Desperate sight of bodies laid out across Ibrox still haunts John Greig forty years after Ibrox disaster

AS John Greig stepped out of the bath in the home dressing- room at Ibrox on 2 January 1971, he was reflecting with muted satisfaction on having achieved the minimum requirement of an Old Firm occasion - avoiding defeat.

Colin Stein's last-minute goal, just 90 seconds after Jimmy Johnstone had given Celtic the lead, earned Greig and his Rangers' team-mates a 1-1 draw which allowed them to hold up their heads as they trooped off the pitch and prepared to enjoy New Year celebrations with friends and family.

Within minutes, however, the result became an irrelevance to Greig and everyone else as Scottish football endured its darkest hour. Sunday will mark the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster which saw 66 Rangers supporters killed and another 145 injured in a shocking crush of bodies on Stairway 13 of the stadium.

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As he did four decades ago, Greig will lead Rangers out on to the pitch this weekend while his old friend and rival Billy McNeill, who did not play in the 1971 fixture because of injury, will be at the vanguard of the Celtic side.

But, if some anniversaries are more poignant than others in the wider public consciousness, they are not required for Greig, whose memories of the shocking event have remained vividly with him every day since.

"It was damp, cold, foggy and miserable," recalls Greig. "The floodlights were on, even though the game was in the afternoon. Looking back, you feel you might have known something bad was going to happen. It was a right miserable sod of a day. Some things never change, it was the biggest game of the season up to that stage. We went from the disappointment of losing a late goal to our nearest rivals to equalising in the last minute, being fair pleased with ourselves for saving the game. We walked into the dressing-room happy we hadn't lost it.

• Ibrox disaster: 'The shouting stopped because the air was getting squeezed out of your lungs'

"Then, a few minutes later, I could sense from the way some of the staff were behaving in an agitated manner that something was wrong. It finally came home to rest when I got out of the bath last, which I never usually did. I must have needed treatment for an injury. As I started getting dressed, they brought one or two bodies into the dressing-room and put them on the massage table.

"Then I knew something definitely had happened but still didn't know how big it was. To be honest, I didn't know if the people on the tables were alive or dead. Someone came to me and said 'look, you better get a move on, there's been an accident and they need to use the dressing-room'. So I hurried up and got dressed.

"Then, and I don't know why, I walked out of the tunnel. It was pandemonium, with ambulances and people running about.The thing that sticks in my mind is the number of bodies laid along the touchline, going from the halfway line to the Rangers end. I'll never forget what I saw when I walked down the tunnel. It was such a terrible, terrible thing."

Initial reports suggested the fatal crush had been caused by fans attempting to make their way back into the stadium when Stein scored for Rangers. The Fatal Accident Inquiry disproved that theory, revealing the incident actually began some five minutes after the final whistle as a result of one person falling and beginning a domino effect.

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"Nobody ever said anything to Colin about what might have happened if he hadn't scored," says Sandy Jardine, who also played in the match. "No player or supporter ever thought like that. It was something we went through as a group in many ways.

"When we left the ground that day, we knew eight people had died in a crush. Later, I heard it was 22 and the figure just kept rising."

Across Scotland, as radio and TV news bulletins began to relay the growing scale of the disaster, there were anxious vigils at bus and train stations from relatives waiting to see if their loved ones would return safely.

"You have to remember it was at a time when not many people had telephones in their houses," adds Greig. "I still lived in Edinburgh at the time and had some guests staying with me that weekend.

"I'd met them at the World Cup finals in Mexico the previous summer. The readers of the TV Times had chosen their favourite players to take to the tournament as a competition prize.

"Two guys from Birmingham had taken Bobby Hope, the former Rangers player who was with West Brom at the time, and two lads from Northern Ireland took me. Bobby and I were the best of pals and we became very friendly with the guys during the four weeks in Mexico.

"They wanted to go and see an Old Firm game, so I had invited them up for that one. I took them back to Edinburgh and they phoned their folks back home to tell them they were okay, because by that time we knew there had been a big disaster."

In the days that followed, Greig and his team-mates set about the task of doing what they could to ease the suffering of the bereaved and the injured. Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager at the time, insisted that the club were represented at each of the 66 funerals across the country, while survivors were visited in hospital.

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As Greig recalls, the condolences of the Rangers players were not always welcomed. "It wasn't every house that we went to where we were met with a warm handshake," he says. "There were some who were just too distraught and you can understand that.

"It wasnt easy visiting the relatives, but anything we felt was nothing compared to what they were feeling.

"We had practically an all-Scottish team at the time and we all came from different parts of the country, so we were split up to make sure the funerals were attended in whatever part of the country they took place.I don't know how many I went to, but I was just pleased to attend as many as I could." Willie Waddell was immense at the time, he took a grip of the situation and made the decisions which needed to be made."

Rangers returned to action a fortnight later and a two-minute silence was held before kick-off against Dundee United at Ibrox. "It felt very awkward," admits Greig. "People tell me it was two weeks later, but it felt a lot longer than that, with everything which was condensed into those two weeks. It was a surreal atmosphere. But we never thought of giving up. Knowing Rangers supporters as well as I do, giving up would have been the last thing they wanted us to do. What they would have wanted us to do is get back out there as quickly as possible, showing enough respect in between, and try to be as successful as we possibly could. That's what they were brought up like, wanting success for this club. The club means so much to so many people.

"It makes me very proud to have been part of this club for most of the last 50 years.

"Whenever the players have a reunion, the disaster is not something we really sit down and talk about. But for the guys who played that day, it's always fresh in our minds.

"Sunday's game will be emotional for me, there's no doubt about that. It's quite a while since I've led the team out. I can remember the last time I did it vividly. It was the Scottish Cup final in 1978 against Aberdeen. It turned out to be my last game for Rangers, although I didn't know it at the time.

"When I look in the mirror on the morning of the game, I'll probably think 'Hey, I could play today.' Then I'll drop my razor, bend down to pick it up and think 'who are you kidding' when the bones start creaking.

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"When the club asked me to do this, I didn't have to think about it at all. A lot of people have put a lot of thought into this anniversary.

"I know how much the Old Firm game means to both teams and they maybe didn't want anything around the edges of it to interfere with the build-up. I understand that, so I think it's great they have agreed to do it, especially Celtic.

"If it gives a wee bit of comfort to the relatives of the people who lost their lives, then it is worthwhile."