FOOTBALL is nothing without fans.

After the surreal experience I had last night reporting on one of Colchester United's most important games in years in a near-empty stadium, never has Jock Stein's famous quote been more apt.

I've always felt pretty privileged to the job I do, having the luxury of being able to watch and report on the U's home and away for so long.

But never in my 15 years of reporting on them have I felt quite so fortunate to be able to witness a U's match as I did at the JobServe Community Stadium last night.

Watching their League Two play-off semi-final first leg against Exeter City unfold, it was impossible not to be acutely aware that something crucial was missing - supporters.

It just did not seem right.

Of course, I've reported on plenty of Colchester friendlies, reserve-team or academy matches over the years where sparse crowds have been in attendance.

But the majority of the time, little was riding on the outcome of those fixtures - unlike the match last night.

It was an eerie, sterile atmosphere - temperatures taken on arrival, hand sanitisers a common sight, people with face masks everywhere, the voices of players and coaching staff echoing around the arena.

Different coloured zones were in place to remind people where they needed to go - and where they should not be - and tape sectioned off areas of the stadium that were out of bounds.

One-way walking systems were in operation around the ground and players entered the fray from either side of the West Stand, with the tunnel out of bounds.

There were even men in white suits lurking, ensuring that everything was as safe as possible.

This was the Community Stadium - but not as we know it.

Sadly, the only reminder of the fans that usually flocked to the stadium were was the cut-outs that occupied the East Stand, that glinted in the early evening sunshine.

The public address system still blared out; the teams were announced pre-match as usual.

But this was far from normal.

I've reported on plenty of bizarre Colchester games in my time.

A few years ago, I was in the press box at Brisbane Road to see the U's and Orient go through the motions and play out the final few minutes of their game in a near-empty stadium, following a pitch protest by home fans.

And I was at Carrow Road for Colchester's unforgettable 7-1 victory over Norwich City on the opening day of the 2009-10 season.

But this behind closed doors game, a first for the U's in a competitive fixture, was by far the strangest experience I've had in my many years of reporting on the club.

Colchester's players and staff were utterly professional last night - both on and off the pitch - in very difficult circumstances.

The manner in which they dealt with a very difficult situation was exemplary and their 1-0 win in the first leg was apt reward for all of their competence and efficiency throughout.

It was a good night all round for the U's - it was just such a shame the fans were not there to see it.