Ibrox: The Forgotten Disaster

The events of last Wednesday and the announcement of the findings of the Hillsborough independent panel finally exposed the vast cover-up committed by South Yorkshire Police, and proved just how much contempt football fans were held in back in1989 by the state and wider society. There is little doubt that the authorities felt that by throwing enough mud at an already tainted group, they would convince the wider world that the fans had in fact been to blame for their own disaster. It speaks volumes about the courage and strength of the 96 families that they simply refused to let the issue go, in the face of wider ridicule and venomous media coverage, until the truth came out.

I was sat in my car last Wednesday lunchtime, listening to talkSPORT’s coverage and shaking my head in disbelief at what I was hearing. The audible gasps in the House of Commons as David Cameron announced that 164 documents had been altered or doctored to shift blame away from South Yorkshire Police and onto the fans was the moment that cemented the miscarriage of justice that had been committed by the state. But should we really be surprised? Football fans have always been held in utter contempt in this country, particularly by the “chattering classes” and the proof is in the fact that a big warning was not heeded.

It is utterly inconceivable in today’s health and safety conscious world that an event that claimed 66 lives would not be investigated thoroughly and acted upon to prevent future occurrences-yet this is exactly what happened. Had the events that unfolded at Ibrox in January 1971 been taken seriously enough, then the odds are that the 96 people who died at Hillsborough would have been spared. The undeniable and damning fact about Hillsborough is mistakes were being made long before South Yorkshire Police were altering statements with Tipex. Lessons were not learned from 18 years previously and the question is why? I think it’s because the Ibrox has for a long time been football’s forgotten disaster and one that has never really being given its rightful place in terms of its severity.

It has always amazed me that Hillsborough has remained in the public domain 23 years after it happened. The main reason for this is the fantastic way the 96 families have refused to let it slip out of the public’s consciousness. For them to succeed they simply couldn’t let it fall away, and the level of effort that was required in terms of mental strength must have been considerable to say the least. Their eventual victory in exposing the truth is the greatest testament to their courage and determination.

Compared to the Ibrox disaster, and how long that stayed in the wider public domain, it is not even a competition. Prior to events on that fateful day on April 15th, 1989, Ibrox was still the biggest disaster to be inflicted upon a football stadium. Yet, despite 18 years passing, there was still no permanent memorial at Ibrox to commemorate the victims. The Ibrox disaster would be eclipsed by the death toll at Hillsborough, but the truth is it was already being viewed as a secondary event. ‘It happened, but these things do…’ appeared to be the attitude to the loss of those 66 fans at Ibrox. No real backlash, no real questions asked about the safety and design of football grounds, how fans were cattle herded into them or any questions about how football fans were generally perceived and treated as second class citizens.

It is fair conclude that had the proper questions been asked at the Ibrox disaster and the proper conclusions been reached then Hillsborough would not have happened. But they weren’t, certainly by the wider footballing community, and a very grave warning went unheeded.

Rangers, however, and Wille Waddell in particularly, did act. Waddell was the man who guided Rangers through the dark days immediately after the disaster and ensured that the club was represented at every one of the 66 funerals. He then went on a mission to upgrade Ibrox to ensure such an event could never unfold at the stadium again. He started what we see today: a modern, five star arena that ensures those within it are safe and comfortable. But Waddell and Rangers were flying solo on this front and no other club saw the need to upgrade its facilities, a stark difference compared to the aftermath of Hillsborough.  

Even in the terms of how the tragedies affected the two cities of Glasgow and Liverpool there are marked differences. In Liverpool it united the city. Fans of both Liverpool and Everton have united behind the cause of fighting for justice for the 96. For Glasgow, however, the death of 66 fans is seen as fair game by some and an extension of footballing rivalry. On the day that Rangers finally unveiled a permanent memorial (a rather meagre looking plaque to commemorate the 20th anniversary) in the Ner’day game of 1991 at Ibrox, the Celtic supporters in the Broomloan Rd stand took the opportunity sing and boo through the minute’s silence. Was there a media backlash at this disgraceful behaviour? Well Jock Brown, commentator that day for the BBC described it as a “tense moment” before praising the “wonderful Celtic support” at the end of the game after a 2-0 victory for Rangers.

I recently posted two photos on Twitter highlighting the difference between Glasgow and Liverpool in dealing with the two events. One is of a Celtic fan with “Ha Ha 66” printed on the back of his shirt; the other is of an Evertonian proudly wearing “JFT 96” on the back of his home shirt. We have also been exposed to photos of Celtic supporters scaling the memorial statue outside Ibrox to mock it, and even Alex Thomson, the Channel Four journalist who seems so keen on everything Rangers these days, saw fit to post a derogatory photo on Twitter of the memorial statue for comical effect (although not at the expense of the victims of the disaster). When reminded that the statue was a memorial statue, he claimed he didn’t know this and deleted the Tweet. A subsequent video posted on Twitter of him proved he did indeed know what the statue was and what it represented when he mad his ill-judged tweet, yet still took the opportunity to use the memorial for comical effect.

It is hard to imagine any journalist using the Hillsborough memorial as a comedy prop, and the outrage it would rightly provoke would prevent any right minded individual from trying. Yet the memorial statue at Ibrox does not appear to have that same privilege. It is not afforded ring-fenced status. Why that is anyone’s guess.

Hillsborough is seen as the moment when it all changed. When the penny finally dropped and the people running football realised that they simply couldn’t go on the way they had: treating football fans like cattle, herding them into legalised death traps and viewing them as second class citizens. I have never been totally convinced by this. I suspect the Taylor Report and its findings conveniently coincided with a rush of extra cash coming into the game via Sky and the birth of the Premiership. Had there not been that secured cash bonus providing the means to upgrade stadia, then I suspect the report may have been less radical in its findings.

Either way, it is undeniable that Hillsborough was an avoidable tragedy. Those 96 people died, not only because of the failings the local council for allowing fans to enter a ground with no safety certificate, or the police who made all the wrong tactical manoeuvres at the all wrong times and then tried to shift the blame to the victims, but because the lessons from 66 victims of another disaster were not properly heeded. Had the families of the 66 who died at Ibrox on January 2nd, 1971 received proper justice, then the families of the 96 from Hillsborough would not have been put through the pain and anguish they have had to endure for the last 23 years. There, in the failure to act in the face of damning evidence of the state of football stadia in this country and the dangers that lay within them, lies the true crime of Hillsborough.    

Colin Armstrong is a former columnist of the Rangers News and Rangers matchday magazine. He contributed a chapter to the book Ten Days That Shook Rangers and has written for a variety of publications including When Saturday Comes. Born in Glasgow, he now lives in Falkirk with his wife and two children. He spends his spare time entertaining his kids, taking a seat in the Govan Stand at home games and listening to Joy Division.

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