Football Special Report #10/Early Modern #3 – Stadium Disasters

***Originally published August 2019 in issue #67 of the Shelbourne FC fanzine “Red Inc.”, produced by the good folk at Reds Independent.***

With the purpose of breaking down some familiar sights around the sport of football (not the sport itself) from the distant yet not-so-distant past, we now continue the “Early Modern” mini-series started back in RI65. Click here for part 1, regarding revolutionary kit innovations, or here for part 2, and a look at the origins of hooligans/ultras.

This time we examine the tragic subject of historic disasters at football matches, cutting off before Heysel. Needless to say this article won’t be for everyone, so skip it if you want to avoid some dark subjects. But out of respect for the victims, our fellow football fans, there are no pics in this entry.

Intro

In the last installment of Early Modern, when we dove deep into the origins of supporter culture phenomenons like hooligans and ultras, the topic of deadly stadium disasters was necessarily touched on but not yet a focus. While it may seem quite grim to cover such tragic occurrences, a loss of human life at sporting events every now and again was simply a very real part of the insanity that was the 20th century (and beyond) and such surreal, nightmarish scenarios – which are of inherent, morbid interest to some like ourselves due to the pure horror involved – are clearly “deserving” of their own in-depth look, as well as a rational discourse similar to historical wars or devastating natural disasters.

Most supporters and casual fans alike will instantly think of two obvious calamities in the 1980s when the subject comes up: Heyesl in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989. While the latter especially had ramifications that ended up changing football forever, there were already a number of instances at games recorded throughout the century where the likes of poor construction, naive planning, and panic caused mass death. In true Early Modern fashion we will now go back to look at these “lesser-known” disasters up to 1985, with several unfortunate situations that were just as devastating for those involved and their families as what was to come in Brussels and Sheffield, but with legacies later eclipsed by the infamous “two Hs”.

Ibrox Park, Glasgow, Scotland, April 5th 1902

As football grounds with bad reputations go, Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox in particular stands out as having a particularly dark history. The “curse” even stretches back before the first iteration of the current Ibrox Stadium, to the original, smaller Ibrox Park that existed from 1887-1899. Having already struggled to accommodate 30,000 that showed up for the 1892 Scottish Cup final, two weeks later a stand collapsed in the venue during a Scotland vs England international resulting in the deaths of two spectators.

There were also problems of another sort the following year for the 1893 cup final, when the match had to be abandoned and replayed due to the poor quality of the pitch. With the building of the superior Celtic Park in 1892, which would soon be the preferred hosting facility internationals and cup finals, combined with an inability to expand Ibrox in it’s current location, Rangers took out a lease on an adjacent plot of land and set about constructing a new and improved stadium to take them across the turn of the century.

Opening in 1899 with a capacity of 75,000, the second Ibrox Park quickly fulfilled it’s goal of attracting the attention of the Scottish Football Association and the subsequent income boost that this would bring, as the ground was chosen to host a 1902 Home Championship match with England – the first at either Ibrox since the game with the original tragedy nearly exactly ten years previous (ten years and three days to be precise). This was despite the fact that the ground’s wooden West Tribune Stand, which could allegedly hold nearly 36,000, had been seen swaying on it’s metal support beams in the past. Amid concerns from the architect of the stand, the prolific stadium designer Archibald Leitch who examined it himself on the morning of the match, an official surveyor deemed the West Tribune fit for purpose.

While not packed to capacity, a hefty 68,000 turned up for the game which was to be the first between the two nations with fully professional teams. About half the spectators filled up the West Tribune – the first time in it’s short history that the stand had even surpassed 50% capacity. Early in the match police were forced to intervene after a crowd surge caused problems near the front of the huge enclosure.

After another surge around 30 minutes in, supposedly in response to a Bobby Templeton dribble down the wing, witnesses are said to have heard and seen cracking and splitting in the wooden boards that the supporters were standing on in the West Tribune. Moments later, 17 joints of the wood and metal beams gave way, causing an 18 meters hole to open up near the back of the stand. Hundreds of supporters fell 12 meters to the ground below, with some landing on the beams themselves.

The match was held up as many others, fearing more holes, fled over the pitch-side fence to the safety of the grass. The players were sent back off the pitch, where the Scottish dressing room was already housing many deceased and seriously injured fans, much to the pros’ horror. With some supporters in other parts of the stadium largely unaware of the severity of what had happened, the game was ordered to restart after 30 mins (later declared void), although most involved were distraught for the rest of the contest.

With two initial fatalities at the ground, the death toll rose to 25 over the coming days, with approximately 500 more injured. In court there were arguments made against the type of wood supplied, heavy rain the night before, and the construction of the stand, but ultimately no one was held accountable. The incident at least SEEMED to be a wake-up call, as wooden framework stadiums were, for the most part, replaced around the UK by terraces supported by reinforced concrete or earth.

Burden Park, Bolton, England, March 9th 1946

The unforeseen, knock-on effects of war during the peacetime that follows were never as evident than during the first FA Cup held after the World War 2 “break”. A number of factors combined to make the innocuous 6th round 2nd-leg match in March 1946 between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City the most lethal affair in Britain since the war itself had ended nearly a year earlier. With a need for entertainment coinciding with a return of the country’s favourite sport in these dusty, dreary post-war years, more than 85,000 people are said to have turned up to watch the game.

Due to an understandable lack of funding and development felt by all clubs at the time, the Railway End of Bolton’s Burden Park was simply a dirt bank with occasional flagstones for steps. The wartime Ministry of Supply had also taken over part of the stand during the conflict and were yet to return it for use, while turnstiles in another section had been closed since 1940. With huge crowds pouring in through the entrances that were open, the Railway End was quickly deemed full and the turnstiles closed twenty minutes ahead of kick-off.

This did not stop many who were now locked outside, however, with some clambering over from from the railway itself. Others scrambled through the unmanned, closed turnstiles, before a previously locked gate was opened allowing even greater numbers through at speed. The resulting pressure of the surging masses caused those already inside to be pushed around the ground to the far side, with some even overflowing out into the car park.

The game began, but moments later the pressure became too much and two barriers collapsed causing many to fatally fall beneath one another in the Railway End. Many spilled onto the pitch in the heave, causing the referee to briefly pause the match. Quickly after the restart, a policeman entered the pitch to inform the official of the severity of the situation and this time the players were taken off the field.

With 33 lives lost in the crush and 400+ injured, incredibly the bodies were simply collected from the end and lain along the touchline covered in coats. This remained the scene as the players reemerged and were forced to play out the remainder of the match, sickening the likes of Stoke’s Stanley Mathews. Reports and conference recommendations in the wake of the incident suggested local authority ground inspections for medium sized stadiums and safety limits for larger ones.

Estadio National, Lima, Peru, May 24th, 1964

While Burden had been the UK and Europe’s worst football disaster to date, a tragedy on a scale several times greater would unfold in South America a couple of decades later during an Olympic 1964 qualifying match between Peru and Argentina. With the visitors 0-1 up and minutes remaining, a Peruvian equaliser was disallowed by the referee causing outrage amongst the 53,000 in attendance at the Estadio National and triggering pitch invasions.

In a misguided attempt to fend off more would-be invaders, police fired teargas into one of the grandstands causing many to flee in panic to staircases that led down to street level. The dim staircases in fact led only to locked shutters during game time, but hundreds of fans blindly rushed down to what they assumed was safety. Instead, supporters at the front found themselves pressed against the steel with a mass of humanity pushing behind them, and those at the rear unaware that many ahead were being asphyxiated.

Eventually the shutters burst due the sheer weight coming down on top of them. With at least 500 injured, it is currently estimated that a shocking 328 died in the horrific blunder. In the aftermath the stadium capacity was reduced to a safer 42,000, although this will have been little solace for anyone involved.

El Monumental, Buenos Aries, Argentina, June 23rd, 1968

Having gone from 44 years between major incidents down to 18, it would only be twenty five months until the next hellish situation – perhaps displaying an extra fervor among fans at matches by this stage – and again in South America. In a similar situation to that in Lima, 71 mostly young Boca Junior supporters were crushed to death with many more injured at the bottom of the Puerta 12 staircase after a game in the El Monumental stadium of their River Plate rivals.

The cause, however, was more ambiguous than before, as several theories were thrown around. Boca’s own fans were blamed by some for allegedly burning and throwing River banners causing panic, while others claimed that home supporters had encroached on the away section triggering the stampede. The police were also blamed by some in Boca circles, who claimed retribution had been taken by the force after the launching of urine from the stands in their direction earlier in the day.

Whatever the case, evidentially the bottom of the staircase was blocked or closed, with reports of an iron bar covering the turnstiles entrances and exits – a fact again clearly unknown to those at the back of the fleeing pack. Like with the other incidents so far, nobody was ever found to be accountable after a three year investigation.

Ibrox Park, Glasgow, Scotland, January 2nd, 1971

During the meantime back in Scotland, it had not been plain sailing for Rangers and again stairs were involved. Despite spending alot on improvements at Ibrox, issues particularly revolved around what was known as Stairway 13 where the surging crowds were well known to carry many off their feet when leaving at the end of games. In September 1961, two fans were killed among 70 injured in such a crush on their way out of the ground, before 11 and 29 were injured at the same passageway in further incidents in 1967 and 1969, respectively.

Despite these events, and “concerns” raised in 1963 regarding the steep Stairway 13’s safety (who knows why it took two years after two people died for the concerns appear), nothing was done going into the 1970s to ease the congestion. In early 1971, the chickens would truly come home to roost when Celtic played at Ibrox attracting 80,000. Obviously it was not an unusual fixture or attendance figure, but clearly the inevitable was always going to happen at some stage.

As thousands left the park at the end of the match – a 1-1 draw with both goals coming in the final stages – an apparent fall from someone on the densely packed steps caused a chain reaction of row after row behind to fall forwards onto each other. The banisters buckled and broke beneath the multitude of bodies, which produced even more of a crush for those at the bottom. The horrific human wall that formed took 66 lives plus more than 200 injured, with some survivors stuck for 45 minutes before rescue attempts were successful.

The event finally resulted in some change at Rangers as Ibrox was redeveloped into a 41,000 capacity ground by the early 80s and rebranded from Park to Stadium, but for 66 people, plus the two from 1961, it had come too late. Glasgow Rangers FC, who had hoped the problem would simply go away according the the sheriff, were later found responsible in damage claims for the negligence leading to the deaths, and while not disputing the result itself, the damage calculations were instead disputed. Clearly the “curse” that the match going fans had endured over the years, fatally in some cases, stemmed from the ghouls running the club, rather than any supernatural causes.

Central Lenin Stadium, Moscow, USSR, October 20th, 1982

Our last case was also for many years the most mysterious, due to the fact that it’s extent was covered-up by those in charge of the Soviet Union. As in Lima, Buenos Aries and Glasgow, steps meant to transport supporters safely out of the stadium would again instead turn into a stairway to hell in Moscow. But unlike with the previous disasters when huge crowds were present for the games, only 16,643 of the Central Lenin Stadium’s 82,000 tickets were sold for Spartak Moscow’s UEFA Cup second round match against HFC Haarlem on October 20th, 1982, partly on account of a temperature of -10.

At the end of a 2-0 win for the home side, hundreds of supporters made their way to Stairway 1 of the future Luzhniki Stadium’s main East Stand, which was closer to the local metro stop than Stairway 2. According to witnesses, a young woman lost her shoe close to the exit and attempted to retrieve it with the help of a couple of kind strangers, but the deluge of fans coming down around them knocked the unfortunate souls onto the steps to be trampled on. As many teenagers rushed unawares down the stairs from above, more and more people tripped on those on front in a domino effect, soon creating a deadly crush for dozens of people.

When the dust settled, it was known internally that 66 people had died of compressive asphyxia with a further 61 injured. The following day new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov visited the site of the tragedy and a criminal investigation was swiftly launched against the stadium director, stadium manager, stadium deputy director and the chief of police guards at the East Stand. The first two were sentenced to three year prison stints but had their sentences quashed and halved, respectively, in accordance with an amnesty for decorated officials to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the USSR, while the latter pair did not stand trial due to medical reasons (with injuries sustained trying to prevent more entering the crush in the case of the police chief) and were both later pardoned.

The disaster was casually mentioned in two Moscow newspapers the following day with details of “casualties” kept vague, but quickly picked up by western outlets citing the few Dutch journalists also present in the stadium. With silence from any official source, the death-toll was guessed at 3 by Spain’s El País on October 23rd (later revised to 68 in 1987), more than 20 by the New York Times on October 26th, and 72 in Italy’s La Stampa in November 5th. Finally in 1989 following the Hillsborough disaster (and at the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘Glasnost’ openness/transparency policy), a Soviet newspaper article in discussion of the subject guessed at 100, and later 340 deaths at the Central Lenin Stadium, promoting an interview in another newspaper with the detective in charge of the investigation in 1982, who confirmed the real figures of 66 and 61.

Conclusion – 1985:

May 11th, 1985, was the worst day in British football since Ibrox in 1972. During an infamous riot after Birmingham City vs Leeds United at a dystopian St. Andrews, a wall collapsed killing one young fan. With hooligan-casual culture at it’s absolute peak in England, it would have seemed to some that things couldn’t get any worse.

At the same time, Bradford City’s match against Lincoln City in their Valley Parade ground had been abandoned after a fire engulfed and destroyed the main stand, with 56 fatal casualties and 265 non-fatal. The stadium had been built as a rugby league ground in 1886, with Bradford moving there in 1903 – one year after Ibrox. In 1908 the club sanctioned upgrades on the stadium including a huge, wooden main stand (sound familiar?). The stand’s structure remained largely unchanged for the next 77 years, with rubbish regularly slipping through the terraces and accumulating below – a safety hazard already cited by local councils as a fire risk in the early 80s – and on the day of the game a smouldering cigarette butt allegedly thrown by a visiting Australian man had devastating results.

With Bradford’s tragedy, as with much that we have discussed, warning signs had been ignored by those entrusted with running the community’s football club, while in other cases, such as Lima, rash policing and poor stadium planning were to blame. 18 days after Bradford and Birmingham, the decision to place a section of neutrals beside Liverpool fans at the European Cup final in Belgium’s Heysel Stadium would again prove fatal, this time on a world stage for all to see the danger of large crowds in enclosed spaces. And like back in Ibrox in 1902, the game was allowed to proceed as normal lest a worse situation develop, proving that not all that much had changed when it came to life and death in the football stadium.

*****

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