many parents, whose children had suffocated. ‘Peter was in a little room by himself. There wasn’t a mark on him,’ she said.

Assigning blame brought its challenges. Sheriff Irvine Smith, presiding in a 1974 test case brought by the widow of one of the victims, condemned the Rangers board and concluded club negligence was to blame.

‘In many occasions over the years since, some supporters were dissatisfied with the result and expressed their disapproval of it,’ Smith writes in his memoir. He provides a detailed explanation of how he reached his decision, for the benefit of those ‘who think it was reached on prejudice or disloyalty’. 

The disaster certainly prompted action from Rangers. The club’s manager, Willie Waddell, made it his life’s work to re-engineer Ibrox into a stadium able to provide a safe, humane place for supporters. A memorial will be held before Saturday’s game. The 66 are not forgotten.

The disaster saw work done to make Ibrox a safer and more modern piece of football stadia

‘It did bring change, and I commend the club for that,’ says Billy, now 60 and still a Rangers season-ticket holder. ‘I exit from the same entrance that James did that day. It never leaves you.’

The family received £2,000 from Rangers, in what they took to be a compensation payment.

For the players of ’71, the memories remain equally vivid. John Greig, Rangers captain that day, will never forget returning late to the dressing room, following physio treatment on his knee, to find most of his team-mates had gone. ‘People had started to bring in bodies and were putting them on the massage tables.’

Greig felt the disaster alerted the world of football to the need for safety. ‘For supporters in the UK, this stadium was used as a template to make sure that any rebuilding of stadiums had to be to a certain level.’

Events at Hillsborough, 18 years later, demonstrated that it would take more than Glasgow’s devastation to shake football from its criminal complacency. There would be more ambulances, stretchers and makeshift morgues.

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