JOHN McGreal says Colchester United’s painful play-off defeat was the worst feeling he’s experienced in his managerial career.

But the U’s head coach has urged them to channel the huge disappointment of their Exeter City loss into another challenge, next time around.

Colchester were beaten 3-2 on aggregate in their semi-final against the Grecians, having at one stage looked on course to book a spot in the Wembley final.

They were beaten 3-1 in their second leg at St James Park, after Ryan Bowman struck in the second period of extra-time to break U’s hearts.

McGreal, who has just completed his fourth season in charge of Colchester, said: “It’s the worst feeling I’ve felt as a manager.

“Just when you think you’ve got it, it’s taken away but it just shows you in football that until it’s over the line, it’s never over.

“We’d had two close calls, in the last three years.

“We wanted to improve on that which is what we’ve been able to do and we’ve come back looking hungry for it.

“We were desperate for it and that’s why it now hurts so much, in a way.

“We’ll have to try and pick ourselves up and try and learn from it.

“Now that’s the platform for the football club and where we want to go.

“We’ve had the cup runs this year and we’ve been able to back that up with the league.

"When you have a good cup run, the league form tends to tail away but we’ve been able to fight on both fronts.”

Colchester took a one-goal lead into the game at Exeter, thanks to Cohen Bramall’s late goal in the first leg.

But Aaron Martin cancelled that out ten minutes into the second leg and when Jayden Richardson netted Exeter’s second just before the hour, it put the hosts ahead overall.

Substitute Courtney Senior netted for the U’s with 12 minutes to go to take the game into extra-time but Bowman won it for the Grecians, in the second period of extra-time.

“I’m devastated for the players; myself and the staff too but more so the players, because of the effort that they have put in,” said McGreal.

“It would have been a great opportunity but it’s a missed opportunity.

“We started to play when we were 2-0 down and that was a little bit of a killer really.

“We threw a little bit of caution to the wind and that’s where you want them to show a little bit of responsibility early on.

“Credit to them – we got a goal back and we could have gone on to win the game but we haven’t and it’s those fine margins, in football.

“We made the subs to try and inject something.

“Courtney came on and looked lively and we swapped Kwame (Poku) and he started finding good little pockets from that inside midfield area.

“In the last 20 to 25 minutes of the second half, I fancied us to go and get the equalizer (on the night), there’s no question of it.

“But it’s fine margins in football and I’ve said it from day one, since I took over.

“I congratulate Matt (Taylor), his staff and his team.

“They’ve been two hard fought games over the four days and they’ve been hard fought games, throughout the season.”