Tomorrow marks 50 years, to the very day, since my father and my uncle set out for Ibrox to support Celtic against Rangers in the traditional New Year’s derby match.
We stayed in Shaw Street in Govan, so it was only a short trip for both of them to walk up Helen Street, and past St Anthony’s juniors, to Ibrox Park. The game was played on a misty day and was a fairly uneventful encounter until the closing minutes. In the last minute Jimmy Johnstone scored for Celtic only for Rangers to equalise at the very end, with a goal by Colin Stein. In later years my dad would describe how it felt more of a defeat than a draw after Stein’s last gasp equaliser.
As the two men walked back to Govan in disappointment, they decided to go in for a pint to the Fairfield Bar, more commonly known to Govanites as Donnelly’s pub, which is now the Old Govan Arms. Both of them had dry throats after shouting in the misty air and were in need of much needed lubrication.
Unknown to them something devastating had happened at Ibrox just after Colin Stein’s goal. A short time after, my Mother, aunt, and my young self, were standing at the entrance to our close in Shaw Street, listening to ambulances and police cars careering up and down Govan Road to the nearby Southern General hospital. The television had informed us that a handful of people had died at Ibrox and people had initially thought the worst, that an outbreak of violence had occurred, and the two women were by now in quite a state of concern for their men.
Dad and Uncle Jim returned from the pub some time later and were totally perplexed at the state of them standing in the street. They thought they were exaggerating until they were informed from the television that the number of deaths had risen, and by now it was becoming clearer that a terrible accident had happened on a huge scale at the Rangers end of Ibrox Park.
66 people died that day at Ibrox on stairway 13. 66 fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and fellow football fans who went to a football match and were never to return, many of them just young teenage boys. The fog hung over Ibrox like a shroud as the overworked ambulance and policemen attended to the injured and dying. Jock Stein, upon hearing the news, sent the Celtic players away on the team bus leaving them oblivious to the disaster. Stein, Sean Fallon, Neilly Mochan, and the Celtic backroom staff then stayed on to assist the emergency services in whatever way they could. In his autobiography, Sean Fallon stated that he reckoned he had saved the life of a Rangers fan by resuscitating him by giving him CPR, something he had learned as a life guard in Sligo. Fallon never shared this with anyone before recollecting that fateful day in his memoirs, 43 years later.
Later that evening, we had a visit from Mrs Morrison, our upstairs neighbour. She was an elderly widow and was in a terrible state as her son and grandsons, Rangers fans from East Kilbride, were all at the match. She did not have a telephone and as we were the only family in our close who did, she asked to use our phone to find out if her family were safe.
In later years my Dad recalled that conversation and wondered how they would have consoled the poor woman if her family had actually been involved in the disaster. Thankfully, she was able to establish on the phone that they were all safe and sound and she was able to calm herself, aided by a wee ’hauf’, and was then comforted by my parents until she returned, relieved, up the stairs.
The disaster at Ibrox could easily have happened at the other end of the ground. In later years I worked with a man called John. John was Celtic mad and could be seen at Parkhead each home game waiting for the crowd to disperse before he departed, which I always found unusual. He later told me that he had gone to Hampden in 1967 to watch Celtic play Racing Club in front of 94,000. On exiting the stadium he had been physically carried down 20 stairs as the crowd surged forward and lost control on the huge Hampden stairway, at the Celtic end of the ground, with father‘s screaming for people to watch out for their youngsters in the darkness. Thankfully there were strong men further back who stopped and took the strain of the surge until everyone scrambled to their feet, for a vital few moments, and clambered down stairs to safety. This had all happened in a few short seconds but that incident affected John badly and stayed with him afterwards and never again did he allow himself to be in such a position within a football ground. Hence the reason he would stay behind at Parkhead until the crowds dispersed.
No one can say for certain what caused the Ibrox disaster. For years the feeling was that Colin Stein’s goal had caused a surge of fans to turn back when they heard the crowd’s roar for his equaliser which must have been a terrible burden for Stein to carry all those years. In recent times the feeling now is that it was a simple ‘domino effect’ as a huge volume of people fell in the darkened stairway.
In the weeks afterwards there were funerals and church services, attended by Rangers and Celtic players and officials. A benefit game was arranged for dependants and a huge crowd turned out at Hampden to watch Celtic-Rangers select play a Scotland eleven. The English based superstars of the day, Bobby Charlton, Peter Lorimer, George Best, Charlie Cooke and Peter Bonetti turned out to help with raising funds for such a worthy cause.
The 50th anniversary will now be commemorated. There is sadness that Billy McNeill, such a wonderful ambassador for Celtic, will not be with us to represent the club as he did with great dignity on previous occasions. Someone else from Celtic will now have to stand in for the great man to pay Celtic’s respects in memory of the 66 souls who perished on that fateful, misty day in 1971. They should be aware that they are not only representing Celtic but also representing the memory of Jock Stein, the Celtic players and the Celtic fans from that period, who were all greatly affected by the events of that tragic day.
These days we take safety at football matches, and other such huge spectator events, very much for granted. The disasters, not only at Ibrox, but at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough should all have been averted and there should be great sadness, and even anger, that it took such awful events to happen for the authorities to take action and make things safer for all of us.