Wycombe Wanderers’ play-off final defeat was a crushing blow for the club’s players and fans but manager Gareth Ainsworth claimed it ‘wasn’t a bad moment’ for him personally. His positive outlook has been unfaltering this season and it remained the same tonight despite losing out on a place in League One in the cruellest of ways. As the players and fans licked their wounds, the Blues boss was optimistic; he was already planning for next season.

Wanderers were 24 seconds from League One after taking the lead against Southend United in extra-time. But 12 months ago they almost went out of the Football League and their very existence was at risk. It is a point Ainsworth has highlighted on many occasions during the Chairboys’ unexpected campaign and he did so once more at Wembley.

Southend scored an equaliser in the final minute of injury-time in extra-time and then won on penalties. Wanderers were 24 seconds from glory. That was it. Just 24 seconds.

Devastating is an overused word in football – one of many – but for Blues’ fans and players it truly was.

But Ainsworth was his usual buoyant self in his post-match press conference.

He denied the suggestion it could be one of his worst moments in football before continuing: “I am proud and I am optimistic for Wycombe.

“It is obviously a devastating way to lose but not for me, the players will feel it more than me.

“I am ready now to build. I have had a great taste of it - a phenomenal season - and I’m really looking forward to starting again on August 8, I really am.”

He continued: “The players are down and they have given everything - that coupled with their tiredness.

“They have given everything on the day and did not get anything out of it but I’ll be telling them to look at the bigger picture - if you look at the feeling 12 months ago.

“It has been an amazing turnaround and I have nothing but admiration for the players, fans and staff and I’ll be relishing working with them again.”

When Sam Wood’s penalty was saved by Southend goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, ensuring the Shrimpers’ place in League One, many of the Wanderers players collapsed to the floor.

But they all rose again to thank the Blues fans and then Ainsworth gathered his squad in a circle on the pitch to address his troops.

“I told the players that nobody leaves this stadium with their head down and to be proud of the season and if anybody thinks otherwise then come to see me because I am proud of them.

“I have had defeats and bad moments in my career but this wasn’t a bad moment. We were part of a momentous battle today.”

Ainsworth believes Wanderers are in the bottom six in League Two when it comes to budget and joked some of his players were on less money per week than the cost of a Wembley ticket.

He – like most – couldn’t envisage the Chairboys occupying an automatic promotion place for much of the campaign having faced the threat of going out of business 12 months ago had they been relegated to the Conference.

It has been a remarkable and unexpected campaign. Today’s final has been discussed throughout the town and wider district, with even those supporting Premier League clubs talking about their local team’s chances at ‘the home of football’.

Ainsworth acknowledged seeing flags in shops that usually wouldn’t carry the club’s colour and smiled as he discussed the letters received from people stating they now wanted to start supporting Wycombe due to recent events.

A huge part of the Blues’ success has been down to the 42-year-old and his working relationship with chairman Andrew Howard, who was appointed a year ago.

The club agreed a five-year plan. Reaching a play-off final was not in it. Not in the first year at least.

Ainsworth said: “The chairman has been great to work with. He has his targets. We are ahead of the plan and as long as we stay ahead of the plan we will be fine. We have a five-year plan and we are well ahead of it in year one on the pitch.

“The plan [this season] was to survive – 55 points – turn the ship around and head in the right direction. The ship has turned around. It has a long, long way to go from the financial side but on the pitch I have gone off like a train and we never thought that would happen.

“Play-offs was in year three of the plan not year one. Now it is about the expectation in year two,” he said laughing, before adding: “Andrew told me the plan he had for the club; I’m in the board meetings, I’m in the financial meetings and Andrew showed me what he wanted to do with the club and I said I wanted to be a part of the five-year plan at Wycombe Wanderers; that is to be a sustainable League One club in five years.

“We were aiming for the play-offs and promotion in year three not year one.”

Ainsworth says he won’t say what the objective is for the second year. With a number of ‘big’ players finishing their loan spells, it is difficult to predict how strong the squad will be in the 2015/16 campaign.

But one thing you can be sure of is: “We will have a small squad again next season because that is what we are.

“There is a squad in our division with 40-plus players and we just about scrape 20 together and have no youth team and no reserves. We will be in a similar situation next year.”

Ainsworth used his post-match press conference to pay credit to Southend and their manager Phil Brown – something the former Hull City boss reciprocated.

The pair stood together during the penalty shoot-out following a suggestion by Ainsworth, with the men embracing on a few occasions despite the huge reward available for the victor.

Ainsworth said: “I made a big point of standing next to Phil and saying ‘I’m not going to celebrate if we score every penalty and I’m not going to rub that in your face’ and he reiterated that he wouldn’t do it to me and we had a good moment of respect on the halfway line when the penalties were going in because for 120 minutes we are involved and in charge but penalties is a lottery – how many times have we said that.

“Phil gets some stick from various places but I respect him and he has always been good to me.”

Ainsworth then made his players and staff watch as Southend lifted the trophy, with the Blues boss applauding as vigorously as the Shrimpers fans – a sign of the former winger’s class.

He explained: “It is about respect and it is about what Wycombe Wanderers stands for now and that is doing things the right way.

“I’m not going to change football on my own but you have to be respectful for your opponents and I wanted them to stand there and almost look at it and feel it. I want them to want it next year. They wanted it this year and we want it next year.

“It was a respectful moment because they stood up to us and tied with us over 120 minutes and there aren’t many teams who have done that this year so well done Southend.

“[But] Wycombe Wanderers will fight another day in League Two and I can’t wait.”

You can look back on our live blog from the day here.