THE last time Colchester United were as low as this in the Football League at this stage of a campaign, Aston Villa were battling it out for the title, Sinead O’Connor was riding high in the pop charts and Nelson Mandela was enjoying his first few days of freedom.

The U's haven't plumbed these depths post-Christmas since they were relegated to the Conference, back in 1990.

They currently reside in 20th position in the fourth tier, a sad reflection of a rapid decline and the result of a miserable 12-game winless run, now the longest sequence without a victory for any club in the EFL.

Without doubt, it has been an alarming slide down the League Two standings; after a solid start to the season, the U’s now find themselves nearer to the relegation zone than the play-off positions.

Thankfully, there is still a large number of points between Colchester and the bottom two in this strangest of seasons, where mere survival is surely the top priority for any fourth-tier club.

Nevertheless, these are worrying times for the U’s, whose on-going misery was deepened by yesterday’s painful 1-0 defeat at Crawley Town.

Steve Ball did not need to trawl the feedback of supporters on social media in order to gauge the general mood, right now.

A Colchester man through and through, the U’s head coach is acutely aware of the level of feeling among fans, who are despairing of their side’s form and regression down the table and understandably so.

It had seemed as though a dour encounter between two sides out of form would peter out in a goal-less draw at the People’s Pension Stadium.

Not ideal, admittedly, but a point on the road and a clean sheet would have been something to build on.

So to concede in the third minute of stoppage time and lose was particularly anguishing for a U’s side who just cannot buy a win, at present.

Crawley had not won in four league matches prior to beating Colchester and had not previously tasted victory in nine home games.

In truth, neither side really deserved to win but a last-gasp strike from James Tilley, a player who rather gallingly had been linked with a move to Colchester not so long ago, was a rare moment of quality in an otherwise mediocre contest.

The sad thing is, the result did not come as a huge surprise, given the events of the last few months at Colchester.

The U’s have the worst away record in the division and have not scored for nearly eight hours, on their travels.

Yes, Colchester threatened on occasions at Crawley but there was no sustained goal threat, despite Ball unusually opting to adopt a 4-4-2 formation and pairing Frank Nouble and Aramide Oteh in attack.

There were some positive signs of that approach working, particularly in the first half, when Oteh was unlucky not to score with a shot that was well saved by Crawley keeper Glenn Morris.

But the truth is that Colchester have only managed 30 league goals this season.

Only Stevenage, Grimsby Town and Southend United, all below the U’s in the table, have scored fewer.

It did not help the U’s cause yesterday that they were robbed of the services of tenacious midfielder Tom Lapslie due to injury.

The calf problem that forced skipper Harry Pell off after barely half an hour merely compounded the issue.

Colchester badly missed the duo’s physicality in midfield on a bobbly pitch and in windy conditions, in a game where steel was more appropriate than silk.

Furthermore, it was pretty unfortunate that Ryan Clampin, a ready-made replacement for the ineligible Josh Doherty, should suffer an injury in training prior to the match and be unavailable, forcing boss Ball to play centre-back Tommy Smith out of position at left-back.

It never rains but it pours and being prevented from naming a settled side of late has not helped Ball’s – or the U’s - cause.

But the Colchester boss would be the first to admit that everyone has to deal with injuries during the course of a season.

There is much frustration among many U’s fans right now and understandably so.

Perhaps, in this context, it is just as well Colchester fans are not permitted to attend games at the JobServe Community Stadium, although how dearly many of them would love to return – regardless of whether or not their side are on a winless run.

For a team which has not tasted victory for two and a half months, the upcoming fixtures look challenging to say the least.

Next up on Tuesday night is a home clash with promotion-chasing Exeter City, who were irrepressible in thrashing the U’s 6-1 in November.

That is immediately followed by games against Forest Green Rovers, Carlisle United and Newport County, all sides currently residing in or around the play-off places.

It does not get any easier for Ball’s side but needless to say, a victory of any kind is urgently needed, if nothing else to stop the feeling of unease that feels like it is growing by the week.