THERE are bigger things at stake in this country right now, but even so the news football will continue behind closed doors for the foreseeable future has come as a big setback.

It feels especially acute given a return was almost within touching distance.

Oxford United were due to play in front of a reduced crowd at Accrington Stanley this weekend.

Then it would have been the Kassam Stadium’s turn a week later to have a trial run with 1,000 fans.

From there it would go to a restricted attendance of between 25 and 35 per cent – just about getting all the U’s season ticket holders in.

It would not have been a full return to normality, but close enough.

Instead, the weirdness continues, possibly for as much as six months.

If that worst-case scenario comes true, United’s wait to play in front of their fans will have gone on longer than a year.

At the start of this crisis it was all about getting the team back on the pitch – that was enough.

The play-off matches were surreal, but at least Karl Robinson’s men were playing and the prize was so big it could mostly distract us all from what was missing.

It has only been this month when the bleak reality has truly hit home.

Legendary Scottish manager Jock Stein coined the phrase ‘football without fans is nothing’.

While that is not strictly correct, the last few weeks have proved that taking a crowd out of the equation leaves a gaping, joyless hole.

For those of us lucky enough to still attend matches, any novelty about being at live games again has quickly worn off.

It is as if we are now trapped in a world where United are doomed to play in the EFL Trophy every week.

Thoughts of what the ground should be like at different moments are inescapable – whether it was when Watford were on the rack last Tuesday, or when Robinson’s men needed a jolt against Sunderland on Saturday.

Instead, there was just the echo of the head coach’s touchline urgings bouncing off the bare concrete.

Tuning in from home, every fan is suddenly an exile, but without the exotic address.

For those who follow United regularly, Saturdays are built around finely-tuned matchday routines, built up over time.

Sure, it is months since you had to worry about negotiating the Kassam car park, but wasn’t that all part of the fun?

Logging on at 2.59pm cannot be the same, because the 90 minutes was only part of the attraction, which has so much to do with the social side.

If that was not clear before, it is blindingly obvious now.

There is also the impact on the clubs themselves, deprived of the ticket revenue which is their lifeline.

Several chairmen gave gloomy forecasts yesterday as they looked ahead into an increasingly turbulent few months.

Macclesfield Town’s liquidation last week may have been a tale of mismanagement, but the fear others could follow is real.

Talk of financial support from above needs to be backed up by actions in the next few weeks to shore up a creaking pyramid.

No matter where clubs sit in the table, this season is about survival.

There is no way round it – this is going to be a slog until the turnstiles tick again.

Winter is coming. Hold on tight.