By Old Firm standards, the traditional New Year derby of 1971 had been a relatively tame affair. Then, with the game seemingly heading towards a goalless draw, there was a late flurry of activity. Jimmy Johnstone's 89th-minute goal seemed to have secured victory for the visitors, only for Colin Stein to score a dramatic equaliser with the last kick of the game. The Rangers fans who left early after Celtic had scored heard the roar and celebrated as they departed the ground.
Both sets of supporters headed into the bitterly cold evening reasonably happy with the outcome. But, as they began their journey home, a tragedy was unfolding on the exit stairway that led from the Copland Road terracing – an accident that would claim the lives of 66 Rangers supporters, leave hundreds injured and have far-reaching consequences for football in Britain.
The exact cause remains uncertain, but the most likely explanation is that someone stumbled on their way down the stairway – possibly a youth who had been on a friend's shoulders – causing the crowd to cave in. As more fans left the terraces, the crush intensified, resulting in the collapse of several steel barriers that ran up the centre of the stairway. Because there were so many people, there was simply no escape for those caught up in the crush and they had the life squeezed out of them. The victims ranged in age from nine to 43, came from all walks of life and all parts of Scotland. Among them were five schoolboy friends from the same street in the Fife village of Markinch, who travelled to the game together and died together.
Hundreds lined the streets for their funerals, scenes repeated in communities across the country. As grief consumed the nation, thoughts turned to the cause of the crush. Relatives demanded answers and, in particular, wanted to know why lessons had not been learned from very similar incidents on the same stairway in 1969 and 1961, when two fans were killed.
Rangers' response to the previous accidents featured heavily in the subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry, the nearest Scottish equivalent to a coroner's inquest. In the end, the inquiry cleared the club of direct blame but a later civil hearing was not so kind in its judgment of Ibrox officials.
Margaret Dougan was awarded more than £26,000 in damages for the death of her husband Charles and her case prompted Sheriff J Irvine Smith to issue a scathing criticism of Rangers. He said little had been done to improve safety on the staircases after the previous incidents and found that the club appeared to have proceeded with the view that "if the problem was ignored long enough, it would eventually disappear". Rangers were by no means alone in their attitude.
In these days of all-seat stadiums, it's easy to forget the conditions all fans had to endure not so long ago. Facilities like toilets and catering were rudimentary to say the least, while clubs generally took a laissez-faire approach to crowd safety. Frankly it was a miracle that there had not been more serious accidents on the terraces and stairways of Britain's grounds, as anyone who remembers being swept helplessly down a stairway by the force of the crowd will testify.
The events of January 1971 sent shockwaves throughout the game, where there was a distinct feeling of "there but for the grace of God". In an attempt to force clubs to take more responsibility for supporter welfare, new legislation was introduced, ensuring that stadiums should be licensed by local authorities in much the same way as a cinema or restaurant would be. What the disaster demonstrated was that football had a duty of care for its customers.
With that in mind, Rangers manager Willie Waddell, who had insisted that his players attended every one of the victims' funerals, sought to turn Ibrox into the safest, most comfortable ground in the UK, if not Europe. It took ten years and £10 million, but by 1981 the transformation was complete. From the huge, sprawling, grey bowl of 1976, the Ibrox of the 1980s was compact, bright and modern. It boasted clean toilets, hot food, clear passageways and a seat for the vast majority of supporters. Most importantly, the horrendous crushing on the terraces and exit stairways of the past had been eradicated.
Not only was Ibrox now Britain's most spectator-friendly football stadium, it was also its safest and, for that, Rangers deserve great credit. But as relatives of the victims gather at Ibrox to mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster on January 3, 2011, they will have cause to wonder why it took the loss of 66 lives to finally make the football world wake up to the fact that the well-being of supporters should take precedence over everything.
From WSC 287 January 2011