Hatters boss Nathan Jones is ready for what he believes will be an ‘emotional’ reunion with the Luton fans this afternoon.
For the first time since February 29, 2020, a full house will roar the Town players on to the field, after Covid restrictions were lifted to allow both home and away supporters back inside grounds once more.
With just over 10,000 expected to make the journey to Kenilworth Road, it will be a far cry away from the empty stadiums that Luton have had to play all but two of their Championship games in since then the season was postponed some 15 months ago, and it's something Jones knows will be a truly special moment for those attending.
He said: “It’s been such a difficult time since March 2020 really, when lockdown and the pandemic really hit and it hit football, it hit families, so I would imagine it will be a real emotional time.
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“It’s spoken much about football’s not the same, but life hasn’t been the same, so that puts it into perspective.
"Football has given people something to get behind, albeit from their armchairs and so on, but now it gives a real opportunity to have a real good atmosphere, to come back and to get into that special old lady the Kenny which we all can’t wait to do.
“We’re really looking forward to the game, the start of a new Championship season, this is where we all wanted to be at the first phase of our development going forward and it’s going to be a special occasion.
“We’re looking forward to it, we’ve missed the fans, I’ve missed the fans, we’ve missed that atmosphere as it’s such a great place, the acoustics, the ground, everything about it is fantastic.
"What we have to do is make sure it’s not just at five to three, it’s a three, five past, 10 past, 15 minutes past and right the way through to five to five, that’s the type of performance we’ve got to put in.”
For Jones himself, it is even longer since he has walked down the tunnel to a packed Kenilworth Road, with the 0-0 New Year's Day draw against Barnsley in 2019, some 14 months earlier than that Stoke clash, the last time it happened.
Controversially leaving the club just over a week later later for Stoke City, he could have expected a chorus of boos and no doubt 90 minutes of fairly vitriolic abuse from the home faithful when stepping on to the pitch had it been under different circumstances.
However, he has rightly won supporters back onside after his return to the club in May 2020, when with only nine games to go and relegation back to the third tier looking a certainty, Jones somehow managed to navigate a path to safety and, against all the odds, keep the Hatters in the Championship.
On what it will be like for him personally, he continued: “It’ll be a proud moment.
"I always loved leading the team out at Kenilworth Road, I always got a good reception in the past.
"I know it might be different but I’m really looking forward to it.
“It’s what we want to do, it’s one of the reasons why I always wanted to come back.
"I didn’t necessarily want to leave in the first place, let alone come back.
“I always had a great relationship with the fans, the fans have been superb.
"The home fans have been wonderful, the away fans are euphoric at times as well, so it’s such a good set of fans and we’re looking forward to that.
“It’s about the fans and the team, not about myself, Mick (Harford), Chris (Cohen), Gary (Sweet) or any individual. It’s about the team and the fans and the relationship they build.
“What we want to do is put a team out there that can get that crowd on their feet and that’s what we want to do.”
When asked if he had a message for the supporters who will finally be back at the ground, he said: “It will be great to see them.
"Not a specific message as such but it will be great to get them in.
"The players need our fans and we know when it is a full house at the Kenny, it is intimidating, it is inspiring, uplifting and we need them.
"It is going to be a tough game, a strange game as well because of a lot of things.
"Firstly back from the pandemic, obviously it is my first game back with a full house so what we don’t want is a strange atmosphere, we want a positive atmosphere and hopefully we can give them a positive performance that will turn into a positive result.”
Although supporters are finally allowed back in their numbers, the pandemic is still very much around in the country, while there is still a week to go until fully-vaccinated people don't have to self-isolate if a contact tests positive.
With that in mind, Jones added: "I just think there needs to be an understanding, because people need to be careful.
"Without being disrespectful, we have Covid protocols here and I stick to those.
“I don’t go very far, I don’t socialise much, I don’t go out to crowded places, I don’t go and watch the Grand Prix or go to the races where 20,000 people are gathering. I don’t do that.
“Inadvertently taking a selfie with someone that doesn’t know they’re positive, it could enable me, a player, or someone at the club to get that, so I think there just needs to be a little bit of common sense.
“If people do want photos, that they’re reasonably socially distanced ones and not for them to think that people are being aloof, or ignorant in any kind of way.
“There needs to be an element of understanding, but I think we can move forward with an element of normality.
“It might make it difficult to go hugging and high-fiving and over the top of embraces and so on, but I’m sure a socially distanced selfie is fine and part and parcel of why we love being in the public eye.”