RITCHIE Humphreys has suffered more than most when it comes to play-off football.

But nothing has caused as much disappointment as Sunday in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Hartlepool United were nine minutes from a place in the Coca-Cola Championship before Chris Westwood was pulled up for a penalty box foul.

The defender was sent-off, Sheffield Wednesday scored from the spot to force extra-time and then scored two more to give the scoreline a flattering and devastating look.

Pool have made the play-offs on five occasions, missing out on promotion each time.

Humphreys has been part of three of them. First his sudden-death penalty knocked Pool out at Cheltenham in 2002, then Bristol City scored twice in the closing minutes of the 2003-4 season to deny Pool a place in the final.

Yet Sunday's closing minutes, on the biggest day in the club's history as over 16,500 travelled to Cardiff, were the hardest of the lot.

"We have suffered a few times in the play-offs, but this one was the worst of them all to take,'' he said. "I've said before that to be part of this group of players is a real honour.

"To see them give 100 per cent and more - some of them couldn't even walk off the pitch they were so tired - means so much and that's why it hurts so much.

"It's been a long season, that was our 60th game and we are so disappointed it ended that way.

"It was so hard to take, it really was. That's because no-one ever gives in.''

Referee Phil Crossley bore the brunt of the Pool anger, after his penalty decision and Humphreys, who recently signed a new deal at Victoria Park, admitted the players felt for Westwood.

"We had some boys in the dressing room who were devastated and it's all boiled down to one refereeing decision,'' reflected Humphreys.

"Chris Westwood feels he didn't pull their lad down and we back him 100 per cent on that.

"The game showed how tight things were between the teams all season. There was nothing between us in the league table and there was nothing between us on Sunday.

"These occasions are great and for a club like ours and a town like ours, to bring as many supporters as we did - almost 20,000 - they deserve a big thank you from the players.

"We've been progressing for four or five seasons now and we have had set-backs in the play-offs in the past.

"Five years ago who would have thought that Hartlepool would have been playing Sheffield Wednesday in the Millennium Stadium with a chance of getting into the second tier of English football?

"We have done well and gone on better than last season, but it wasn't just a day out and we were very disappointed not to go on and do it.''

And Humphreys admitted seeing so many make the trek from the North-East made its mark.

"I think we can be proud of what we have achieved and also be proud of the supporters and the town,'' he said. "For Hartlepool, this occasion was magnificent and we have done our best to put the club and town on the map.

"The way the boys have been all season has been fantastic.''

Westwood, red-carded for only the second time in his career, will miss the start of next season.

Whether that is with Pool remains to be seen. The defender is out of contract and is considering a return to his native Midlands.

Staying at Victoria Park is a strong possibility, with Westwood biding his time to weigh up his options.

Pool caretaker boss Martin Scott wants to keep the squad intact and will head off on holiday this week with his own future yet to be decided.

Sunday's sense of injustice may have gone some way to keeping Westwood at the club where he has developed into one of the best defenders in the lower divisions during his six years at Victoria Park.

With his family based in Dudley, a move to Walsall would appeal and Paul Merson is interested in his services, but Westwood said: "We will have to see what happens. Michael Nelson and I have a great understanding, and we'll see what develops."

After leaving the Millennium Stadium pitch in tears on Sunday, Westwood fumed: "I just hope the ref is happy. These decisions change people's lives.

"If it was a penalty, then I take it all back - if it wasn't I hope he is pleased with himself.

"I didn't think it was a penalty. The ball bounced in his favour, we both scrambled for it and (Drew) Talbot went down. He looked for it, but that's his job."

Read more about Hartlepool here.