Not worth the trouble…
Tommy Callaghan the tall, energetic Celtic midfielder sat on the team bus on a dark and misty January day. As the players waited for the last of the Celtic officials to board the bus, a couple of things struck Tommy as odd; Manager Jock Stein wasn’t on the bus as the engine revved and Tommy could also see a man holding his shoe limping out of the front entrance of Ibrox Stadium. Callaghan thought it odd but had no inkling of the sad events unfolding on that cold January day back in 1971. He recalled, ‘It wasn’t until we got back to Celtic Park that more news came through. Then, when I got home and saw on TV what had occurred, I just couldn’t believe it. It was a horrendous time. Sixty-six dead. People had their loved ones setting off for a football game and then never coming back.’
Those events of January 2nd 1971 left a mark on all who were involved in them. Players, officials, fans of both teams but most importantly those who lost loved ones were deeply affected. Celtic fan Shane Fenton headed into Glenrothes with his friends that day in 1971. They were a bunch of excited young boys going to the big game. Shane was only Celtic supporter in the group from Markinch, a small Fife Village. His friends, Peter Easton, Bryan Todd, Mason Philip, Douglas Morrison and Ronald Paton were all Rangers fans. Shane headed for the Celtic end while his friends headed to the Rangers end. He never saw any of them alive again. That a small village of just over 2000 people was visited by such a horrendous tragedy is simply heart-breaking.
Recently released papers show that in 1970 Scottish local authorities wrote to the Scottish Office calling for legislation which would allow them to licence and oversee safety at football grounds and enforce ground improvements on the clubs concerned. The local authorities had seen huge crowds attend matches at Hampden, Celtic Park and Ibrox in that era and were concerned that safety was being compromised. Celtic had played Leeds United that year in the European Cup in front of an official crowd of 134,000. This figure was clearly too low as children were lifted over the turnstiles in huge numbers and a gate was forced allowing free access to an unknown number of ticketless fans. Those who attended the game were mostly caught up in the drama on the field but many reported being packed onto the terraces like sardines and unable to move at all during the match. The Scottish Office wrote back to the local authorities informing them that additional powers to oversee stadium safety were ‘Not worth the trouble.’ Six months later the tragedy at Ibrox occurred.
Football fans were often treated with disdain by society and even by the football clubs themselves in that era. They were herded like cattle in and out of dilapidated stadiums and despite some near misses, their safety was often compromised. We Celtic fans saw the club underestimate the likely attendance at the league clinching game in 1988 against Dundee. A crowd given as 72,000 crammed into the old stadium and there was serious overcrowding in the Celtic end. Hundreds of fans were marched along the track to less busy sections of the stadium. One can only speculate what might have occurred if Celtic Park had fences like many English stadiums of that era. The building of all-seated stadia has greatly reduced the risks involved in attending big games in Scotland and it’s now very unlikely we’d ever see a repeat of those awful events of 1971.
Forty years later, in January 2011, Celtic met Rangers again in a very different stadium and a very different era. A minute’s silence was impeccably observed by the sell-out crowd and old adversaries Billy McNeil and John Grieg led the tributes. McNeil said, ‘The Ibrox disaster is something which I will personally never forget and an event which is forever ingrained on the memory of Scottish football. It was a terrible tragedy and one which we rightly remember as we pay our sincere respects to the victims and their families.’ The more intransigent elements of both clubs support were muted in 1971 by the decent majority who saw clearly that some things are much more important than a football game. There was a good deal of soul searching about the nature of the rivalry between these two huge clubs and indeed about the nature of society in Scotland.
Celtic Manager, Jock Stein, who had returned to the pitch side to help with the dead, dying and injured on that lamentable day in 1971 was deeply affected by the tragedy. As a miner in his younger days, he knew the risks some occupations entailed but felt that ordinary supporters should be able to attend a football match in safety and return home to their families after it. Much as he took great pleasure in defeating Rangers at football, he had no patience for zealots of any hue who attempted to introduce political or religious dimensions into the rivalry. For a time there was a cooling of the fervour and antipathy between the clubs more ardent die-hards but as time moved on the old rivalry reasserted itself once again. But something had changed. A greater number of football supporters had a new perspective on the game. Yes, they loved winning, loved beating their greatest rivals but they saw it for what it was; a game and no game is worth a single fatality.
There but for the grace of God was any of us in those days and all decent people, no matter their allegiances, will remember the victims of Ibrox with respect and reverence. We are all football fans, we are human beings and we should never lose sight of that.
Rest in Peace the 66.