A History of Ibrox – Part 2

By Ross Kilvington
 January 1, 2021

Stairway 13

The mere mention of the words Stairway 13 is enough to cause anguish amongst the Rangers faithful, for the events that occurred on the 2nd of January at Ibrox will go down as Scottish football’s darkest day. A day that will never cease to be forgotten for the sheer horror that it befalls on the supporters who wanted nothing else but to forget about the dying embers of the New Year festivities and simply enjoy a game of football. The realisation of a new year ahead could be forgotten about for 90 minutes. Tragically, 66 souls wouldn’t see the light of another day.

After the horrific events of the first Ibrox disaster in 1902, the stadium needed to change. By 1928 Ibrox had been significantly redeveloped by Leitch who was commissioned to build the famous main stand which would signify Rangers dominance and power, not only Scotland, but within Britain.

Rangers fc main stand

As you enter through the doors to the main stand, a magnificent sight awaits the eyes. The imposing nature of the marble staircase present within the main hallway usually produces flutters in the stomach and makes the hair stand on end. The stand has remained unchanged since its opening in 1928. As the 1920s were coming to an end, Rangers fortunes on the pitch couldn’t have been better, even ending their 25 year Scottish Cup hoodoo by winning the competition in 1928.

As war loomed on the horizon in 1939, Rangers hosted Celtic at Ibrox in front of what was then a record league attendance in Britain of 118,567. Crowds this size were dangerous on many levels, people regularly packed into stands that were full beyond capacity which encouraged crushes. The 1930s also saw the first ever foreign visitors to Ibrox, in the shape of Rapid Vienna. A new experiment of facing European opposition would become a regular sight at grounds around the country over the next 20 years. A fabulous 3-3 draw was played out, all but added to the attraction of seeing the best sides play at Ibrox.

Dynamo Moscow v Rangers

These experiments against teams from continental Europe caused an upsurge of interest in the game post war, and when Dynamo Moscow toured Britain at the end of 1945, their climax was a match against Rangers at Ibrox. A pulsating 2-2 draw was watched by the 95,000 crowd. The one thing that Ibrox was missing was floodlights. After visiting Highbury to play Arsenal in 1951 to celebrate the inauguration of their newly installed lighting system, the favour was returned in 1953. The addition of floodlights increased the allure of Ibrox as a stadium and Rangers utilised this to great affect during the late 1950s and early 1960s whilst playing in the newly formed European Cup.

In his excellent book Temple of Dreams, author Iain Duff states that “…it was a miracle that there have not been more deaths and serious injuries in Britain’s football grounds,” and when you see some of the pictures taken from stadiums from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the stark realisation highlights the problem. Masses of individuals swaying in rhythm to the match, the sheer vulnerability supporters must have felt if they were ever crushed together or inadvertently swept off their feet made the game as a spectator sport more dangerous than ever.

2nd of January 1971

After years of Ibrox remaining incident free, an old firm game in September 1961 saw the stadium dominating the headlines as two men died after the match. As the crowd emptied from the ground, two men stumbled and fell in the middle of the masses of people leaving. As many people tried to avoid trampling on the two men, the barrier at the side of the staircase collapsed and many were able to escape unhurt through the broken fence. This was another terrible incident that in all honesty could have been avoided. The SFA issued general instructions to each member club and Rangers were quick to act, spending roughly £150,000 on additional improvements. The key change was removing the wooden fencing running down the staircases and replacing them with heavy barriers and unknown to anyone at the time, this would have terrible consequences.

2nd of January 1971

The horrendous memories of the 2nd of January 1971 still reverberate through Scottish footballing history as, ultimately, its darkest hour. As the clock approached 90 minutes, the 80,000 fans saw Celtic go ahead with what surely was the winner. The common misconception about the disaster is many think when Celtic scored, the Rangers fans made their way out of the stadium, but as Stein scored a last gasp equaliser, the noise made the fans turn back and witness the celebrations, therefore causing a massive crush.

The most likely explanation is that someone fell down the stairways which caused the crowd to buckle and this in turn, intensified the crush. As this happened, several steel barriers which ran up the middle of the stairway collapsed and due to the sheer volume of people present, there was no way of escaping.

The whole incident merely lasted minutes and the end result was horrifying. With bodies being stretchered onto the pitch and into the bowels of the stadium, some of the players didn’t know what had happened until much later on. Both Willie Waddell and Jock Stein were both photographed helping in any way they could.

Out of the 66 people who died in the incident, the five teenage boys from Markinch who went to the match, some experiencing their first old firm match is the story that hits home the most. The monument to the victims in Markinch is well looked after and is an important reminder of how different football was 50 years ago. These young boys went off to a game, bubbling with excitement of seeing the two greatest teams in the country play but didn’t make it home.

Ibrox had to change, an incident like this could never be repeated and it proved to be a major landmark in Scottish footballing history. Football is important, the old firm rivalry is massive, but contrary to what Mr Shankly believes, football is not more important than life or death.

The Ibrox disaster proved that mentality of Scottish football had to change, crowds of 80,000 packed into a stadium could not go on, but it would be years before any real improvements were seen. A new era of football in Scotland was about to begin and Rangers would be at the forefront of change.

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