angers and Celtic, the dominant Glasgow football clubs, go back a long way in their sectarian hatred. The deep and violent rivalry between the traditionally Protestant Rangers and Celtic’s overwhelmingly Catholic support continues today, with total segregation at clashes between the two sides, known as the “Old Firm”.
Born a Protestant in 1947 and raised by Catholics in Glasgow, I had something of a conflicted childhood. Catholic kids had chapel and a separate education, while my birthright decreed I that was sent to Sunday School and got to wear my blue scarf to see “the Gers” at Ibrox Park every fortnight.
The Rangers Accordion Band had its practice hall on our tenement block and a pal took me along when I was 10. After a few weeks, I was picking up “the box” quite well, when the bandleader said he wanted a word. “They tell me your mother’s a Catholic, son.”
“No, not really,” I said. “The people who are bringing me up are Catholics. I don’t know where my real ma and da are.”
“Aye, but your real maw was a Catholic, was she not? So you cannae come back here. We couldnae let you play in the band. It’s nothing personal, son. This is the Glasgow Rangers Accordion Band. The Rangers don’t use Catholics or their relatives and neither do we.”
The other side was just as bad. Every month two priests were shown into our living room and given glasses of whisky while they passed the minimum amount of time before collecting a small brown envelope containing 10% of my dad’s wages for the “Mother Church”.
I was 12 when I eavesdropped on the priests talking to my mum. “Well now, Jessie,” one said, as I stood behind the half-open door, “are these wee heathen boys of yours not taking an interest in the Celtic at all?”
She must have shook her head. The other one said: “It’s a fine thing you’re trying to do, bringing them up in their own religion, but you must be aware that their souls will burn in eternal damnation.”
On 16 September 1961, I was seriously injured in an incident at an Old Firm game at Rangers’ ground, Ibrox Park (later known as Ibrox Stadium). I was 14, and a dedicated “bluenose”. My idol was Jim Baxter, who would play for the Rest of the World team against England at Wembley two years later. Celtic were winning 2-1 with less than a minute left. Some of those at our Rangers end were already leaving in silent disgust when “Slim Jim” scored with the last kick of the game.
Several fans on the steep, wide and dilapidated stairway 13 tried to get back up to join the wild celebrations, just as thousands of others – singing, chanting and, in many cases, drink-fuelled – moved towards the stairs to leave. This was a time when football fans were used to standing closely packed on the terraces, and took crushes on stairways for granted. But these five flights were dangerous at the best of times. Millions of feet had worn down the long, narrow dirt steps, leaving their wooden rims exposed and easy to trip over.
Being a young boy, my feet weren’t touching the ground, as I was swept down over the edge of the stairway in a tidal wave of humanity. I tried to free my arms, but I was jammed like a wine cork. The descent was dissected by tubular metal handrails. I wasn’t near any of them. I was wedged in the middle of a tightly packed mass of singing supporters, my neat Italian suit pressed against broad backs and strong arms, my eyes around shoulder level with most of the surrounding men. We rolled slowly over the first flight, unaware that further down the fans who had got halfway back up the stairs in their clamour to return were being bowled over like skittles.
One minute we were moving down, edging and lurching towards the third flight of stairs, the next we were standing still. I wasn’t standing at all; my feet were at least six inches off the ground. I felt the terrifying sensation of being crushed, like a slow, firm punch in the solar plexus. It was only a few sweating seconds before there was a sway and we half-fell forward again.
It was then that I stood on a stomach. I didn’t recognise it at first, it was just a soft surface that gave under my left foot. Then it squirmed. I peered down into the darkness and saw a pair of legs in dark trousers, kicking. I couldn’t hear anything, but there was a man there, under the crowd, desperately struggling to get up. He hadn’t an earthly chance, the resistance was being stamped out of him by any number of unwilling feet.
I looked around in pure fright to the big men on either side, but they were still yelling and singing at the tops of their voices. Now I was past the dying man and above the next few steps. I’d lost my left shoe.
We stopped again. Fantastic pressure enveloped me and I struggled for breath. The surrounding singing died. The man next to me panted: “Get on! For fuck’s sake, move. Move, ya bastards!”
But nobody could move. I panicked. It was like being underwater too long. My lungs were empty and gasping to get some air in. I began wriggling, trying to force myself upwards and out, on to the top of the crowd, but my elbows were pressed hard against my ribs. My ears were hurting. All around me, heads craned backwards, as we realised that the crush was getting worse because of the thousands behind us piling down on top of us. Some who had their arms in front of their chests got one free and waved frantically at the bawling hordes above. They waved back triumphantly.
I cried and cursed without sound. I could feel my eyes bulge. Then an ear popped. I tasted blood and my chest felt as though it was splintering.
Everything became calm. I looked at the horizon and saw the black shapes of the River Clyde cranes against the white sky swap places and become a negative photograph. The pain had gone.
I came to, lying on my back, my head on one step, feet further down. Two men were bending over me, one in cap and scarf, with a hand resting on my forehead, the younger one grimacing. “Jeez, he’s a right mess, this one.”
The Southern General hospital was chaotic. They hadn’t enough empty beds immediately for the dozens of casualties, so our stretchers were lifted on to trolleys and left in rows against the walls of the corridors, while various nurses and at least two doctors paced up and down the lines. I was eventually wheeled into a packed ward and lifted into a bed with my suit on. I’d bitten my tongue and bottom lip, so I did look a mess. When my tearful mum arrived, she washed my face and unhappily let me smoke a squashed Kensitas.
I was kept in overnight. My ribs weren’t broken and my eardrum wasn’t burst. The hospital doctor said I was lucky that I was “bulky” and that I was “a good wee Rangers man”.
This was 10 years before the disaster at Ibrox Park. It was so similar in its causes, and in the way it played out, that I wasn’t the only one to refer to the 1961 incident as the “rehearsal”.
our years later, I got a letter from Rangers’ solicitors. They were still looking into the “accident”, and could I help them? They enclosed a questionnaire and an envelope. Was I on stairway 13, did I see what happened, could I give examples? Yes, yes and yes.
I sent off my reply, but I never got a call back. Mine weren’t the kind of statements you would want to have delivered from the witness box if you were representing the Rangers. You would have been looking for “terrible tragedy”, “unavoidable accident”, “no one to blame”. You wouldn’t have wanted to be told about a “dangerous stairway”. I heard nothing more from them.
Although I still loved football (and to this day travel to World Cups and European matches), I went to Ibrox less frequently, avoided Old Firm games completely and gradually lost interest in Rangers. Two years in Dundee, marriage, fatherhood and the attractions of politics, travel, theatre and music in the swinging 60s distanced me further from the not-so beautiful game.
When I moved back to Glasgow to work as a news subeditor on the Daily Express in 1970, a colleague remarked that my childhood left me well-placed to see both sides of the sectarian divide in the city, which expressed itself regularly and often violently in the rituals of Rangers v Celtic games. I decided it would be interesting to watch an Old Firm game from rival ends.
Rangers hadn’t changed. It was their proud boast entering the 70s that they hadn’t signed a Catholic in nearly 100 years. Celtic, however, were managed by a Protestant. In 1967, they had become the first British team to win the European Cup, forerunner of the Champions League, but they still flew the Irish tricolour above their stadium. (The club was founded in 1887 to alleviate poverty among the Irish Catholic immigrant population in the East End of Glasgow.)
I went to the new year game at Ibrox on 2 January, a bleak Saturday afternoon. I watched the first half from the Celtic end. It was strange going through turnstiles surrounded by green and white scarves, before emerging into the same circus of exhilaration and anticipation I had experienced many times on the other side of the derby.
At half-time I used my union press card to talk a policeman into letting me swap to the Rangers end. It was a boring game for 89 of the 90 minutes. Then Jimmy Johnstone scored for Celtic. I stood transfixed as tens of thousands of Celtic supporters leapt in triumph, then surged back and forwards like a bright green giant concertina. Whole sections rippled in surfing waves down the opposite terracing as they toppled like dominoes and then, uncaring, surged back and forward. I was glad I’d got out of there at half-time.
Time to go. I was near the top of the terracing and saw many around me leaving, dejected, but able to shuffle down stairway 13, its steps as uneven as ever. There was no way I was going down there. I would head for the other stairs available to Rangers fans – the safer ones, wider and descending less steeply to the main Edmiston Drive exit.
A buzz of desperate hope greeted the award of a final free kick. Those like me, who had been pressing tightly against someone’s back, edging up the narrow passageway towards the exits, paused and turned to watch.
When Colin Stein scored with the last kick of the game, it was like a bomb going off. The Rangers end exploded. The tens of thousands who had been staring mournfully at the dying embers of the match shot straight up in the air.
When the ball hit the back of the net, those on the dirt exit track tried to push back into the delirious crowd. Those already halfway down the stairway 13 exit would have shuddered to 100 halts as the air split from the roar of celebration above them, grabbing each other, dancing and jumping up and down on the uneven steps. Some would have stumbled, causing others to trip over them in a mad melee of happy bodies struggling to get past each other back up to the top, just as the ref blew a long blast for time up, doubling everyone’s jubilation.
On the terracing, sober husbands and fathers cheered themselves hoarse. Drunken thugs bayed at the suddenly silent green end of the stadium. Decent Rangers fans hugged each other and whooped hysterically. The whole terrace was alive, turning triumphantly for the exits and a great night ahead.
The Celtic fans opposite were dispersing quietly. Victory in the last minute, snatched away in the final seconds. The 1-1 draw felt like a defeat. Great holes appeared in the green pudding as they melted away safely, ready for a consoling drink and a gradual grudging acceptance that it was not a bad result, to come away from Ibrox with a point. And still well on course for six league titles in a row. All in all, no disaster.
The disaster was at the Rangers end.
espite my intention of never ever going near stairway 13 again, I had no choice in the matter. When the final whistle followed the last-minute goal, the chanting crowd swept off the top terracing steps on to the exit track that curved round the top of the Rangers end and I was caught up in it again.
I was much more aware of my surroundings than others in the tumultuous frenzy of swaying men, and I quickly pulled my arms up to shoulder height. Even so, my top half was jammed so tightly on all sides that one of my feet was dragging and scraping along the ground. Memories of September 1961 welled up sickeningly and I said out loud: “I’ve got to get out of here.”
The crowd slowed almost to a stop. The singing went on. Nobody seemed bothered. If anything, the celebrations were wilder this time, because Celtic had scored so late and Rangers had still stopped them winning.
Only a few yards of the high black fence on my left remained before it turned down the side of stairway 13. My fingers closed between two struts. I jammed my right hand between another two and clung on as if my life depended on it. It did.
The pressure of the slow-moving crowd was strong, but not enough to prise me loose. I kept shouting at the heaving mass moving inexorably towards stairway 13, but I made no sense to the few who heard me.
I saw that the waterfall of fans spilling from the track on to the stairs was causing a pyramid of people to pile on top of each other less than halfway down.
On the other side of the human mound, on the empty stairs beneath it, matchday police began rushing upwards. They linked arms in a brave and understandable bid to try to halt the carnage, but realised they were increasing the pressure and making things worse, so they broke ranks and began trying to pull folk out of the growing heap.
The crowd massed at the top of stairway 13 in front of me became motionless. Then, as the pressure behind them eased, they began to shift, too, along the fenced track to the main exit, and safety. Their singing and chanting still roared out. They were yards from a massacre and veering away in ignorance of it.
As the crowd thinned, I sat down on the top wooden strut of the stairway, unable to move. A St John Ambulanceman in blue and black uniform grasped hold of my arm.
“Are you hurt, lad?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t speak.
“No? Then for God sake get down there and help!”
I slid down a few stairs on my backside and tried to stand up. There were blinding lights. The floodlights. A handful of uniformed workers had extricated several bodies. I gazed at them. Some had mouths and eyes wide open. Some were chalk-white, others grey.
I pressed on one man’s chest, trying not to look at his face. His trousers were soaking. Other corpses were stained wet, whether through fear or the tremendous pressure, I didn’t know. I thought I saw small stirrings of life in another chest and pounded again. I pulled a youngster from the jumbled pile of bodies. An ambulanceman was kneeling over two inert men, beating alternately on each chest. He showed me how to do the kiss of life. It didn’t work.
The deep, wide stairway was a war zone, bodies splayed all down the steps and on the dirt platforms between flights. The metal rails that divided the stairs into several open passages were mangled, flattened and twisted out of shape, but not broken. It was those who had followed Rangers who were broken.
Police and ambulancemen who had been on the pitch and the terracing were infiltrating the crowd from below, coming up the passageways as walkie-talkie radios at the bottom of stairway 13 squawked for reinforcements.
The shriek of sirens outside the ground pierced the trauma. Ambulances. There were suddenly lots more policemen. The crowd were nearly all gone. There were a few uninjured fans near me, some trying to breathe life into bodies, others lifting people on to stretchers and hurrying them away up the rotten stairs to join the ranks of the injured.
A growing line of corpses was laid out, their faces covered. I took off my coat and draped it over a young guy’s head and shoulders and sat back down beside him. Only then did the tears come.
t was almost an hour after Stein scored before he or his teammates knew that anyone had died. The Celtic end didn’t know. Most of the Rangers end didn’t know. Even the press didn’t know. I lurched down the stairs and into The Stadium bar across the street looking for an impossible taxi. It was a hive of celebration. I told one man what had happened and watched him shake his head in disbelief: “Get yourself another drink, son.” I turned and ran up Edmiston Drive. At the traffic lights, I threw open the passenger side of an Evening Citizen van and showed the driver my union card: “You headed for Albion Street?”
“Aye, hop in. What’s happenin’ back there? Police radio’s pandemonium. Sounds like some people got injured at the game. What end was it?”
“I … I … ” I couldn’t speak.
But I could write. Stunned and shaking, I sat down at a typewriter in the offices of the Daily Express in Albion Street and wrote down what I had just seen. I still have the cutting:
… I clung frantically to a fence and as the seething mass crushed past me, I saw the first of the white handkerchiefs waved in terror.
Further down some fans had fallen and the crowd was piling on top of them, but it was impossible to slow the crowd up; to let them know they were singing and dancing their way towards a horrible death.
… It was ten minutes before the crush subsided. Ten minutes before the fans realised something was wrong and headed for other exits.
I did what I could. With brave, weeping policemen and heroic ambulancemen I pounded the chests of those who showed small stirrings of life, in an effort to get their hearts moving.
I pulled youngsters from the jumbled pile of bodies. We laid the dead aside and covered their faces. It was a frantic fight to save the living.
Twice I leaned over a body and applied the kiss-of-life. Twice I failed. I think now if I’d only paid a bit more attention to first aid pamphlets and advertisements.
I saw two policemen carry a small covered bundle to the top of the stairs and one of them wept openly as he repeated over and over: ‘It’s only a wee boy’ …
The disaster covered the front and several inside pages of the Sunday Express. In the hectic couple of hours before the first edition they had struggled to nail down even the basic facts. My eyewitness account was split and paraphrased between several reports, the original saved for the daily newspaper that employed me. Since radio and then TV at 6pm had only mentioned “casualties at Ibrox Park”, the Albion Street newsmen did well to hit the Saturday night streets with 46 dead. They were only 20 short.
Of the 66 fatalities, there was one woman, Margaret Ferguson. There were many youngsters. Thirty teenage boys included two brothers and five boys from the same Fife village of Markinch. The youngest lad, Nigel Pickup, was nine years old.
More than a quarter of the funerals took place on the same day in Glasgow. The Rangers players were told to go to as many as they could. Manager Willie Waddell ensured that everyone behaved with decorum and dignity. Jock Stein of Celtic was a tower of strength, along with many of his Parkhead people. They included 19-year-old Kenny Dalglish, soon to join the Celtic first team, but willing to honour the Rangers dead in a foretaste of the unstinting and unprecedented service he would do as manager of Liverpool when 96 died in the Hillsborough stadium disaster in Sheffield in 1989.
The Rangers board of directors donated £50,000 to the Ibrox Disaster Fund, probably less than they took in gate money from a couple of Old Firm clashes.
As grief swept the country, relatives asked why lessons had not been learned. Those fans whose families had not been affected were loath to criticise Rangers in any way, to the point where the few who did so were regarded as traitors. But it did come out that, when more fans had been injured in crushes in 1967 and 1969 on the same stairway, Rangers had employed a civil engineer to prepare a report. They had not implemented the report’s recommendations.
A fatal accident inquiry held at Pollokshaws Burgh Hall in Glasgow in February six weeks after the tragedy lasted seven days. Pathologist Prof Giles Forbes said 60 of the victims had suffered asphyxiation and the other six died from suffocation. A succession of fans and emergency service workers gave their harrowing accounts.
Scot Symon, who managed Rangers between 1954 and 1967, told the court that “some improvements” had been made to stairway 13 after the fatal accident in 1961. The club chairman, John Lawrence, and the director, David Hope, gave evidence, but the issue of safety was barely touched upon as it was deemed to be a matter for the subsequent inquiry into crowd safety at sports grounds, to be conducted by Lord Wheatley. No criticisms were made of the club in any of the evidence.
After little more than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict. Their written statement concluded that the accident had happened because one or more fans had fallen on their way down the stairs, and that the pressure from the other departing supporters caused those at the front to fall over those who had stumbled first.
The verdict ignored my experience that after a last-minute equaliser, the pyramid of bodies had been caused by thousands of fans piling into those trying to get back up a worn stairway that had been a death trap for years. It exonerated Rangers Football Club of direct blame.
Unsurprisingly, Lord Wheatley concluded after his inquiry in 1973 that the safety procedures in football stadiums were inadequate, but his focus was on recommendations as to what could be done to improve them, rather than blame for past failings. His report would lead to the 1975 Safety at Sports Grounds Act. Following the disaster, Rangers embarked on converting Ibrox into a predominantly seated stadium. It would take several decades before all the major football clubs changed to all-seater stadiums – not soon enough for Hillsborough.
or a few weeks after the Ibrox disaster, there was an unreal air of false unity everywhere, but soon Celtic fans began to act normally again. Now the cliches about “football’s only a game” and “it could have happened to any of us” were put back in the awkward box and forgotten. Sectarianism’s holiday was over.
When Everton met Liverpool in the FA Cup final only five weeks after the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, the fans mingled at Wembley. Cameras showed many with their arms round each other. That didn’t happen in Glasgow.
Nearly three years later, the family of one of the men who had died of asphyxia sued Rangers, and won. The club was ordered to pay damages of just over £26,000. During the case, the sheriff slammed the board of directors and individuals who appeared on the club’s behalf, finding them guilty of deliberate deception, equivocation and obfuscation. His name was Irvine Smith, and part of his judgment on 23 October 1973 read: “So far as the evidence is concerned, the Board never so much as considered that it ought to apply its mind to the question of safety on that particular stairway […] and would appear – I put it no higher – to have proceeded on the view that if the problem was ignored long enough it would eventually go away […] Indeed it goes further than this because certain of their actions can only be interpreted as a deliberate and apparently successful attempt to deceive others that they were doing something, when in fact they were doing nothing.”
Rangers appealed. Not against the murderous judgment, only the amount of money given to the bereaved family, since the possibility of 66 times £26,000 (not counting the 145 injured) would be a lot of money to shell out. The vast majority of Rangers fans continued to turn out to support them, and were already relishing the chance of beating Celtic in the forthcoming Scottish Cup final.
When Rangers attempted to have the test-case widow paid £26,000 damages out of the public disaster fund, Smith, up until then regarded by the establishment as a pillar of their community, ruled against them. Afterwards, a Church of Scotland elder said Smith had let the side down. In his autobiography, Smith said that 40 years after his decisions, he was still viewed with disapproval by some Rangers-supporting friends, who accused him of disloyalty. It was yet another sign of the grim side of sectarianism that has cast its dark shadow over everything from education to housing, from job opportunities to love affairs, and lingers to this day.
Rangers and Celtic continue to dominate Scottish footballl, although the company that now owns Rangers is different from the one that was running the club in 1971. The last time any other club won the League title was 1985. Both share the British record of winning their domestic championship for nine consecutive years. Celtic have done it twice, and Rangers are desperate to stop them reaching 10 in a row this season.
The manager leading Rangers’ mission to do that is Steven Gerrard. He was nine years old when his 10-year-old cousin became the youngest victim among the 96 Liverpool fans who perished at Hillsborough.
Ibrox is, in many ways, the forgotten disaster. Rangers did acknowledge the hurt, if not the responsibility, with memorials, including a brick for each victim on the stadium wall before the 40th anniversary in 2011. But on the looming 50th anniversary, beyond the moments of silence and the black armbands, will there finally be recognition beyond Glasgow of the suffering of the relatives of those who died, and acknowledgments of the failings that led to the tragedy?