A black and white photo shows a stairwell at Ibrox Stadium in 1971 in which workers clear away debris.
Workers clear barricades from Ibrox stadium’s stairway 13, site of the 1971 crowd disaster that killed 66 spectators. (photo via The Scotsman)

Numerous European attendance records have been set at soccer matches in Glasgow, Scotland; 147,365 spectators attended the 1937 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden Park, 149,415 were at the 1937 Scotland vs England match, and 136,505 attended Celtic vs Leeds United in 1970. In all these instances, supporters—the vast majority working class men—stood on steep, mostly uncovered, terraces. Such a design characterised virtually all British soccer stadiums at the time. Getting as many people as possible into the stadium meant little regard for sanitation, comfort, provision of food, and safety.

Such large crowds and spectator experiences form part of the context for understanding the terrible events and resultant changes that occurred 50 years ago when 80,000 fans attended Glasgow’s world-famous derby between Rangers and Celtic on January 2, 1971. Tragically, as spectators were exiting one part of Ibrox Stadium, 66 Rangers fans were killed and almost 200 injured at Stairway 13. As was customary, and like numerous soccer grounds in Britain with little or no crowd control measures in place, fans were left to their own devices when exiting. On this particular day, this meant thousands of Rangers fans departing via a waterfall-like 92-step staircase within a short space of time.

A number of eye-witness accounts noted a developing crush on the stairs. As this intensified, fans rapidly caved in on each other. Several steel barriers on the stairway collapsed as the monstrous collision of bodies led to massive cramming and subsequent asphyxiation for many. A number of years later, The Belfast Telegraph newspaper concluded: “what made Ibrox a recipe for disaster were the vertiginous staircases from which it emptied thousands from the terracing. It was like the 90m ski jump tower, with no chance of turning back”.

British society went into a state of shock and was united in sorrow when the magnitude of the disaster became evident. Alerted to what had occurred, messages of sympathy came from all over the world along with promises of financial assistance for victims’ families. US president Richard Nixon sent his condolences, as did political leaders from around the world. Pope Paul VI also expressed his sympathies for the victims, one of many religious leaders to lend a voice to the tributes.

The disaster spoke to history and context. Two fans had been killed and 44 injured in an accident on the same staircase in 1961. Further incidents of crushing took place in 1967 when 11 were injured and in 1969 when 30 fans were hurt.  A few adjustments to the stairway were made by Rangers FC, but some observers, including the academic Graham Walker, have argued that too little thought was given to design. A recommendation post 1969 to remove a wooden retaining fence on the staircase was not carried out, and this being left in place may have exacerbated the danger to fans and increased the number of fatalities in 1971.

Strikingly, in the wake of these previous accidents, no significant public enquiries took place, no monitoring nor safety legislation enacted. There was no consensus regarding sports crowd safety in Britain, and little evidence of relevant public discourse amongst politicians, police, club officials, or indeed, supporters themselves. The mainly working-class fans that followed soccer in Britain, powerless in terms of the conditions they had been conditioned to expect, largely complied with the cultural practices of the times. Indeed, until the late 1970s the terracing and exit steps of Scotland’s Hampden Park remained unconcreted and thus dangerous to many amongst the record-breaking crowds attending big games there.

Yet, the tragic day at Ibrox in 1971 was critical in beginning a process of major changes in British sports stadium regulations, spawning enquiries into the circumstances of the disaster as well as safety at sports grounds generally.  One of the most influential was headed by British Government appointed Lord Wheatley. His review of fan well-being at British football grounds resulted in the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Simply put, if a club did not meet standards, it would not be granted a safety certificate. As far as sports stadiums were concerned, the Ibrox disaster demonstrated in the most tragic way imaginable that soccer had a responsibility for the well-being and safety of its supporters.

In response, Rangers FC significantly renovated its home stadium. In the 1980s, the new all-seater Ibrox could boast being the most modern stadium in Scotland and one of the best in Britain, its conversion resulting in it being awarded Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) five-star status.

However, despite this transformation and lessons to be learned from Ibrox, it took England’s Bradford Football Club’s stadium fire of 1985 when 56 fans were killed and hundreds injured, and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989, when 96 fans were killed and many more injured in a crush, to finally convince the rest of society that the mass standing terraces, inadequate entrance and exit points, general poor crowd regulations, and overall Victorian conditions endured by supporters, were no longer acceptable.  Arising from these disasters, the Lord Justice Taylor reports and Judge Oliver Popplewell’s report regarding Crowd Control and Safety at Sports Grounds in Britain became the major turning points for soccer stadium re-developments and crowd safety in sports arenas.

Although Ibrox in 1971 was the beginning of the end for self-regulation regarding soccer crowd safety, it took another two decades for local authorities, soccer administrators, and politicians to start paying appropriate and adequate attention. In the wake of new regulations arising from the Popplewell and Taylor reports, combined with a significant increase in financial investment on the part of satellite television and a number of club owners emerging who desired to cultivate a new kind of consumption-shaped fandom, every elite soccer stadium in Britain was refurbished, sometimes completely rebuilt. The mass standing terraces disappeared to be replaced by mainly all-seater stadiums. The new era also meant a major focus on the corporate nature of the sport, resulting in a significant rise in matchday ticket prices and the expense of soccer merchandise generally.

What became known as the Ibrox Disaster is one of the worst crowd calamities in British sports and the ninth most deadly in the history of world soccer.  It is also a political, social, and cultural marker in changes in the construction of, and regulations regarding safety at, British soccer stadiums.

Dr. Joseph M. Bradley is an Associate Tutor at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. He has authored, joint authored and edited several books, and written numerous journal and newspaper articles on sport and ethnic, national and religious identities, and prejudice.