BY MARK GODFREY
Saturday, 2nd January 1971 was like so many other mid-winter’s days in the east of Scotland; damp, grey, cold. Gisela Easton stood at the top of her stairs and called out to her son Peter – who had just polished off his lunch, leaving for later the trifle she had made specially – and wished him a good time but also urging caution. It pained her to resist the temptation of bidding the 13-year-old goodbye with a hug and a kiss fearing he would feel awkward. As Peter left their house to join up with the friends who would accompany him on the trip to Glasgow, Mrs. Easton watched him walk along the street from her bedroom window. Immediately, he met his four pals; three of whom lived along that very same road, the other just around the corner. The group of buoyant, expectant youngsters continued on together, laughing and singing Rangers songs until they left her gaze for good.
Markinch is a small, relatively insignificant place. A village of about 2,500 inhabitants, it lies in the heart of Fife, a mile or two from the post-war new town of Glenrothes. Mrs. Easton was born in Germany and had suffered the hardship of life in Berlin and the brutality of the occupying Russians at the end of the Second World War before escaping with her mother. She and her husband Harry raised Peter in Park View – an average street of reasonable looking semi-detached houses - just as the parents of Bryan Todd (14), Ronald Paton (14), Mason Philip (14) and Douglas Morrison (15) had done with their boys.
Peter was no stranger to Ibrox, but today was one of those special days; an Old Firm derby with Celtic. And the traditional New Year’s game too. All of the Park View teenagers supported Rangers keenly; Peter had pleaded with his mother to be allowed to go to the Old Firm game and had convinced her to ask permission from his reluctant father to let him attend. Harry relented to the lobbying Gisela did on her son’s behalf, for which Peter was grateful in that way young lads are when they’re granted such wishes. Before they jumped on a supporters’ club bus from Glenrothes they met another close friend and high school colleague along the way, 16-year-old Shane Fenton – a Celtic fan. One can only imagine the joy and anticipation all six felt as they prepared to watch their heroes slug it out in the country’s most keenly contested football match; the teasing, the playful banter, the boisterousness. The Rangers boys and Shane walked into Glenrothes and boarded separate buses for the couple-of-hours journey from east to west Scotland, each hoping they would be the ones bragging about the result upon their return to Markinch.
Around 80,000 people crammed themselves into the old-fashioned concrete-terraced bowl that was Ibrox in 1971. It was a place that had experienced far more loss and tragedy than any football stadium ever should have; 25 people died and over 500 were injured when a section of wooden terracing in the Western Tribune collapsed at a Scotland vs. England international held there in 1902, while two more supporters were killed on a passageway in 1961. There were also several other incidents reported during the 1960s which led to spectators being hurt. In response to each occasion, Rangers acted to try and eliminate the compromised safety conditions by spending large sums of money upgrading their stadium.
The game itself was a tightly contested affair played out on a dreak afternoon in Govan; the mist is said to have been persistent and hung low in the skies around Ibrox for most of the day. Both sides probed and pushed, trying to send one half of the fairly evenly-split attendance home in raptures and the other home to lick their wounds and suffer the jibes of the victors until the next time the two met (which would turn out to be the Scottish Cup final at Hampden in May 1971. Celtic won after a replay). It appeared that this encounter would end in a stalemate as the 90th minute approached. But with just seconds left on the clock, Celtic’s Bobby Lennox let fly with a thundering 25-yard drive that smacked off the Rangers crossbar and rebounded out. Waiting to pounce was the Hoops’ mercurial winger Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone. The Scotland international headed home from around 6 yards out, seemingly earning the visitors a last gasp victory. After all, this was Jock Stein’s Celtic, slap bang in the middle of their famous ‘9-in-a-row’; European Cup winners and runners-up in the previous four years. But this was the Old Firm game, and at Ibrox to boot. There was no way Rangers would go down without a fight. With practically no time left on the clock, the Light Blues piled forward one last time. They won a free kick on their left, deep in the Celtic half. Dave Smith’s cross was cut back from the far post and was bundled in by striker Colin Stein. Rangers had salvaged a point in injury time just when it looked like their bitter rivals had snatched the lot just moments earlier. It was this dramatic finale to the game that formed some of the initial speculation as to the cause of what transpired soon after.
Stairway - or passageway - 13 was an exit point at the eastern end of Ibrox which funnelled the spectators out of the ground and away towards the Copland Road subway station (renamed Ibrox station in 1977). It was steep, embedded into the vast earth embankments that had been used by Archibald Leitch in stadium reconstruction after the 1902 disaster. These earthworks helped to create the bowl effect with which to support the concrete terracing. The stairway’s five flights ran straight up the embankment and were divided into seven parallel lanes by metal barriers that ran along its entire length. At some point just before the final whistle, the colossal crowd began leaving their vantage points, headed up the terracing and attempted to disperse through Ibrox’s various concrete arteries. On stairway 13 the numbers of people swelled rapidly.
What exactly triggered the sudden and fatal accident that followed, no one is sure. Early suggestions were that the Rangers fans who had made their way out of the ground when Johnstone scored the likely 89th minute winner for Celtic had tried to rush back up the stairway when they heard the cheers for Stein’s equaliser moments later, meeting those who were exiting, and causing the crush on the stairway. However, this has been refuted by witnesses who were present on stairway 13 at the time of the deadly surge and by corroborating evidence presented at the subsequent inquiry which showed that everyone was headed in the same direction at the time of the tragedy. Others who were there that day say they saw someone – possibly a young boy – falling from a man’s shoulders and tumbling over the heads of the tightly-packed spectators as they descended the stairs, thus causing a chain reaction of people being pushed forward.
Pandemonium ensued as hundreds, if not thousands of fans found themselves trapped on that stairway with nowhere to go. Amid cries of anguish and a sea of faces contorted in pain, the bodies of the dead, dying and injured lay side by side and on top of each other – six feet deep in some places - in a sprawling mass of twisted metalwork and human carnage; the life and breath literally squeezed out of them.
In the final reckoning, 66 people lost their lives on Ibrox’s stairway 13 that day. A further 200 or so were injured. In reality, conditions at British football stadiums during that era were such that a horrific occurrence like this could have happened anywhere and at any time; Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury or Hampden. This was a very tragic day for Rangers in particular but the impact of the disaster spread far beyond Glasgow.
The emergency services were quick to reach the scene of the devastation, ably aided by fellow spectators desperate to save as many lives as possible, but it was soon obvious that fatalities – in great numbers – were inevitable. The Rangers captain, John Greig, had been delayed in returning to the dressing room at the end of the game, meaning he was left to change alone; his team mates had already been warned of the incoming casualties and been ushered away. Suddenly, victims were being brought in and laid out on massage tables. Outside on the pitch he encountered something even more unexpected – the sight of dozens of bodies, covered and lined up on the turf behind the goal. Amongst the paramedics, policemen and general public taking part in the rescue/salvage mission he saw the managers of both teams – Rangers’ Willie Waddell and Celtic’s Jock Stein – lending what help and support they could. As this continued in the immediate aftermath, news of the day’s awful events – vague and patchy at first - began to filter out across the country.
In Markinch, Gisela and Harry Easton were sitting down to dinner when the television programme they were watching was interrupted by a newsflash. There had been some kind of incident at the end of the Rangers vs. Celtic game. It was the kind of bolt from the blue that would send any loving, protective parent into a frenzied panic. With Peter yet to return home, Harry and the other concerned fathers began roaming the streets of the village looking for the boys who had departed for Glasgow several hours earlier. At the very least they would have hoped to find out if they were safe and if anyone had heard of their wellbeing. There was nothing.
Eventually, the local police and the family doctor called on the Eastons – and most likely the Todd, Paton, Philip and Morrison households too – to make the most unwelcome of requests; go through to Glasgow to identify the bodies of the young lads believed to be theirs. Heartbreakingly for those families - just like 61 others – there would be no mistake; no reprieve. All five of those teenage friends who lived within yards of each other and who went to school together, played together, went to Ibrox together, they were all lost. Thirty-one of the 66 people who perished – most by compressive asphyxia – were under the age of 20; the youngest being 9-year-old Nigel Pickup who had travelled from Liverpool to see what was his very first game with his stepfather. Unlike many of the other victims, there was barely a mark on Peter Easton’s body. Save for a small graze on his cheek, there was little indication of the trauma he had endured.
Markinch came to a standstill for the boys’ funerals. It’s the type of place where everyone knows everybody else, and their business. The whole community bore the scars of the Ibrox disaster and were quick to rally round the effected families. Three of the boys were laid to rest together in the village’s cemetery, while the other two had services at Kirkcaldy crematorium. There is a granite stone memorial plaque for them all, surrounded by five rowan trees, at the end of Park View. A few years ago, following internet donations from Rangers fans totalling around £6,000, this was rejuvenated and a memorial bench was also erected in the grounds of the cemetery.
As for those left behind, coming to terms with the death of their loved ones proved understandably difficult. Shane Fenton stopped attending senior football matches altogether after that day. Although he was at the Celtic end and therefore not near stairway 13 when the crush happened, haunted by the knowledge of what befell his pals, he became fearful of large crowds. The shattered Eastons carried their grief with them but had to persevere for the sake of their other son. They, along with friends and relatives of the most of the others, remained in the area around Park View. The Paton family, however, moved to Dundee in 1972; Ronald Paton’s mother never got over the loss of one of her twin sons. One small mercy was that Ronald’s twin brother Ian decided to stay at home that day rather than make the trip to Glasgow, almost certainly avoiding the same terrible fate as his sibling.
The nation mourned the dead a week later at a memorial service attended by thousands held at Glasgow Cathedral while Rangers boss Waddell ensured that Rangers were represented at every one of the 66 funerals – usually by one of the players. Unsurprisingly, calls for an inquiry into the disaster were immediate and vociferous. In February 1971, the Fatal Accident Inquiry began in Glasgow to determine the causes of the accident and where any blame should be apportioned. At the same time, Edward Heath’s government commissioned the judge Lord Wheatley to review the safety and conditions of all British football grounds and to report back his recommendations on how significant improvements could be made to reduce the potential for similar incidents to occur in future. His subsequent findings formed the basis of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds or Green Guide which along with the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 set out new guidelines and specifications that all sports venues in the country had to adhere to in order to receive a lawful certificate of safety to be able to host events for masses of spectators. Any club or stadium that failed to meet these criteria or implement regulations faced the threat of fines or even closure.
The inquiry into the disaster ran for a week and heard the testimony of witness after witness recounted in full, disturbing detail. This was where the theory of the fans trying to re-enter Ibrox meeting with those trying to leave having caused the crush was debunked. The jury decided that no single party was responsible above all others.
And while an array of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to cause the tragedy, Sheriff James Irvine Smith who presided over civil proceedings taken by Margaret Dougan - wife of Charles Dougan from Clydebank who died on stairway 13 - was far more ready to castigate Rangers for their part in failing to prevent the demise of Dougan and the other victims, especially given the previous deaths and injuries sustained on that stairway during the previous decade. The club did not dispute the Sheriff’s findings but did baulk at the amounts of compensation they were ordered to pay to the families of 61 of the deceased.
For Rangers, the 1971 disaster was a watershed moment; finally they had to take proper responsibility for the safety of their blatantly dangerous home ground. Willie Waddell – once he had moved upstairs to the boardroom in 1972 - was instrumental in the metamorphosis of the antiquated Ibrox Park into the safe, modern Ibrox Stadium we see today. Having visited West Germany for the World Cup in 1974, Waddell was so taken with the facilities at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion that he oversaw the Miller Partnership’s design for a similar layout and structure for the ‘new’ 44,000 capacity Ibrox. Refurbishments began in 1978 and were completed three years later at a total cost of around £10million, approximately £4million over its originally intended budget. It still took until 2001 for Rangers to erect something like a specifically dedicated memorial where people could commemorate those who went to a football game on January 2nd, 1971 and never returned home. Located on Edmiston Drive at the eastern end of the stadium, Andy Scott’s bronze statue of the club captain from 1971, John Greig, sits atop a plinth which hosts two blue plaques; one displaying the names of the 66 fans who died that day and the other that documents the names of those who passed away at Ibrox’s other tragedies.
The 1971 Ibrox disaster is ingrained in the psyche of Scottish football and, more vividly, in that of the fans of Rangers. Until 96 Liverpool fans were killed in the crush that occurred in the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest, it was the worst loss of life to have been suffered at a football game in Britain. Not only Glasgow, but several towns throughout Scotland were touched by the catastrophe; probably none more poignantly than the tight-knit community of Markinch. Five teenage friends with their whole futures ahead of them celebrated a new year with a trip to the Old Firm derby, destined never to make it back to their distraught families. They will remain forever united in death as they were in life.