Saturday is not just the 336th chapter of Rangers versus Celtic in Glasgow, the Old Firm derby that is arguably the world’s most heated soccer rivalry.
It also marks the 50th anniversary of Scottish soccer’s worst disaster. On Jan. 2, 1971, 66 were killed and more than 200 injured in a crush of humanity on Staircase 13 at Ibrox Park.
Longtime Las Vegas soccer referee and Glasgow native John Simpson Mike Kennedy was 20 when he descended that staircase, but he and fellow Rangers-diehard pals were about 10 steps beyond the maelstrom.
Robert Mulholland, 16, died. He and Kennedy had lived 10 units from each other in the Drumchapel neighborhood of Glasgow. A black-granite memorial marks 73 Jedworth Ave., Mulholland’s former home.
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Kennedy, 70, pays his respects every time he visits.
“Something was obviously looking over us that day,” he said. “I’m very grateful. I pinch myself. I’ve been very fortunate. And I pinch myself every day that I’m a Rangers supporter.”
That day, more than 80,000 packed the home of Rangers, who scraped out a 1-1 draw against Celtic on Colin Stein’s late penalty kick.
A bit euphoric, maybe, about not losing to their dreaded rival on their own soil, fans barreled down steeply banked Staircase 13, a long concrete structure divided into seven aisles by steel rails.
The accepted belief is that people tripped and fell, triggering a chain reaction. Many others tumbled. The lethal domino effect bent the steel. A survivor told the BBC, “Everyone was struggling to get out, suffocating … a fight for survival.”
Fights always broke out there, so Kennedy and his pals kept moving, adhering to two cardinal egress rules — keep your hands free for balance and don’t look back. They went down to the Snaffle Bit pub. A TV set in the bar broadcasted the horrific details. Each called home to a crying mother.
Rangers will hold the annual minute’s silence Saturday and lay a wreath at the memorial outside Ibrox. Officials are considering other coronavirus-appropriate tributes.
Glasgow is a cradle of the game. At the onset of the World War I, it was the site of the three grandest soccer stadiums in the world, as Ibrox, Celtic and Hampden parks had a combined capacity of more than 300,000.
The rancor and violence between the two sides is more than the Catholics of Celtic vs. the Protestants of Rangers, involving politics and culture that predate both clubs, who first played in May 1888.
“Religion was the start of it,” said Kennedy. “Now there’s just a deep hatred of each other.”
Celtic is chasing a record 10th consecutive Premiership crown. From 1966-74, it became the first Scottish club to win nine in a row but was blocked, by Rangers, from a 10th in ’75.
Rangers rattled off nine, from 1989-97, but Celtic blocked No. 10 in ’98. Out of the weekend, Rangers (56 points) had a healthy lead on second-place Celtic (40), who’d played three fewer matches.
“Stopping them from making history,” said Kennedy. “That’s the one thing you don’t want Celtic ever to do, make history.”
Dodgy finances relegated Rangers, 127-119-89 lifetime against Celtic, to Scotland’s fourth tier in 2012. They’ve climbed back atop the Premiership behind third-year manager and ex-Liverpool star Steven Gerrard.
“This is the season to dare, to prevent 10 in a row. That’s the priority for every Rangers supporter,” Kennedy said. “As a player, Stevie Gee always gave everything. He’s a family man and a fantastic leader.”
John Kennedy will monitor closely Saturday’s big Rangers match from Ibrox, knowing he will drift back 50 years, to Robert Muholland and 65 other unfortunate souls.
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Napoli -1 -140 at Cagliari: Poor Alessio Cragno, the Cagliari ‘keeper whose defense allows more shots on target, 6.14 per game, than any side in Europe. The visitors average 27.77 shot-creating actions and have backstop David Ospina, both best in Italy. NAPOLI
AC Milan -169 at Benevento: Serie A-leading Milan (10-0-4) has tallied at least two goals in every league match. In goal-creating actions per game, Milan (3.57) is top-10 in Europe, Benevento (1.64) bottom third. AC MILAN
Sassuolo at Atalanta, Total 3 Ov -134: There have been 14 total goals in Atalanta’s past four matches, eight in Sassuolo’s previous two. In their past six meetings, 28 shots have found the net. OVER
Last week: 3-1