The fans are back! All you need to know as Northants supporters return to the County Ground
Cast your mind back to the morning of September 16, 2019, and a sunny day at the County Ground...
Just before midday, Ben Sanderson ran in to bowl, Durham's Chris Rushworth miscued his drive to point, and Ben Curran snaffled the catch to complete an emphatic 169-run win for the County.
The jubilant Northants players celebrated a victory that all but sealed their promotion from County Championship Division Two - something that was confirmed with a rain-hit draw at Gloucestershire a week later.
After beating Durham, the players were clapped to the pavilion by the club's loyal supporters who had turned out for what was the final day of the home season, before the team got stuck into their traditional victory song in the dressing room.
It was a good day for the club, a memorable occasion... but it was also the last time spectators were allowed into Wantage Road, with the Covid-19 pandemic that would hit the globe the following January changing everything.
A truncated 2020 season did happen last summer, but all the action was played out behind closed doors, as have Northants' first five matches in the LV= Insurance County Championship this season.
But this Thursday, a little matter of 20 months after that win over Durham, supporters will at long last be back at the County Ground to watch Northants take on Lancashire in a crucial Group 3 clash.
It will be a moment that has been a long time coming, and one that the operations team at the County Ground have been busily preparing for behind the scenes.
Thursday will be the first step back towards some sort of normality, and County season ticket holders and life members will at last get the chance to see the team in the flesh again.
But it won't be like it used to be.
The ground capacity has been cut to around 1,300, and season ticket holders and life members all have to pre-book a ticket and a specific seat in a defined 'zone' at Wantage Road.
People can't just rock up and pay to walk in, and once inside the ground they can't amble around, switching seats during the day as they have done in the past.
So it will be watching cricket, but not as people know it.
Jeremy Casey sat down with Northants Safety Manager & COVID Officer Nick Price to talk through the arrangements for the return of supporters to the County Ground, and how different it is going to be.
JC: It's been 20 months since supporters were allowed into the County Ground to watch live cricket, that has to be a huge positive for everybody at the club? But it is going to be a different experience isn't it?
NP: "The big positive is getting fans back, although not as many as I would like.
"With Government regulations and Sports Ground Safety Auhthority guidance we have had to redesign the whole set-up here.
"Whereas before you could just walk in, sit where you wanted and take in a day of cricket, we are now having to allocate seats for the first time ever.
"We are having to allocate blocks for people, so it will be slightly different when people come in.
"We are going to have stewards who will be chatting to people on the way in, making sure they feel safe about coming in, but also making them aware it will be different."
JC: So, what are the main differences that long-time supporters are going to notice?
NP: "The ground is zoned.
"The player and match official area has increased a little as we are having to use the Old Speckled Hen Lounge as an away dressing room for the whole season.
"So there are some implications there, and depending on whether you are on the east or west side of the ground, that will be your zone.
"But there will be concessions, supporters will still be able to get their bacon roll in the morning and a cup of coffee, and hopefully see some cricket.
"For me, it is going to be nice to see crowds back, although we would obviously like to see a few more.
"Hopefully as things ease, and the Government advice changes, it would be nice to get a few more in for our latter T20 games.
"That's even if we have to socially distance, and we have plans for that.
"We have plans to upscale so we can do that, it is just waiting on Government and ECB advice.
"Jonathan Taylor, my operations manager, has been doing a sterling job sorting out places to go and get concessions in so the public have some familiarity when they come back in.
"It will be a bit weird, because there are people who will be used to sitting in a certain place and then moving around the ground as the sun moves, or whatever, and unfortunately that won't be allowed.
JC: Will supporters have to wear masks? And are there any other checks or tests they will have to go through before or on arrival?
NP: "As it stands, we won’t be asking for a health check/temperature check of spectators at the point of entry, but in turn they must adhere to the spectator code of behaviour pre-event.
"The guidance we have states that masks are not required outdoors, but we are mindful that some spectators will want to wear a mask outdoors.
"My staff will all be wearing masks and the situation on indoor wearing of masks has not changed."
JC: Although fans will have to stay in their allocated seats while watching the cricket, will they still be able to come and go in and out of the ground as they please?
NP: "Yes they will, and I don't think we are looking at anything like that changing.
"That's what people normally do, they might pop across to the garage at the end of the road to pick up their lunch and then come back, and that is not a major issue.
"As long as you have your ticket and your allocated seat, that is your seat all day, that seat is not going to be sold to anybody else, so for me that's not a drama.
"We will have gate stewards that will man the gates all day, to ensure that we have that flow and people will be able to come and go and just show their ticket again."
JC: Will their be a one-way system in operation for supporters moving around the ground, and will there be clear signage?
NP: "We have flow routes, and we are going to have a lot of signage up, but we are going to try to not be as forceful as some of the other signage you might see around.
"We are going to ask people to comply if they are happy to, but we are not going to be having big 'STOP' signs, or telling people to 'WAIT HERE'.
"I think the public have had enough of being told what to do, so we would like to make this venue friendly for people. We want it safe, but friendly.
"There will be signage asking people to follow certain routes, to queue responsibly, wear a face mask when you need to, but apart from that I would like to think it is going to be a light touch.
"There will be a lot of signage, but after a certain point you only take so much in and then you switch off and you sort of forget it.
"We will have stewards at the front of the stands as well to help people, because people will now be looking for seats now when they have never needed to before.
"We are as prepared as we are going to be, but we are trying to make it softly, softly, rather than in your face."
JC: Will there be plenty of places for supporters to use hand sanitisers? And what is the situation with toilets for the public?
NP: "We have got a cracking set-up in relation to hand sanitiser, so people will be able to get that in most places.
"I think there are something like 65 sanitising points around the ground.
"We have got extra toilets being brought in around the ground so the queuing with be minimal, and there are extra hand sanitisation points"
JC: It is obviously great that Northants fans are going to get to see their team in action again, but those going to the County Ground are going to have to show some patience as well. Some are going to have to change habits of a lifetime aren't they?
NP: "Unfortunately, there are certain procedures where people who have been coming here for 30 or 40 years will have done, and have loved doing.
"And there will be certain procedures that they won't be able to do now because of the Covid restrictions.
"It is nothing that the club has put in place, we are just following Government and other authority guidance to get people back in safely.
"So I can only apologise now if anybody is upset about where they have been allocated, or where they are sitting, or the view's not great for them, but it is what it is.
"I would personally take that to be able to come back and watch live sport, but I understand that people are creatures of habit and like their routine.
"I have no drama with that, and as soon as we can get back to that, then we will.
"As soon as it is safe to, and the Government says we can, as soon as I can get people in without having to order online or do a test, or whatever, then I will do that."
JC: Now, being an English 'summer', and with it being cricket, there is every chance there will be a bit of rain about from Thursday onwards... will there be anywhere for supporters to find shelter? Or should they bring an umbrella!!?
NP: "We don't have any wet weather provision, unfortunately.
"So the advice would be, if you think the weather is going to be dodgy, bring a brolly.
"The good thing with social distancing in the stands is that if you do put your brolly up you are probably not going to spoil the view for anybody else!
"But fingers crossed we get good weather and four good days of cricket."
JC: You mentioned there being plenty of provision for supporters to buy food and refreshments in the ground, but will fans still be allowed to bring their own food and drink in if they want to?
NP: "That hasn't changed, people will be able to bring their own picnics and bits and pieces in.
"People will be able to bring their own food in, and hopefully the can come along and see some great cricket."
JC: Season ticket holders and members will have booked their match tickets for each of the four days against Lancashire, will it be easy for them to find their allocated seating?
NP: "We have got 3,300 seats and they will all need to have a number placed on them in line with our ticketing system.
"That has to be done ahead of Thursday, along with all of our other ground signage.
"We will obviously have to have some barriers in place as well, as there will be some areas where spectators would previously be able to walk, but they won't be able to go there this time."
JC: Finally, how do you feel about at long last opening the County Ground gates to supporters again?
NP: "I think after 14 months of the pandemic, and the restrictions that have been in place, people will just want a little bit of normality and I get that.
"We are going to try and make the ground as friendly and as safe as possible for people, because I understand people may still be concerned about coming in.
"We are just looking forward to seeing some crowds back here again, it will be great to see them."