Rangers fan recalls 'get back' shouts on Stairway 13 as Ibrox Disaster crush took hold at 1971 Celtic derby
Freezing fog and mist created an eerie atmosphere for a football scene more akin to a horror film on January 2, 1971. Except the Ibrox Disaster was real life – the real lives of 66 people left dead by a mass crush at one of the Glasgow ground’s exits.
One Rangers fan recalls standing just yards away and heading into the fateful staircase that afternoon. A last-minute change of mind inspired by shouts of “get back” from people further down may well have saved his life, plus those of his brother and friends.
Robert Anderson was 16 and an Ibrox Park regular in the 1960s and 70s. For years he used Stairway 13 to enter and leave the ground at home games, favouring a vantage point in the middle of the Copland Road end.
It was there he stood with his brother and mates 50 years ago tomorrow watching the New Year Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic.
Drama on the pitch, horror off it
A 90th-minute goal by Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone followed by Colin Stein’s quick-fire equaliser brought a dramatic finish in front of more than 80,000 spectators. It was nothing compared to what ensued moments later in the north east corner of Ibrox.
As thousands of supporters egressed down a congested Stairway 13, a crush developed and barriers gave way. Images of the mangled steelwork remain some of the most horrifying in British football history.
People fell on top of one another as pressure from fans behind increased, and at one point bodies were stacked up to six feet deep. Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia – lungs unable to expand due to force on the torso. As well as the 66 fatalities, some of whom were primary-school children, more than 200 suffered injuries.
It was the worst tragedy in British football until the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. But for a sheer quirk of fate, Robert would have found himself in the middle of it.
“I was with my younger brother, William, and a few friends,” he recalled. “When Celtic scored, me and one or two others were ready to leave because it was right at the end and it seemed Rangers would lose.
“We wanted to get out of the ground sharp but another couple of mates didn’t want to go. They felt Rangers could still score. We started making our way really slowly up the terracing towards Stairway 13, but still watching the game as we went.
Explosion of noise
“When we were about ten yards away from the top of Stairway 13, Stein scored. There was an explosion of noise and cheering. We reached almost the top of Stairway 13 but it was packed really tight and there was a lot of shouting going on.
“It felt like a fight had broken out. A lot of folk shouted: ‘Go back, get back!’ People were putting their hands up in the air telling us to go back. We eventually about turned and walked across to the exit at the other side of the Copland Road end, which was Stairway 11, and got out that way.”
Glasgow’s emergency services were alerted and the sound of distant sirens pierced the cold mist. Police diverted fans towards Paisley Road West and away from the worsening fatal accident.
“We got down to the River Clyde and onto a ferry at Govan, which took us across to Finnieston where we lived,” said Robert. “We had scarves on and I remember a couple of people in cars stopping to ask the score and what happened at the end. By then word was spreading on the radio but we still didn’t know much about it.
“We got to Finnieston and me and my brother decided to go to the chip shop before heading home. The guy in the chippy had a radio on. He said: ‘What’s happened at the game? It says people have been badly injured and one or two have died?’
“That was news to us. We just said we thought a fight had broken out. We walked round the corner into Breadalbane Street and by this time we’re more than half an hour late getting home.
“No mobile phones or any way for people to contact you in those days, so Dad was hanging out the window of our second-floor tenement.
“When we got up the stairs, he was a bit tearful and gave both of us a big hug. I think he was thinking the worst by then. It was a close shave. I still get a wee shiver when I think about it.
“Looking back now, that minute of indecision while we debated whether to leave the ground after Celtic scored probably prevented us getting caught up in the crush on Stairway 13. Otherwise I’m pretty sure we would have been in there.”
An accident waiting to happen
Previous incidents on Stairway 13 hadn’t been enough of a warning. Two fans were killed in a crush there in September 1961, with eight injured in 1967 and a further 26 injuries in 1969.
It was no surprise when Rangers were sued for civil damages over the 1971 tragedy, which sparked the ground’s regeneration into today’s modern venue. “It was an accident waiting to happen. Congestion happened all the time there,” admitted Robert.
“Many times I’d been on Stairway 13 at the end of a game and got lifted off my feet due to the volume of people moving. I remember Dad telling me to keep my hands up in big football crowds in case that happened.
“If you were in a tight group of people and there was a sudden surge, you were powerless if your hands were down by your side. I’m just thankful we avoided it 50 years ago.”