THE anguish etched on the faces of Colchester United's players at the final whistle said it all.

No words were needed to express their disappointment of losing out in the play-offs, to Exeter City.

It's incredibly tough for any player to miss out on promotion and a potential Wembley trip at this stage of the season, having come so close in making the play-offs.

For it to come down to that for the U's, after an emotionally-draining few weeks amidst the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lifestyle-changing implications it brought, was painful to say the least.

It has certainly been an unprecedented time for everyone, over the last few months.

But Colchester's current set of players have experienced something that no other squad in the club's history have - playing football in midst of a global pandemic.

The strict - and restricting - protocols and regulations that the U's players and staff have had to adhere to at their Florence Park training ground over the last few weeks in their preparations for the play-offs have been like nothing else the club has ever seen before.

And the games themselves have also been surreal to say the least, with key matches taking place in near-empty stadiums and supporters replaced by cardboard cut-outs in the stands.

Ironically, though, in this time of social distancing, it seemed to bring an already close-knit Colchester squad even closer to together, as they prepared for their big game against Exeter.

That, in itself, probably made their defeat at St James Park on Monday night even tougher to take.

They fell short in the end and there has been criticism of their first-half performance in the second leg, against the Grecians.

But John McGreal and his players can be proud of their considerable efforts this season, one of their best campaigns in years.

So what now for the U's?

It would be incredibly sad if the disappointing defeat was the last time Luke Prosser, Frank Nouble and Ryan Jackson are seen in Colchester colours.

All three, along with Brandon Comley who did not feature in the play-offs for the U's but still played a big part in their season prior to that, were told in April that their services would not be retained once their contracts expired, as a result of the knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

After the service they have provided at the JobServe Community Stadium over the last few years, it seems incredibly cruel that it should all end like this.

And then there is the wider issue of where the U's go from here, as they begin to digest the fact that must now prepare for a fifth successive season in League Two.

Merely competing in the play-offs this season is estimated to have cost Colchester to the tune of between £200,000-£300,000, money they will now not have next season.

As Robbie Cowling has said, there will be some decisions that need to be made.

Thankfully, in Cowling the U's have a chairman who has run the club in a sensible and prudent way over the years.

That is something that will stand them in good stead in the difficult days that may well lie ahead for EFL clubs, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For a number of years now, the U's owner has placed great emphasis on the club's academy and providing a pathway for talented young players.

That stance is likely to be further endorsed, given the fragile climate clubs now sadly find themselves in.

Even without the likes of Prosser, Nouble and Jackson, the U's have a good squad.

They will still have plenty of experience to fall back on within their ranks.

And at the other end of the age spectrum, they will be hoping that academy products such as Noah Chilvers, Ryan Clampin and Ollie Kensdale can all make a strong push for their starting line-up.

There is still much uncertainty surrounding football - and life in general.

When will the new League Two season start? When will supporters be allowed back into stadiums? Will there be a wage cap at League Two level? What will the transfer market be like this summer?

The pain of Colchester's play-off defeat is still raw.

It will take time for them to recover from the disappointment of missing out on promotion, having come so close.

But recover they must and at some point, boss McGreal must plot another promotion bid.

As chairman Cowling said recently, Colchester United will have a future beyond coronavirus.

And from a football point of view, that is more important than anything.