The chip fat-stained Ibrox model that had enthusiast salivating - Rangers deserve great credit for latest documentary

There is clearly an appetite in football to hear more about Archibald Leitch’s work

It was while researching a book now often cited as being among the best-ever written about football that Simon Inglis began "salivating", as he puts it.

He was at Ibrox stadium sometime in the early 1980s, near the start of what he describes as a “football ground odyssey" that eventually produced his seminal work, The Football Grounds of Great Britain. Published in 1987, it's now routinely hailed as a classic – Fever Pitch for fans of cantilever stands.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He was poring over the pages of an album of photographs from inside the Ibrox south stand that the Scottish engineer Archibald Leitch had gifted to Bill Struth, the Rangers manager. It contained beautiful, professionally shot photographs of the various rooms and architecturally interesting details of a grandstand Leitch had, of course, himself designed.

The main stand at Ibrox is one of the most iconic in British football.The main stand at Ibrox is one of the most iconic in British football.
The main stand at Ibrox is one of the most iconic in British football.

He had done so while burdened by the memory of the trauma of April 1902, when he watched in horror – “Surely the most unhappy witness of all,” he wrote later in a letter – as 17 timber joists gave way in the south-west corner of the “first Ibrox” causing a hole to appear during a Scotland v England international.

As many as 100 spectators dropped onto the steel columns and concrete below. “As if through a trapdoor,” according to one witness. Twenty five people died as a result of the disaster, with another passing away from his injuries 18 months later. It was a tragic coda for Leitch’s first grand opus. The 80,000 capacity Ibrox was the largest purpose-built football stadium in the world at the time. He was distraught that it would be remembered for this disaster – as he feared he would be too. Just a young man in his mid-30s, it was a solemn weight to bear.

Leitch endured whatever shame he felt. Indeed, professionally he prospered. In season 1927-28, Leitch had worked for 16 of 22 clubs in the old English First Division, including Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester United. He was also the stadium designer of choice in Scotland, where stands bearing his mark had been opened at Hearts, Dundee and elsewhere.

But the commission Leitch most desperately wanted was Rangers, again. While desire for redemption was surely a factor, they were his boyhood club. While nothing could bring back those who had perished in 1902, it was possible that a permanent structure might be built to such grand specifications that it could sit as an eye-catching monument for 100 years – at least.

Another Archibald Leitch structure - at Dens Park - could soon have a date with the demolition team.Another Archibald Leitch structure - at Dens Park - could soon have a date with the demolition team.
Another Archibald Leitch structure - at Dens Park - could soon have a date with the demolition team.

This ‘new’ main stand, opened 95 years ago and described as Leitch's crowning glory, is all that and more. Whatever one's views on Rangers, few can deny its red-bricked glory. Inglis certainly won’t. Which is why he was so excited when something caught his eye in a photograph while flicking through that album over 40 years ago.

It was a picture of the manager’s office at Ibrox dating to the late 1920s. On top of a cupboard, he caught sight of the corner of what looks like a scale model of the Ibrox main stand. So one did exist! It was the Holy Grail for Leitch-obsessives like himself. The first visual evidence that one of these models actually existed.

“I knew it was Leitch’s tactic, his selling point, to make models,” Inglis tells me. "I knew that he had done one for Aston Villa. The stadium manager at Villa many years ago confided to me that there had been a model and….it had been put on a skip and burnt."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It seemed likely that this might well have been the fate of the Ibrox main stand model. Inglis badgered officials on subsequent visits to Ibrox. “Sandy Jardine got a bit fed up with me!” he says. “But I knew Rangers were not the sort of club who would throw this out.”

Out of the blue is an appropriate phrase to describe a call he received two years ago. It had been found. Covered up by tarpaulin in the basement of one of the other stands. “I travelled up as soon as I could,” he says.

It was a mess. The restorer charged with cleaning the intricate, 7ft-long replica later revealed that it had even been splattered with chip fat. The full story has emerged in an excellent documentary produced by Rangers TV called Archibald Leitch: Building British football, first broadcast on the channel last month.

Rangers deserve enormous credit for producing such a film. Among the contributors are Glasgow-born Leitch's Spurs-supporting grandson and great-grandson. Meanwhile, the reclaimed model is now a centrepiece in the recently opened club museum in Edmiston House.

Touching something he knew Leitch had once touched, “was one of the most important moments of my professional career,” says Inglis, who is semi-retired, and looking for the “new Simon Inglis”. But not before he visits Goodison Park, the latest Leitch ground – he designed two stands there, both of which remain – to be issued with an appointment with a wrecking ball. “I am not completely obsessive,” he says. “I won’t go in every instance. But if it is an elite ground I will go with a photographer and take a photographic record of the details I think are important.”

Dundee’s Dens Park might be his next stop after Everton. The club confirmed earlier this month that a planning permission in principle application has finally been lodged for a new stadium on the outskirts of the city. It’s a good time for journalist and author Steve Finan to be concluding his series of five lectures on Scottish football grounds, which he does at the University of Dundee on Monday with a talk on the success or otherwise of modern stadiums, including St Johnstone's McDiarmid Park.

A healthy attendance at last week’s lecture on Dens Park and Tannadice suggests there is an appetite for hearing more about Leitch, and the history of football stadiums. Both Finan and Inglis will be quick to send an urgent memo to Dundee: don't throw anything out. Indeed, Finan has already proposed turning the idiosyncratic ‘cranked’ main stand at Dens into a football stadium museum in an admirable attempt to prevent the complete destruction of another important part of football history.

Related topics: