Preston North End midfielder John Welsh admitted the feeling of letting second spot slip on the final day is worse than last year’s play-off disappointment.
PNE’s fate was in their own hands – they needed to win or better MK Dons’ result.
But Colchester staged a late bid for survival and quashed PNE’s hopes of gaining automatic promotion as George Moncur’s 82nd-minute strike earned a shock 1-0 victory and ensured Tony Humes’ men beat the drop.
With MK Dons thumping Yeovil 5-1, North End’s one-point cushion was overhauled as Karl Robinson’s men wrestled second spot from North End’s grasp.
And Welsh said the manner in which PNE lost their grip on second place, having been perched there since March, is worse than last season’s play-off semi-final heartbreak, when they lost on aggregate to Rotherham United.
He said: “I’m devastated. I think our performance fell short of the standards that we have had all year.
“This is worse than last year, with it being so close.
“I think coming here, having the quality that we have got and under-performing is hard to take.
“We have got a good experienced bunch. We have great lads in the dressing room and good staff who have been there and done it.
“After 18 games unbeaten it is so hard to take. We have got high standards as a squad and as a club and I don’t think we met them today.
“We weren’t at the races. We have done it all season but we didn’t do it today and we fell short.”
Colchester’s Chris Porter also missed a penalty in the 58th minute but Welsh admitted he does not know why North End failed to fire.
He said: “I don’t what it was down to. I felt at half-time that we had put in a solid performance. We had a couple of chances that we possibly could have done better with. I don’t think we started the second half fairly well.
“But even in the first half we felt we rushed it in the final third a little bit.
“We were trying to cross when maybe we could have passed it.
“It was a game we knew we had to win. We could have been a bit cleverer and maybe put them on the back foot a bit more instead of getting out wide and crossing in.
“But you have to give them credit. I think the way the game was going suited them a bit more.
“Both teams had to win. We were pushing men forward trying to get the three points and I thought that suited them more as they could hit us on the counter. It just wasn’t to be.”
Welsh praised the 2,969 travelling North End fans and revealed letting them down is hard to stomach.
But he urged them to keep the faith as PNE still have a chance of getting to the Championship through the play-offs.
He said: “The support was unbelievable – that is what makes it even harder.
“We have got fans singing their hearts out all game. They want us to succeed so much and I think that makes it so much harder because the support I have had since I have been here has been unbeliveable. We are gutted, I’m sure that the fans will be too but there are still three play-off games to go.
“They need to keep the belief, keep getting behind us, which I’m sure they will when we play Chesterfield on Thursday night.”