Rising from the ashes

Season 2011-12 must rank as the lowest ebb in the fortunes of Rangers. A team that had won 3 Championships in a row ended the season with nothing, thanks to events both on and off the field. Worse still, in February 2012, the club was forced into administration due to the financial conduct of its new owner, Craig Whyte. At the time of writing, the liquidation of Rangers is still a possibility and, if this happens, according to some authorities, all the current players could become free agents, walking away from the club for nothing. Even if Rangers can emerge from administration through the proposed CVA there is a distinct likelihood that the top stars could be sold for a mere fraction of their worth, due to necessity. Players such as Allan McGregor, Steven Naismith, Steven Davis, Steven Whittaker, Kyle Lafferty and others might have to be sold to accrue much-needed funds to ensure the future progress of the club. If that should happen, it would be very difficult for Rangers to mount a challenge for the league championship next season – and perhaps for many more to come. The situation has never looked so bleak.

However, a similar bleak outlook enveloped the club after April, 5th 1902 – the date of the first Ibrox Disaster. During the Scotland v England match a terrible accident occurred that resulted in the deaths of 25 spectators with 517 being injured. Until then it was the most serious loss of life at a football match in Britain. The new Ibrox, opened at the end of the 19th century, in December, 1899, had been designed by Glasgow engineer ( and Rangers fan) Archibald Leitch, the doyen of designers for British football grounds in the early part of the 20th century. Ibrox was intended to be the greatest stadium in the country and the club spent £20,000 creating a home that could accommodate a crowd of 80,000. When the work was completed, the club had been plunged into debt to the tune of £9,000. The Rangers’ Board, though, probably considered the outlay worth it. The club had been vying for years with its greatest rivals, Celtic, for the right to host international games. Apart from the prestige involved, there was money to be made from staging international football matches, especially against the “Auld Enemy”. Having been awarded this game ( by one vote) ahead of Celtic Park, a disaster was the last thing Rangers’ Board was expecting.

Although the capacity of Ibrox had been measured to take a crowd of 80,000, until the international game, its highest crowd had been just under 40,000. For the joust with England, 68,114 Scots fans turned up expectantly. It had started to rain beforehand but it didn’t stop the crowd from pouring into the ground. Some areas became more congested than others and spectators in the East Terracing actually moved before the start of the match to the West Terracing where the fatal accident would occur. Fans at the foot of the terrace even spilled on to the grass behind the goal.

The new Ibrox had been designed by Leitch so that the terracing comprised of timber girder-work holding up wooden planks of wood as the “floor” of the terracing. It seemed the latest thing in stadium technology. Around 10 minutes into the match, the crowd swayed back and forth in a particularly congested area of the West Terracing. Suddenly, 7 rows of wooden planking gave way under the pressure and a huge hole, estimated at 50 feet by 12 feet appeared, plunging the fans 40 feet to the ground below. One eye-witness claimed that it was “ like a trap door” opening.

Despite the carnage, the game continued while rescue workers tried to help the victims underneath the terracing with the roars of the crowd echoing above them. Eventually the match was halted for 18 minutes due to the crowd having encroached on to the pitch. However, the game was resumed as nobody realised the scale of the tragedy that was ensuing. Later the entire country would be shocked by the extent of the disaster.

Just prior to this tragedy, Rangers had won its 4th consecutive league championship. The first of those titles had been won by the Gers side that created a world record that can never be beaten. It had won all of its 18 league games – the perfect record. The club and its supporters were looking towards the future with an increased optimism. But, due to the disaster, that all changed. The Lord Provost’s Ibrox Disaster Fund was instigated to raise funds for the victims and money from individuals as well as organisations began to pour in. At the start of the following season, Rangers put 22 players on the transfer list in order to sell players to benefit the fund and have emergency repairs carried out to the damaged area of the stadium. £2,000 was needed immediately to effect the necessary repairs with even more money required to transform Ibrox into a safer football ground. At this point, the club still featured players who would become legends, with some ending up in the 21st century’s Hall of Fame: R C Hamilton, Jock Drummond, Alec Smith, Matt Dickie, Nick Smith, George Henderson and Jacky Robertson.
This point was probably the lowest in the club’s 30 year history. Innocent fans had died, Rangers’ reputation had taken a severe beating and the club’s finances were perilous. However, the management of the club and the fans showed the true blue spirit of Ibrox. Nobody associated with Rangers gave up. Neither did Archie Leitch whose design had been blamed by some for the disaster. To ensure that a similar tragedy could never recur, Leitch decided that, in future, terracing had to be built on a solid base. With this in mind, huge mountains of earth would be used upon which the terracing steps would be created.
Fortuitously, the material for much of the solid embankments came from the area adjacent to the stadium. At that time, a railway line was being created, behind what became known as the North Enclosure. The earth dug out to create the railway cutting was used to form what became the massive Ibrox terraces. These were still in use until 1978 when the new Ibrox was built thanks to the foresight of Willie Waddell.

These improvements eventually meant that a total of £45,000 had been spent on the stadium – an astronomical sum in those days. Much of the income needed came from the loyal Rangers fans who turned up in great numbers for that era. Until the end of the decade, Rangers’ average home gate was between 10,500 and 16,750. These were bigger crowds than were turning up at Parkhead to watch a Celtic team that was dominating the league championship. The fans and the management had pulled together to ensure that Rangers had got back on track, heading into a future that would see it become the world’s most successful club.

The season following the Disaster, perhaps due to the effects of the traumatic events, Gers failed to win that elusive 5th title in a row. Still, the players again showed the Ibrox spirit by winning the Scottish Cup, knocking out Celtic at Parkhead in an earlier round and then beating Hearts at the same venue in the final, after 2 replays. Grit, determination, hard work, that never-say-die attitude and a love of the club pulled them through that dark era. Perhaps Rangers fans of today would do well to remember our antecedents and do our utmost to protect and preserve our very special club.

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