Few sights in global football are as spine-tingling as Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ in full flow: more than 24,000 fans standing and singing on Europe’s biggest single terrace amid a sea of flags.
When legal standing at games returns to a handful of ‘early adopter’ clubs in the Premier League and the Championship early in the New Year, for the first time since 1994, it will be a tiny first step towards something similar in England and Wales.
It will be possible because of a similar type of ‘rail seating’ used in Dortmund, where fans stand on a terrace but with rails to prevent any crowd surges. Within the railings are ‘locked up’ seats that can be unlocked to use for UEFA and international games, as required.
Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall (above) is made up of more than 24,000 standing supporters
Ruben Drückler, a Dortmund season ticket holder says, the Wall is unique because of a deep bond between fans and the fact nearly 25,000 people stand side-by-side, ‘and then there’s just a wild mix of people.’
Season tickets on the Wall are under £200 while the cheapest one-off match tickets are £14. ‘All ages are represented,’ Drückler says. ‘People go alone, as whole families, men, women, low to high incomes. Most have personal bonds to the Wall. They were first taken by their dad, their brother, their friends… You’re physically incredibly close to your fellow supporters, which makes it more of a collective experience.’
While the Premier League experiments won’t be remotely close to Dortmund’s scale, nor mean cheaper prices, for now, this is a significant moment. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham, plus Cardiff in the second tier, will all be providing ‘safe standing’ sections soon for home and away fans.
The Wall is made up of a ‘wild mix of people’, with all ages represented during matchdays
COVID allowing, Chelsea will have fans using rail seats first, for their 2 January home game against Liverpool, while Manchester United will be next, the following day for the visit of Wolves.
Chelsea fan Jake Cohen says: ‘I’m happy Chelsea are leading the way and I’m excited to see this implemented at Stamford Bridge, in the Shed End and Matthew Harding Lower.
‘Following Chelsea away, my experience has always been that our ends are almost entirely standing and it’s a great atmosphere. With the formal implementation of safe standing, it will no doubt be a safer and more comfortable matchday experience.’
As Spurs, the standing areas will accommodate 5,000 fans in the lower South Stand, plus 1,442 at the top, plus 3,000 in the away section.
Chelsea will have fans using rail seats first, for their 2 January home game against Liverpool
‘There’s overwhelming support among our fans for this and there has been for many years,’ says Martin Cloake, co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust. Annual surveys by the THST have shown support ‘in the high 90s percent’.
‘Even when people realised it’s not going to mean cheaper tickets, people still support it because it will improve the atmosphere,’ Cloake adds. Cloake, 56, will still prefer to sit, in an area adjacent to the new standing area. His season ticket costs £1,000. Some of those standing, more centrally, will be paying £1,200 to £1,300.
Cloake says Tottenham’s hierarchy ‘future proofed’ their new stadium in the planning stages, consulting fans along the way. ‘From a fan point of view, the authorities for years hadn’t taken into account that young people in particular want a choice, nor had they recognised the reality of how a crowd behaves.’
The latter comment is a reference to many fans standing anyway throughout the all-seat era, causing safety issues. Cloake acknowledges that fans in the new standing areas, and stewards, will all have to apply ‘common sense and mutual respect’ to make it work smoothly.
As Tottenham, their standing areas will accommodate 5,000 fans in the lower South Stand
‘I should also reiterate this isn’t a return to anything, it’s a new thing entirely,’ he says. ‘This won’t be seething masses, but hopefully it can be special.’
Pete Daykin of the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) has been integral to campaigning over a long period. ‘Until as recently as two or three years ago, I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen,’ he says.
He says that when the now defunct Football Licensing Authority was responsible for ensuring safe conditions at grounds, there was complete intransigence. But in 2011 the FLA became the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA), with Ruth Shaw as CEO.
‘And Ruth was the first person with authority who said anything other than f*** off to supporters wanting to engage on it,’ Daykin says. ‘The factions of the game began, slowly, to work together on it, not as enemies.’
Wolves have also introduced a safe standing area, with more clubs now exploring the idea
Daykin picks out a number milestones that moved the dial. Scunthorpe were in the Championship from 2009 to 2011, approaching the end of a grace period to become all-seater. Had they stayed up, they would have been forced to reduce from 8,000 mixed capacity to 4,500 seats. The club met EFL officials and told them: ‘You’re killing us for generations if you force this.’
As it happened, Scunthorpe went down so didn’t need to refurbish. ‘But that meeting was a Road to Damascus moment for some senior EFL people, who knew there had to be a change,’ Daykin says.
Also in 2011, another campaigner, Jon Darch, began a one-man ‘safe standing roadshow’, driving the length and breadth of Britain with rail seating in his van to show clubs how it worked. Among the first clubs he visited were Celtic, who subsequently installed a safe-standing section in 2016.
‘I’d always preferred standing and and always stood at away games,’ says Celtic fan Kevin Joyce. ‘The standing section at Parkhead has been brilliant. The atmosphere is just so much better, standing up, singing. Maybe it’s as simple as it being easier to open up your diaphragm.
Celtic installed safe standing in 2016, and the club have enjoyed success with the atmosphere
‘There’s also lateral movement, side to side, but safety-wise it’s great. And the Green Brigade ultras are down the front with their drums, the noise rolling up.’
Daykin says Celtic’s success with standing also help the campaigning cause in England, while from 2013, Aston Villa and other Premier League clubs started speaking openly about wanting trials.
The 2016 Hillsborough inquest verdict was also important, determining that the 97 souls who perished on that dreadful Saturday in 1989 were unlawfully killed after systematic and multiple failures by the police. By 2017, an opinion poll by the Liverpool fans’ group, Spirit of Shankly, found more than 88 per cent of 18,000 fans polled supported safe standing.
By 2019, the Conservative Party made a manifesto pledge to ‘work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing’, and so to the changes ahead.
The Conservative Party made a manifesto pledge to ‘work… towards introducing safe standing’
‘All the Liverpool supporters I know welcome the idea of safe standing,’ says Gareth Roberts, founder of the Liverpool publishing and podcast collective, The Anfield Wrap. ‘The situation we have had for so long is “unsafe standing”… Every match regular can point to injuries to their shins because of the seats in front.’
There are already rail seats in part of The Kop and part of The Anfield Road end. They are currently marketed as ‘safe areas to stand during key moments of the match.’
Roberts adds: ‘It’s important the issue is handled sensitively by Liverpool with regards to the Hillsborough disaster and how people feel about it.
‘It’s also important to make it clear that what happened at Hillsborough in April 1989 was not caused by supporters standing up to watch the game. There is an established truth around the disaster now.
There are already rail seats in part of The Kop and part of The Anfield Road end at Liverpool
‘It’s important too to emphasise that rail-seating sections are unrecognisable in comparison to the terraces of old. Supporter safety is central to their design.’
There are still issues to face. Jon Darch points out that a minor change to what is happening could make things even safer – making sure all seats are locked up and cannot be used to stand on. That will likely happen over time. This is a process, not an endpoint.
At Cardiff, fans are excited to be part of the changes. ‘Cardiff City Supporters Club has been campaigning for the return of standing at football matches since 2003,’ says CCSC member, Vince Alm. ‘Our club has always supported safe standing as they recognise their fans are a broad church who they try to accommodate rather than alienate.
‘We were very excited and pleased when Cardiff was chosen as one of the clubs for safe standing. It will be great for the atmosphere. It gives safety control back to the club, and it caters for the supporters who prefer to stand, without clubs being in breach of ground regulations.’
ROCKING ALL OVER THE WALL
Borussia Dormund’s 81,365-capacity Westfalenstadion is Germany’s largest football stadium, and its 24,454 capacity Südtribüne (South Bank), famously known as the ‘Yellow Wall’, is the largest standing terrace in Europe.
Season-ticket holder Florian Thomas, 31, explains what makes it unique.
The Yellow Wall is so special because of its massive size, its atmosphere, and the people who populate it. I’ve had a season ticket since 2008-09, when Jürgen Klopp arrived at Dortmund. My latest ST cost 225 euros (£191).
I still remember the first time I went to a game with my dad when I was 12. We had seats on the west stand and I looked to the goal on my right and there were just so many people, so close together, and then you look up and think the roof must come soon but the Yellow Wall just goes on and on. It’s spectacular.
As for the atmosphere. When that place is rocking there is nothing like it. I took some friends from the UK for a game and they were amazed as it is so different from what they’ve experienced in the Premier League. Not having full capacity is definitely the biggest reason why I haven’t been to a home game since COVID started. It’s just not the same for me without a full Yellow Wall and without ultras, and I know lots of my friends have similar thoughts.
One Dortmund supporter says that when the Wall is rocking for games, ‘there is nothing like it’
Even though with a standing ticket you could stand anywhere (within your sector), people usually occupy the same spot. It’s special that people come together to support their team from all different ways of life. People who would never interact with each other outside of football sing and jump together arm in arm.
I’ve met people in the stadium who I would now consider good friends but know little about their life outside of football as that’s the only place where we interact with each other.
Standing makes a huge difference for me in terms of the purpose of being at the game: I’m standing to support my team. I might not always have the best view, there might be flags, heads
or arms in my sight, but I accept all that. People are closer to each other, it’s much more natural to join the chants.
I really dislike watching a Dortmund game in the stadium and not being in the standing section. The couple of times I had to do that, I just felt very out of place.
ALL THE BIG QUESTIONS ANSWERED
By Nick Harris
Q: Why is ‘safe standing’ a hot topic in the Premier League now?
A: Because, from 1 January, four Premier League clubs (the two Manchester clubs, plus Chelsea and Tottenham) and Cardiff from the Championship will legally be allowed to accommodate standing in their grounds for the first time since 1994.
Q: Why haven’t they been allowed to do so since then?
A: Since 1994-95, it has been a legal requirement for Premier League clubs, and most Championship clubs, to have all-seater stadiums, so there are no standing areas at all. This was a recommendation of the Taylor Report (1990) following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which cost 97 fans their lives.
Q: So what changed?
A: See the main article for details, but in simple terms, until about a decade ago, the majority of clubs in the top two divisions, as well as the Premier League, the EFL, the government, the police, local authorities and safety advisory groups were implacably opposed to changing the all-seat law.
But a series of events in the past decade have changed minds. By the 2019 general election, the Conservatives and Labour both had manifesto pledges saying they would work to explore safe standing. And on 22 September this year, sports minister Nigel Huddlestone announced an ‘Early Adopters Programme’ to allow the five clubs mentioned above to permit standing legally.
Q: And ‘legally’ is the operative word in that last answer, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely. Just because stadiums have been all-seater hasn’t meant all fans have remained seated at games. In every stadium since all-seaters were mandatory, there have been groups of fans who have continued standing, huge groups in some cases. This in itself can be dangerous.
Q: Isn’t it expensive and difficult to reconfigure stadiums?
A: No. With ‘rail seating’ (pictured below) the only change needed is an extra step for depth and a protective rail for each person. There is a one-off cost of £100 per place. So a standing area for 2,000 would cost around £200,000 — a week’s wages for a top striker.
Q: Has the law been changed to allow the upcoming safe standing trials?
A: Sort of but not exactly. Huddlestone is using a ‘statutory instrument’ (in laymen’s terms, a placeholder law) for the time-being. The success or otherwise of the venture will be monitored over time, and expanded to other clubs. And at a later date, if all goes well, the law will be changed permanently.
It is also worth noting, technically, during pilots in 2019-20, at six clubs including Liverpool, some fans stood in rail seat areas, but this was curtailed when the pandemic hit. So again, technically, the new standing areas aren’t trials, rather they signify the formal adoption of safe standing.
Q: Are there examples of safe standing in other major leagues?
A: Yes. notably in Germany, where Bundesliga season tickets as cheap as £120 for standing places are available at big clubs, including Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Dortmund’s standing grandstand, known as ‘The Yellow Wall’, holds almost 25,000 supporters.