When architect Archibald Leitch in 1899 presented his ideas for expanding Ibrox Park he was greeted with astonishment on mentioning that the ground one day could host 100,000 spectators. The figure drew a “prolonged whistle” from assembled members of Glasgow Rangers, recounts Simon Inglis in Engineering Archie: Archibald Leitch—Football Ground Designer (Played in Britain, English Heritage, 2005):
One, sitting near the front, was heard to whisper, “Too big!” But another, noted the reporter, chimed in, “It’s a football ground we want, not a backyard.” (18)
Ibrox acquired its rectangular aspect between 1978 and 1981 when the club replaced three embankments with all-seater grandstands. Leitch’s Category B–listed south façade is at the top of the picture.
Rangers chairman David Murray has more than a backyard, more than a football ground, in mind in recent proposals to create a £700 million “Rangers Village,” including the redevelopment and possible renaming of the Govan ground that boasts one of the most iconic façades in world football. The distinctive red brick South Stand, opened 1 Jan 1929, would be retained in Rangers’ proposals, which have not yet been made final. But the club seeks to boost capacity to 70,000 to make it the second-largest ground in Britian, behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford. (See coverage in the Scotsman and Herald of Glasgow.)
Since the time Leith had his dreams of a 100,000-capacity facility, Ibrox has gone through many mutations. Murray’s visions would be the latest and part of the trend toward making stadia multi-use destinations; the new ground would be able to host rock concerts and boxing. Also in the plans are a five-star hotel and conference center.
Ibrox’s place in the Glaswegian soul owes much to Leitch, who as a lad would walk by Glasgow Green, where the club formed in 1873. He took no fee for his work on Ibrox Park, built out to a capacity of nearly 80,000 in 1900. Pathos soon would play a key part in giving the ground a place in the psychic landscape of western Scotland. On 5 Apr 1902, with Leitch in attendance, 26 died and more than 500 were injured when a section of timber terracing gave way at a Scotland-England international. Leitch, Inglis writes, noticed a split in two joists an hour before a “loud crack” signaled a “sudden falling away”:
… 80–100 individuals simply dropped onto the steel columns and concrete below. They made barely a sound, disappearing, as one witness stated, “as if through a trapdoor.” … Those who had not been killed instantly on hitting the ground were horribly mangled or gashed on the steel supports and corrugated fencing as they fell. Others survived the fall, only to be crushed under the weight of the people above them. One man hung suspended for several minutes, head down, his foot caught in the steelwork, until he was rescued. (20, 21)
On 3 Dec 1945, Rangers host Dynamo Moscow at Ibrox, the stadium holding significantly more patrons than at present. The match ends 2–2. (www.britishpathe.com)
Inglis points out, however, that such tragedies were much more common during the innovative times that characterized the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. “The machine age was a dangerous age,” he writes, “and professional football, its greatest diversion, was less than twenty years old.”
By the early 1920s, Glasgow had the world’s three largest football grounds in Ibrox, Celtic Park and Hampden Park. On 2 Jan 1939, Ibrox hosted Celtic in the traditional post–New Year Old Firm derby and established a British League attendance record of 118,567. The same date in 1971, however, marked another sad day in memory, when 66 supporters died in a crush in Stairway 13. Capacity at the stadium had long since peaked and would decline further to 44,000 by 1981, following the replacement of terracing on three sides. A third tier retrofitted to the South Stand boosted the ground’s seating to the current 51,000.
While the Ibrox exterior remains ever in flux, Inglis notes that many interior-design elements have held fast. The desk that Bill Struth used in 34 years’ service as manager is the same behind which Walter Smith sits today. A hook for a bird cage, in which Struth kept a stray canary, remains in one corner.