On This Day: Stairway 13 - The Ibrox Stadium Disaster Of 1971

66 people lost their lives on this day in 1971 at Ibrox
08:00, 02 Jan 2022

On a bitterly cold and foggy January afternoon Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow witnessed what was the worst sporting tragedy ever at the time, as 66 people were killed in a devastating crush following the traditional New Year Old Firm game between Rangers and Celtic.

Sadly, Ibrox was no stranger to tragedy as back in 1902 some 25 people had been killed when wooden terracing collapsed during a Scotland versus England game, a disaster in its own right which would lead to greater ground improvements at the ageing stadium in an attempt to prevent the same thing happening again.

But ironically the changes actually led to a more dangerous football stadium, as rotting wooden terraces were replaced by vast concrete structures capable of holding far more people, though not necessarily able to cope with the consequences; something which was highlighted in 1961 when two Rangers fans were killed following a crush on a staircase.

Along with Hamden Park and Parkhead, Ibrox had become one of the biggest grounds in the country often seeing crowds of around 100,000, but despite the rapid growth in capacity there were few safety procedures in place to deal with the huge numbers that were now attending football on a regular basis.

The Hogmanay Old Firm fixture of 1971 had actually been moved from New Year’s Day to January 2nd as a result of violence and drunkenness which had accompanied the fixture in recent years and convinced the authorities that things would be better if the match was put back 24 hours, but according to all accounts the day had passed pretty peacefully up until kick off.

Celtic were flying under Jock Stein and on course to win their fifth league title out of the nine consecutive championships they would ultimately claim, while Rangers were languishing well behind them in fifth, but the significance of the result would be overshadowed by the sheer nature of the horrific events that were about to take place.

Despite the home side’s poor league form it didn’t stop a huge crowd gathering that day, as those from the green side of the city turned out to see what they assumed would be another step towards an inevitable title win.

Reports of exactly how many were there that day vary with some accounts suggesting it was 80,000 and others claiming it was higher; but the fact that the game was not an all-ticket fixture meant that thousands of people were able to turn up and gain entry at the turnstiles relatively easily.

As is so often the case for such a big occasion the game, by all accounts, was far from a classic as the two sides jousted with each other without making a significant breakthrough; that was until the final minutes of the match when all hell broke loose.

With the two sides locked at 0-0 and many fans heading for the exits, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone scored with a header and appeared to have won the game for the Hoops sending the visiting fans into ecstasy as they celebrated what they thought was a certain win over their bitter rivals.

But Rangers’ reply was instant. Going straight up the other end and winning a free kick before Colin Stein somehow poked home an equaliser in the most dramatic fashion with those who had already left totally oblivious to what was happening inside the ground.

Nobody really knows what happened next. Initially, it was believed that many of those who were in the process of leaving the ground turned back when the equaliser went in, only to be faced by a sea of spectators coming in the other direction, but later investigations found little evidence to support this claim.

Subsequent reports suggested that as the huge crowd all tried to exit the ground at the final whistle down the steep and narrow Stairway 13, the very same staircase where two fans had died ten years earlier, a number of people lost their footing, causing hundreds of people to fall on top of each other.

As people tumbled down the concrete steps a toxic crush ensued and in a matter of seconds the breath was literally being squeezed from 66 people with over 200 others suffering terrible injuries.

“I crawled over the top of bodies and I still have no idea if the people around me died or not,” explained Ian Loch some years later. “An ambulance man came up to me and told me I needed to be checked out because I must have looked awful. He took me back into the ground and there were bodies lying everywhere on stretchers.”

Victims ranged in age from just eight to forty-five years old, with the majority being in their teens or twenties, including a group of teenagers who had travelled from the Fife village of Markinch together.

Douglas Morrison, Ronald Paton, Mason Philip and Bryan Todd all from Auchmuty High School in Glenrothes died along with 13-year-old Peter Easton whose mother only allowed him to go to the game after he’d pointed out how well he’d done in his studies.

Eight-year-old Nigel Pickup from Liverpool, whose stepfather had taken him to the match as a special treat was the youngest victim to lose his life in the deathly crush on Stairway 13 that awful afternoon.

In the face of such a tragedy club allegiances were soon put to one side with Celtic supporters’ coaches pulling over as fans ran to try and offer assistance to the injured. Only when they saw the number of bodies lined up along the touchline and behind the goal did many realise the sheer enormity of what had happened.

“My God, it was hellish,” explained Rangers manager Willie Waddell. “There were bodies in the dressing rooms, in the gymnasium, and even in the laundry room. My own training staff and the Celtic training staff were working at the job of resuscitation, and we were all trying everything possible to bring breath back to those crushed limbs.”

Waddell insisted that the club was represented at each and every one of the funerals as the process of grieving began across Scotland and around the world while those involved sought answers as to how such a disaster could have been allowed to happen.

What followed was a thorough over-hall of football stadia which would later be used as the blueprint for most major British grounds following the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report of 1989 and just three years later the new Ibrox Stadium was completed, with only the listed Archibald Leitch designed Main Stand remaining from that fateful day.

Unfortunately, however, in the years that followed we would soon find out that such legislation would not totally eradicate the potential for tragedy at sporting grounds in the years to follow and that there is still work to be done when it comes to crowd control and supporter safety.

But the fact that the tragic events at Ibrox on January 2 1971 weren’t captured on film or broadcast live at the time doesn’t make them any less significant for those there that day or who were affected by one of the most tragic events ever to occur at a sporting event.

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