Fifty years on and the bald statistics of Scottish football’s darkest day still hit home: 66 dead, more than 100 injured. The familiar press images of bodies laid out on the damp turf of the Ibrox pitch amid the thick winter mist of a sodden Saturday evening deliver the stark reality of what happened on 2 January 1971.
Five decades later, the story tugs at the heart just as it did all those years ago. It has been uttered so often since, but the old cliche about people expecting to come home safely from a football match strikes deeply when we contemplate what happened in Glasgow that New Year’s weekend. The chilling reality of Stairway 13 still makes uneasy reading. For those who were alive at the time, and who remember the headlines, the heady shock of the news as it filtered through the airwaves and into the following morning’s newspapers, Ibrox was a modern horror.
The bare facts are familiar to most. Celtic were the visitors that day, and as they and Rangers battled out the final minutes in front of 80,000 fans, went ahead when Jimmy Johnstone headed in a rebound from a Bobby Lennox shot that had hit the bar. It looked like Celtic had snatched the winner. Yet, almost immediately, the home side surged up the park. They won a last-minute free kick, and from that and an ensuing goalmouth scramble, Colin Stein poked home an equaliser.
By all accounts, the draw was a fair result. The weather was filthy. Many in the crowd were readying themselves for a trek home in the rain. As the final whistle blew straight after Stein’s goal, thousands of fans at both ends of the park were already heading for the back of the steep terraces and out of the ground.
Stairway 13 was one of the major exits at the Copland Road end of Ibrox – traditionally the “Rangers end” for Old Firm games. In those days the stadium was split in two for big matches when Celtic visited (as was Celtic Park). Crowd safety was less of an issue then, although Glasgow Corporation had been agitating for a greater say for several years.
The stairs were steep, and punctuated by steel barriers, which would prove deadly for so many as crowds piled down towards Copland Road. Somehow, somewhere among the sea of people, someone stumbled and fell. Some say it was a young lad who was being carried on the shoulders of another. Others believe that may have been an illusion, as some youngsters were pushed upwards either by the volume of bodies or against one of the barriers.
Whatever happened, the horror of Stairway 13 is that so many were crushed by the barriers, trampled underfoot by the weight of their fellow spectators. Most of the dead had been suffocated. One witness recalled trying to pull people out as they died. “They pleaded at you with their eyes, but they were dead by the time we got to them,” he said. The whole catastrophe lasted only minutes, yet seemed to last so much longer. Onlookers above and below the stairway could only watch as the bodies piled up. One man living across the street remembered “moaning and screaming”. There was no time to prevent the carnage unfolding or even to halt its worst effects. Although many were dragged still alive from the melee, dozens died horrible deaths. Life was stolen, in an instant. There was no rhyme or reason: death stalked that stairway, selecting its victims randomly, just as it was to do years later at Bradford, Heysel and then Hillsborough.
It is difficult to describe the shock people experienced that weekend. All over central Scotland, telephone lines were buzzing as news seeped out of Ibrox. In 1971 there was no live TV coverage, and none of the exigency of today’s internet or smart phone. Snippets were leaking out on radio and TV bulletins. People were hearing things from those at the ground or who had witnessed the rush of police and ambulances around Paisley Road West.
Even the players knew little or nothing of the tragedy. Having played out a dour draw, in poor weather, they had left the pitch quickly. Billy McNeill, the Celtic captain, had been injured and watched the game from the stand. He recounted later that he and his colleagues were travelling back to Parkhead on the team bus when the first news was heard on the radio. John Greig, the Rangers captain, had headed straight to a treatment room after the game. When he eventually got to the home dressing-room, his team-mates had left the stadium. As he got dressed, the doors opened and a few bodies were taken in to be laid out on the floor. Shocked, Greig returned to the pitch, likening the scene later to a bomb having gone off.
Outside, on the pitch and at the east end of the stadium, there was mayhem. Police officers, medics, staff and photographers were trying to make sense of what was going on. Peering through the heavy mist from the main stand, various witnesses could see bodies being laid out side by side. There were dozens of walking wounded, some badly hurt and others in shock. The two clubs’ doctors, Donald Cruickshank and John Fitzsimons, were there, administering cardiac resuscitation and other emergency treatment. There are notable photographs of the rival managers, Willie Waddell and Jock Stein, helping out. An ambulance man told later that he realised Stein was carrying the other end of his stretcher as they ferried a victim to safety.
Somewhere amidst all this, a rescue worker was moving among the bodies, holding a mirror to the face of each victim in search of any vital signs. It was very clear, very quickly, that dozens had died. Police knew the total number swiftly, and set about making arrangements for identification. Bad news was to visit homes across central Scotland.
The Ibrox disaster was a landmark in Scottish postwar history. It represented an important juncture in Scottish football, a moment perhaps when many people realised that however important the sport might seem, however vital Old Firm rivalry was, and whatever it was that drew 80,000 people into a stadium in awful weather just after New Year, nothing was worth the horror of Stairway 13.
There was no greater symbol of the tragedy than the loss of five teenage boys from the small Fife town of Markinch. Twenty years ago, Gisela Easton, the mother of 13-year-old Peter, told how he had begged to be allowed to attend the game. Mrs Easton had prevailed on her husband to let the boy go. “He was a very bright boy, clever in school, and that was the reason we allowed him to go to the Ibrox football match. He was so keen,” she told a BBC documentary made to coincide with the 30th anniversary in 2001.
Her moving interview still strikes home, as she recounts what happened that dark day, each moment indelibly memorised. “My husband was not at all keen on letting him go. He assured me that he would be on a bus with grown-ups from the Glenrothes club… he would be safe,” she recalled. “I said, oh Harry, let him go, he deserves a treat; he has been so good. Peter looked at me and said: thanks Mum.”
Peter had an early lunch, so excited about going to the game that he declined his dessert, a home-made trifle, and asked his mother to keep it in the fridge for his return. She recalled how she wanted to give him a farewell hug but refrained because he had reached an age where he might be embarrassed. Instead she watched from a window as he dashed out to meet his friends and head off for the supporters’ bus.
In fact, Peter met up with seven friends and they walked together. He and four of the group were Rangers supporters, the other three Celtic. All of them attended the same school, and most of them played for Markinch United under-16s. One of them, Douglas Morrison, was a notable athlete who many said might make it into the professional game. They were all football crazy, and excited to be heading to the big city for the traditional Old Firm derby that took place each New Year.
Shane Fenton was one of the Celtic boys in that group. He was 16 at the time. The two groups got on their respective supporters’ buses and headed off. He remembers leaving Ibrox from the Celtic end just after Johnstone’s goal, and heading for the bus. When it stopped at Kincardine on the way back to Glenrothes, supporters started to hear rumours about an incident at the Rangers end. They travelled on to Markinch and home, where frantic rumours were spreading quickly around town.
“Their mums and dads were calling round everywhere. News was coming through in bits and pieces but nobody really knew what had happened to the boys at that stage,” recalls Shane, now 66.
That BBC documentary of 2001, made by the late director Peter Barber-Fleming, is notable for the contributions of many eye-witnesses, as well as the testimony of Mrs Easton, close to tears as she remembered her son, 30 years after his passing. Now, 50 years on, Fenton says he is concerned that a younger generation knows little or nothing about the tragedy.
“Markinch is a bigger town now, and a lot of younger people live here who really don’t know about the past. Many of the families moved away over the years, and obviously a number of those who were bereaved have died too,” he told Nutmeg. “The local Rangers supporters mark the anniversaries each year, and a few local people too.”
A window-cleaner for most of his adult years, Fenton still lives in Markinch, very close to the monument to the Ibrox victims, which he continues to tend. On the weekend he spoke to Nutmeg, he was planning to check it over before a visit by a television crew who are preparing to mark the anniversary. “The monument is well respected by people, and it has never been damaged. That is important,” he says. “A few of us check on it regularly to make sure everything is tidy.”
The memorial – a stone bearing the names of the local victims – includes a bench, and five rowan trees planted in their memory. Of the 66 dead, nearly half were under the age of 20 – all teenagers bar one eight-year-old boy from Liverpool. The striking thing about Ibrox was that it happened at such an ordinary event. All over the country, football fans might have wondered, could that have happened to me, or my father or son? It was a tragedy that triggered responses among parents everywhere. Our Glasgow neighbours, father and son, had attended the game but left by another exit. In my own household, the first we heard was when an anxious mother called us to check on her son, who was visiting; she thought my father and I had attended the game and might have taken him along. I can still remember the tone of panic, and then relief, as she learned we were all safe and well.
The shock of the disaster reverberated quickly. This was national and international news. Pictures of the dead festooned newspaper pages for days and weeks. Rangers players and staff were dispatched to every funeral and memorial service. There was criticism of the club, partly because of previous incidents at the same stairway in 1967 and 1969. Later, the respected Sheriff Irvine Smith was to issue an abrupt condemnation of the Rangers board at the end of a damages case, accusing directors of proceeding “on the view that if the problem was ignored long enough it would eventually go away”.
John Lawrence, the building magnate, was owner and chairman of Rangers and very well known in Scotland. But the club’s public face was manager Willie Waddell. A former star player for Rangers, for whom he had played for 16 years, Waddell had then covered Scottish football as a sports journalist for the then dominant Scottish Daily Express. He returned to Ibrox as manager in 1969.
If the club was to be blamed for the incident, Waddell certainly personified its contrition. He stood down as manager after winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972, and made it his mission to have Ibrox rebuilt properly. He studied the best stadiums in the UK and abroad – most notably the Westfalen at Dortmund, which was being built at the time. Rangers set about a modernisation that took the best part of a decade to complete. The stadium was transformed from a giant forbidding bowl into a smart modern stadium, with more space and many more seats than it had held previously. Its capacity was reduced significantly, and it became a much safer place to enter and exit. For years before the Taylor Report enforced ground improvements, the stadium was a model for various British clubs to emulate.
There is no doubt the disaster was an accident, albeit one whose impact was magnified by the steepness of the stairs and the unyielding nature of the barriers. Certainly the deaths were not the result of fans’ misbehaviour. Initial tales about a large group triggering the crush by attempting to return into the ground when Rangers equalised proved to be untrue. Stein, the player who scored that equaliser, still prefers not to discuss the incident in public. He had known 18-year-old Margaret Ferguson, the only female victim of the crush. A local girl in Linlithgow, Margaret had visited Stein’s home just days earlier with a present for his baby daughter.
For a while afterwards, fans themselves took greater care to avoid crushes at the big Scottish stadiums. But nothing really was done officially to improve safety or cut crowd sizes. Councils were finally given greater powers of enforcement. Meanwhile, the sheer number of people attending many games meant there were still significant risks. Those of us who attended the bigger games as youngsters during the 1970s will recall the sensation of being lifted clean off our feet and carried by the crowd, especially at Hampden. When Kenny Dalglish nutmegged England goalkeeper Ray Clemence to score Scotland’s winner in 1976, I found myself landing 70 or 80 feet from where I had been standing in the north enclosure. It was a sudden, unstoppable and frightening experience that took only seconds.
For years, comfort and safety had been unheard of in the larger grounds. Fans were used to standing amid massive crowds. Alcohol use was habitual and some supporters were frequently inebriated to the point of being incapable. The terraces ran with urine and mud. Bottles and cans were dumped – and sometimes thrown – in all directions. The east and west terraces at Hampden, and other grounds, were made up of ancient timbers filled with black ash. Entertainment was basic, comprising mainly of a marching pipe band. Refreshments were rudimentary, usually Bovril, maybe a Scotch pie, or a macaroon bar from a nearby hawker. Much of the typical stadium was uncovered. For decades, nobody complained very much about any of it. Conditions at some grounds were so poor that it can be difficult to convey their awfulness to a younger generation that is used to all-seated covered stadiums, big-screen entertainment and all the junk food they can eat.
Football grounds were built for size rather than comfort. The two big Glasgow clubs had capacities of around 80,000. Until well into the 1970s, Hampden’s official capacity was 134,000. There were no real measures of how many people were actually at a major game, partly because some turnstile operators accepted cash, officially or unofficially. Younger children would be lifted routinely over the turnstile, often with their adult companions’ stash of booze in coat pockets. The faults of football – the drunkenness, violent behaviour – often lay solely with fans. But the game itself did not serve spectators well, with its poor facilities and unsafe practices. In addition, policing consisted of very basic crowd control and dealing only with the most extreme behaviour, often blatant drunkenness.
If Ibrox 1971 achieved anything it was an awakening to the need for improved grounds and better behaviour. But in Scotland overall there was little meaningful improvement until after the 1980 Scottish Cup final pitch invasion at Hampden, when fans engaged in running battles and were beaten back by mounted police. The alcohol ban that followed was as much a contributor to civilised football attendance as were improved stadiums.
On that terrible night 50 years ago, Harry Easton was finally advised by the Fife police who turned up at his home that he should hasten to Glasgow. His wife was administered a sedative by their doctor, who would break the news later that her darling teenage boy was among the dead. Once in Glasgow, Harry was shown every body, until the last, which was in a separate room. It was young Peter. Years later, his wife recalled: “Peter was the last he looked at. He was in a side room. There was barely a mark on him, just a graze on his cheek. He looked as if he was asleep.”
Gisela Easton told film director Barber-Fleming: “I find it very difficult to put into words. My life as I had known it ended. I had to start again. The sun had gone and I felt that I was sinking into a deep black hole. I was crying for myself because I had to go on living. To lose a child must surely be the most dreadful thing that can happen to any mother.”
It is often said, half-jokingly, that football is far more important than life or death. This old saw is based on a remark attributed to Liverpool’s famous Scottish manager, Bill Shankly. In truth, for all the rivalry, football is nowhere near that important. At that moment in 1971, who cared whether Celtic had dropped points at Ibrox, or Rangers had snatched a draw in the last minute? Who cared if your friend, relative, neighbour or workmate was “one of us” or “one of them”? What mattered was – yes, that other cliche – 66 people had headed off to support their team and would never come home. Scores more experienced a horror that was to mark many lives for years afterwards. Dozens of families were rent asunder by loss.
Peter Easton’s body was returned to Markinch soon after his death. It lay in a coffin on his bed. The whole town turned out for the funerals of those five teenage boys – Peter, Douglas Morrison, Bryan Todd, Ronald Paton and Mason Philip – who had set off that damp January lunchtime for Glasgow. A community shared its horror and grief amid moving scenes.
“You never forget,” Fenton says. “I think about them every day. You often wonder how one or other of those boys might have turned out if they had grown to be adults, as the rest of us did. We all lived so close.”
Rangers built a monument to the Ibrox dead at a previous anniversary, and each year there are tributes made at the stadium. At the time of writing, the club’s plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary in January 2021, when Celtic are visitors again, remain unconfirmed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions on public gatherings.
Scottish football will gather somehow – physically or otherwise – to mark the occasion. And so it must. For this was not only Rangers’ great tragedy, it was a calamity that belonged to Glasgow, to Scotland and indeed to the whole game. This was a key moment when everyone in football came together in shared grief.
In many respects, off the field of play, Scottish football was never the same after 2 January 1971. Recently, there has been controversy about whether we should be able to stand at games, or drink beer, or sing this song or that. This season, many of us are feeling deprived of the right to attend a match at all.
It might be the perfect moment to reflect on how attending a match used to be, and what it means to be a football supporter today, as we remember what happened on that terrible January weekend five decades ago.