IT WAS the disaster that changed the face of Scottish football, but it has been largely forgotten among the annals of stadium carnage such as Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford and the second Ibrox disaster, which claimed 66 lives in 1971.
The first Ibrox disaster took place at the match between Scotland and England on April 5, 1902, and left 26 people dead and 587 injured. A television documentary tonight will show that no-one was successfully prosecuted for the undoubted faults which led to the tragedy.
The only official report - by the Scottish Football Association - blamed "natural crowd movement" for what happened. No civil actions were brought against either Rangers or the SFA, thanks largely to a massive fund-raising campaign which compensated the injured and relatives of the dead.
Yet the extent of the culpability on the part of the authorities is clearly demonstrated in the documentary. That 1902 international was the first to feature wholly-professional players; it aroused fever-pitch interest among Scottish fans, and in those ticketless days it is thought that more than 80,000 people crowded into an Ibrox Park which had been built three years earlier for 12,000 - and with a capacity of 68,000. Crowd control consisted of a paltry number of stewards trying to stop people gaining entry to overcrowded terraces by holding up boards saying: "Full".
As more and more people crowded on to wooden and steel terraces which resembled nothing more than glorified scaffolding, the structures began to sway, and stresses were placed on steel joints which they were not designed to bear. As tonight’s edition of Alba Air Falach on Scottish Television shows, a huge hole suddenly appeared at the top of the west terracing, through which hundreds of people plunged to injury and death directly to the concrete 40 feet below or on to the jagged steel and wooden beams on the way down, with many receiving crush injuries in the avalanche of bodies.
Newspaper accounts at the time contained far more graphic descriptions than would be tolerated today on grounds of good taste - some of the more horrific accounts make it clear that Ibrox resembled a charnel house.
The match carried on with most people unaware of what had occurred on the west terracing, as would happen again decades later at Heysel Stadium when the European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool was played despite the pre-match devastation.
Eventually abandoned with the score at 1-1, the international match was replayed at Birmingham’s Villa Park the following month, and a 2-2 draw gave Scotland their ninth Home International Championship.
David Mason, the official historian of Rangers, points out that the first Ibrox disaster and its effects on football were largely forgotten.
"If you speak to most people today," he tells Alba Air Falach, "and talk of the first Ibrox disaster, they look quite startled because they don’t realise there was another disaster. Sadly, it has been lost in the depths of time.
"’We shouldn’t lose sight of the events of 1902, because it is an integral part of our history."
As the programme demonstrates, there was no intensive public inquiry after the 1902 disaster, apart from one minor criminal case, which exonerated a contractor from allegations of using cheap materials. The disaster was deemed an accident.
Mason reflects: "Like many disasters, it was a culmination of very many circumstances, and in that respect there was no culpability placed upon the club, but that did not diminish the club’s attitude towards trying to redress the events of that sad day."
A huge fund-raising effort by Rangers followed, while the man who had argued for the match to be played at Ibrox rather than Hampden or Celtic Park took much of the responsibility on himself. Rangers’ manager, William Walton, also responded by leading the reconstruction of Ibrox on a safer blueprint.
Greater commitment to football safety was the main legacy of the disaster. After 1902, clubs such as Rangers abandoned the wooden and steel ‘scaffolds’ and replaced them with terracings with their foundations in solid earthworks. The arrival in the 1920s of Glasgow engineer Archibald Leitch completed the process of turning football pitches into temples of the game.
Leitch was responsible for the design of more stadiums in Britain than anyone - Hampden, Ibrox, Celtic Park, the Dell, Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and part of Old Trafford were among his creations, which were responsible for British football’s 20th-century ‘look’.
The programme does offer a tantalising hint of one effect of the disaster when it confirms that Rangers were forced to sell their best players to finance the rebuilding of Ibrox. Rangers had won the Scottish title in the previous four seasons, but the side understandably went to pieces over the next few years, and could not maintain their ascendancy. In 1902/03, the title went to Hibernian, and the following year Third Lanark won the championship. From 1904 Celtic took over, and went on to set a record of six titles in a row which would last until 1972, when they surpassed their own mark on the way to nine championships.
During that six-in-a-row, sectarianism began to grip Glasgow with the Old Firm as its focus. Until then, though Celtic were known as a Catholic club from their foundation by Brother Walfrid, other Glasgow clubs such as Clyde and Third Lanark were often just as challenging as Rangers as opponents. Mason has in his possession a newspaper article which talks of Celtic warming up against their old friends, Rangers, for a match against their great rivals, Clyde, and the name Old Firm, which dates from the turn of the century, indicates how close the two clubs once were.
But towards the end of Celtic’s title run there came a growing clamour, particularly from the Glasgow press, it must be said, for a ‘Scottish’ club to rise up and beat the all-conquering Irish Catholic club from the east end. That club would be Rangers, who would become the standard-bearers of the Protestant and Unionist tradition.
It may stretching a point to argue that the first Ibrox disaster led to the sectarian divide between the two great clubs, but it is certainly a subject worthy of investigation.
In the present climate, in which there appears to be genuine willingness to tackle the problem, it might help to understand how sectarianism developed in central Scotland.