A History of Ibrox - Part One

By Ross Kilvington
 December 31, 2020

Ibrox is an iconic ground, a stadium which encapsulates both triumph and tragedy more so than any other in the United Kingdom. 

First Ibrox disaster back in 1902

From the first Ibrox disaster back in 1902 until the present day, Ibrox has been witness to many glorious triumphs as well as harrowing events which have shaped the way football should (and safely) be experienced. If you ask Rangers fans of different ages what Ibrox means to them, you may receive a variety of different responses, ranging from fabled European nights and title triumphs to the nightmare scenes on January the 2nd 197, which have etched their way into Scottish footballing history as one of its darkest days.

Ibrox wasn’t our first ground

What may surprise many people is that Ibrox wasn’t our first ground, in fact, it wasn’t even our second or third. The current Ibrox location is actually the fourth different site that Rangers have played on since 1872. As remarkable as this may sound, many other teams moved around often due to numerous factors (mainly financial) and many struggled to settle on a specific site.

English champions

Rangers’ first three grounds came and went without much fanfare. Although some success was achieved at Kinning Park, it wasn’t until the club moved to the “first” Ibrox that Rangers as a football team became one of Scotland’s major forces. The ground opened in 1887 with a match against the English champions Preston North End (who became the first team to complete a season undefeated). A bumper crowd of 18,000 packed into the new stadium to see the match and Rangers took home £290 which helped assist in financing the new ground.

first major triumphs for Rangers

The first major triumphs for Rangers were just around the corner, as a first title was won (or rather shared with Dumbarton) and the Scottish Cup was claimed for the first time. The ultimate aim however was for the ground to host major finals and international games. As football has become more and more a business rather than a sport, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in the late 1890’s, money was still at the forefront of directors minds. The club could make a tidy profit hosting important matches and would do everything in its power to do so.

1892 Scottish Cup final

The 1892 Scottish Cup final took place at the stadium, which was still in its infancy, and was won by Celtic and with that came a staggering £1 900 fee for hosting the match. This was an astronomical sum of money at the time and if Rangers could continue to evolve as a club and increase the capacity of Ibrox, there was a real possibility of many more lucrative ties to be held at the ground. What followed over the next few years helped pave the way for the club to become the finest team in Scotland, there was only one thing that was required, a magnificent stadium to showcase the team in all its glory.

Struth, Greig and Baxter

If we take a look down the annals of Rangers history, people such as Struth, Greig and Baxter are all figures that belong in the pantheon of Rangers greats. However, one man gets overlooked and he may be the most important (as a pioneer, certainly) of all - Archibald Leitch. Mr Leitch helped design some of Britain’s finest football stadiums, but it is his work at Ibrox is where he struck gold, a ground that captivated people from all over the United Kingdom.

Archibald Leitch

His plans were ambitious of course, but no great thing is created without having grand designs for the future. He wanted a site which was capable of hosting 140,000 people at a mere cost of £150,000. Smaller, more realistic options were also presented and it was decided that the new Ibrox would have a capacity of 80,000 and was fully commissioned to be built. The stadium opened on the 30th of December 1899, fitting for the club to enter the new century in fresh surroundings.

This proved to be a masterstroke. At the beginning of 1902, Rangers were the eminent force in the Scottish game, four consecutive titles had been won and everything was in place for the team to keep progressing. The club was still in debt nevertheless, and needed to be competing with Hampden and Celtic Park for the matches that would generate the most income. As the Scotland vs England match was announced it would be held at Ibrox in April 1902, the signs were there that the stadium was at the required standard to host such important fixtures. With even The Times on 5th April 1902 going as far to say that, “Ibrox is regarded as one of the most perfectly equipped athletic arenas in the country.” This statement would prove to be completely false, as Scottish football was about to experience one of its darkest days.

Even before the game took place, the warning signs were there. Archibald Leitch had his concerns about the maximum capacity of the West Tribune Stand, although surveyors eventually passed the site ready and fit for purpose. Many reports had indicated that there was significant swaying of the structure. 

Ibrox disaster in 1902

No one should ever go to a football match and not return home, especially when incidents such as this were preventable. Around 30,000 supporters had poured into the West Tribune Stand before the match which put a massive burden on the wooden joists that were alreadyunder severe pressure from so many bodies staggering and swaying above. Heavy rainfallfrom the night before had soaked the wood and this may have been a contributing factor to the events that followed. Roughly 30 minutes into the match, the back of the newly built stand collapsed, sending hundreds to a terrifying fall of 40ft below. Two people were pronounced dead at the scene and a further 23 died, days or weeks, after the event. 

A tragedy as dreadful as this did not go unnoticed and although Rangers and the SFA did not receive any charges against them, a criminal investigation was opened up against the timber merchant Alexander McDougall, who had supplied the wood that was used in the construction of the stand. The Scotsman reported on the trial in July 1902 and stated that “…seventeen joists had given way at the centre; these were of bad quality yellow pine.” John Gordon, the architect who was put in charge of the investigation to determine why the incident occurred came to the conclusion that “…the breakdown of the stand was due to the nature of the wood employed.”

Mr McDougall had been charged with culpable homicide and was deemed to have cut significant corners using poorer quality yellow pine rather than the stronger red pine; more than likely due to the difference in price!

He was eventually acquitted of all charges against him, however Archibald Leith couldn’t help but feel anything other than deep anguish over what had happened. The incident tortured him and he desperately wanted to be given another chance by Rangers to fix the mistakes that had occurred. 

The following years were a massive turning point for the club, with a stadium to be redeveloped, players were sold to raise much needed funds and this ensured a period of transition for Rangers.

A new era for the club was on the horizon, Glasgow would be blue again.

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