'And all I could see was a line of bodies along the touchline'
Published 31/12/2010 | 05:00
An additional poignancy of the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster on Sunday will be the fact that, at another Rangers v Celtic derby at the same ground, the teams will be led out by the men who were captains of the respective clubs four decades ago.
John Greig was subsequently voted 'Greatest Ever Ranger' by the club's support, while Billy McNeill -- although confined to the stand by injury on January 2, 1971 -- was the iconic skipper who had achieved the distinction of being the first British player to hold the European Cup aloft in Lisbon four years earlier.
Both men have retained close associations with their former clubs and for Greig, each New Year evokes the despair and grief triggered by the calamity on Stairway 13.
"At this time I always feel for the relatives because if you lose one of your loved ones at a football match -- and a lot of the victims were just youngsters -- how can you be consoled about that? It's impossible," said Greig, whose recollection of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy remains pin-sharp.
"Very quickly after the game people started to realise the enormity of what had happened. We had been getting little whispers that something had gone badly wrong outside and then they started to bring bodies into the dressing-room, something I never thought I would see in my life and something I never want to see again.
"I didn't know how bad it was. I did venture down the tunnel to have a look at what was happening before I left and all I could see was a line of bodies along the touchline from the halfway line towards the Rangers end.
"I realised then that something really bad had happened but it was not until I went home to Edinburgh and saw the news later that night that I knew how severe the accident had been."
McNeill and his team-mates, meanwhile, had boarded their coach back to Celtic Park with no clue, apart from the absence of the club's manager or his back-room staff, that they had been in the proximity of what was, at that time, the worst accident in British football history.
"It wasn't until we were on the team bus and going back to Celtic Park after the game that we realised something serious had happened, because Jock Stein, Neilly Mochan, Bob Rooney (and) Dr Fitzsimmons had all stayed behind," McNeill recalled.
"We later realised it was to help the people who were working there. It was mysterious. We were quiet on the bus and then on the radio it was announced that a serious accident had taken place and all of a sudden we realised what had happened.
"Very few of the boys spoke. We sat more or less in silence because we weren't sure how to handle the whole thing."
Back at Ibrox, Sandy Jardine, who had played at right-back for Rangers during the game, was soothing tired limbs when the first news began to filter through. "We were in the bath when somebody came in and said, 'You'll need to get out quickly' -- but didn't tell us why,'' is his recollection.
"We probably half-ignored that but five minutes later somebody else came in and said: 'There's been an accident -- you'll need to get out quick'.
"And when they said that, the players started to move. I was one of the last to leave the dressing-room and had just begun to change when they started to bring people in and lay them out on the dressing-room floor on the stretchers.
"The thing was that their skin was black. I had never seen anything like that and it was because of the lack of oxygen in the crush. They had staring eyes and black skin.
"Obviously when that happened then we really moved out. That's when I went down the tunnel and looked across. It was very, very eerie.
"At that point we were told that eight people had died. By the time I got into the car and drove home to Edinburgh it had mounted to 22 and it just went up and up until it got to 66."
Meanwhile, Rangers manager Willie Waddell was among those trying to disentangle bodies from Stairway 13.
Waddell, a former Rangers winger, could be a dour and difficult individual, but he became the central figure in the club's response to the tragedy, taking the lead as spokesman and organiser in the following weeks.
"Willie Waddell handled the whole situation magnificently," said Greig. "He told us to pay our respects at the houses of as many people as possible.
"We weren't always greeted in the way that we thought we would, which is understandable because of people's losses, but players attended every single funeral.
"I couldn't tell you how many funerals I attended, but it was quite a number. Quite honestly, if you had asked any of the players we would have gone to every one if we could have done it.
"We live in a different world nowadays, don't we? I believe we had more respect for each other in those days."
Jardine cannot forget the atmosphere of the funerals: "These were very traumatic, especially when they involved young people -- you didn't know what to say. It was terrible for us and it must have been 10 times worse for the families.
"Your team-mates helped you. That's the nature of a football club.
"We were very fortunate that we had a good set of players who mixed together and got on well and helped one another, but it was very difficult.
"The club were so fortunate to have a person and a man like Willie Waddell -- a true leader. He organised everything from day one. He was out at the end of the game, pulling people out along with most of the medical staff and some of the Celtic people as well, I have to say."
It is, as McNeill observes, one of the paradoxes of the disaster that it brought two antagonistic clubs closer than they have ever been.
"The two clubs integrated so well and both conducted themselves really admirably," he said.
"Both teams were able to say, 'We're human beings -- how lucky we were that we weren't caught on those stairs.'
"I felt a real bond with John Greig and the Rangers boys. We got to know them well in that period and solid friendships developed. It was a very sad time, most of all for the Rangers players, but we felt a whole lot of sorrow as well."
For Greig, the need to acknowledge that loss is not the occurrence of a single moment, but an endless fact of life for those who were bereaved by the disaster, and will be addressed again on Sunday.
"It's a very humbling task to be asked to lead out the teams again and I'm delighted that Billy has agreed to do it," he said.
"I think it's the very least we can do and I hope that the relatives of those who lost their lives will feel that it's fitting on the 40th anniversary. We have never forgotten them -- nor will we."