Ibrox Park and the greatest loss of all

SPORT is meant to be a perfect pastime to put sharpness to our otherwise dull lives. While defeat of a favourite football club can lead to sadness for fans, the loss is only as brief as the "next time". Unless there is no next time.

Ibrox Park, on the south side of Glasgow, is home to both Rangers Football Club and, sadly, to disasters that left nearly 100 spectators dead in roughly the last 100 years. Two particularly devastating incidents at this grand football ground left a lasting impression in our hearts. This is the story of these dark days and the fans who paid the ultimate price.

On 5 April 1902, Scotland and England squared off for the 31st time in their footballing history. Slightly less than half of the approximately 70,000 spectators on hand to witness the Auld Enemies clash stood in the west terrace grandstand at the two-year-old grounds.

Only a few minutes into the match, around 3.45pm, disaster struck at the west end. The wooden structure near its highest point collapsed from excessive weight, sending hundreds of people tumbling some 45 feet to the ground. Panic struck the thousands who stood near the gaping hole, estimated to be about 70 feet long by 11 feet wide. Fearing for their lives people rushed toward the lower rows, injuring hundreds of spectators whose attention was fixed toward the pitch.

The match was stopped to allow emergency personnel to treat the injured, but play resumed only 15 minutes later. Most bizarre was the sounds, moans and groans from hundreds of injured and dying combined with the applause and cheering of the crowd watching the match.

Twenty-five people died - most of them clinged to life for several hours or even several days - and another 537 were injured. The match was completed, with the national sides playing to a 1-1 draw. Investigators would rule unsafe the use of grandstands made of wood and steel and ordered the addition of concrete in future structures.

Irony always has its place in such tragedies. Both Celtic Football Club and Rangers had wanted to host the match; Ibrox was selected as the venue by one vote. And, in an odd ending to a sad turn of events, a healthy 25-year-old William Robertson returned to his Falkirk home a day late from the match to find his father and an undertaker planning his funeral. Robertson's father had misidentified the body of another man as his son.

Ibrox has also been the scene of accidental deaths, including two killed on a stairway in 1961. Twenty-four people were injured on the same stairway in 1969.

That identical set of stairs would become the scene of the worst sporting-related accident in Scottish history.

That January day in 1971 was misty and cold and the 80,000 spectators were still in a jovial mood from celebrating Hogmanay two days earlier. This time it was the east terrace at Ibrox where disaster hit when the excitement of the match – where Rangers knocked in a last-second goal to draw with Celtic, 1-1 – got the better of the exuberant fans. Unlike 1902, when people were dropped helplessly to their death, this time a wave of humanity came tumbling down upon each other.

As people began to leave the stadium toward the end of the match, steel barriers near the top of the stairway buckled and gave way, sending hundreds of people careering down the steep, wide steps. Sixty-six people died – many from suffocation or crush-related trauma. Another 200 were injured. The same set of steps was involved, as in 1961 and 1969 – stairway 13.

It would become the worst sports-related disaster in Britain, eventually surpassed in 1989 at an FA Cup match between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield when 96 people were crushed to death.

William Mason was an 18-year-old Rangers fan – and lucky survivor of stairway 13. Quoted on an Ibrox Disaster website, he says: "I was lifted off my feet by the press of the crowd. The crush began to be unbearable until about halfway down, the crowd stopped moving but the pressure continued. I was trapped, being crushed and lying horizontally, I managed to somehow free my upper chest and just managed to breathe. Around me I could hear shouting and cries but as time went on, these decreased until it was almost silent." It took 45 minutes for Mason to be freed.

Among the dead were 31 teenagers. The youngest victim was a nine-year-old boy from Liverpool. One woman died, 18-year-old Margaret Ferguson, from Maddiston, who, it was reported, made a doll for the baby daughter of Rangers centre-forward Colin Stein at Christmas and delivered it personally to his home. Stein would score the goal for Rangers on that fateful day, 2 January.

The burgh of Markinch, in Fife, was hardest hit by the tragedy. Five boys, all between the ages of 13 and 15, ardent Rangers fans who played on the same youth football team, also lost their lives.

Elizabeth McKim was watching the exodus of fans from her third-storey home on Cairnlea Drive when the death scene played before her. She told The Scotsman:

"I saw the fans coming over the top of the terracing and going down the staircase. Then there was a roar and these fans tried to get back up. Suddenly the whole mass of people began swaying. I could hardly watch because I had seen it before and I knew what was going to happen. Within seconds people were tumbling down the stairway. All you could see was arms and legs. I could see that the barriers had been twisted and bent."

The official accident inquiry led to a law in 1974 that required local councils to inspect and issue safety certificates at sporting facilities. Addressing the design flaws, Ibrox was rebuilt, with seating for all fans and improved exits. But for many – witnesses, survivors and family members of the dead – the scars from Scotland's worst sporting disaster will never go away and nor will loved ones ever come home.

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