Watford manager Gianfranco Zola admitted missing out on automatic promotion from the Championship was a bitter pill to swallow.
With Hull City – who earned a place in next season’s Premier League by finishing second – held to a 2-2 draw against Cardiff City on Saturday, all Watford needed was a win against a Leeds United side who had notched just three away successes in the entire season.
But Leeds claimed a surprise win at Vicarage Road, with Ross McCormack’s stoppage-time strike giving the Elland Road outfit a 2-1 triumph which robbed Watford of promotion.
The match was marred by 16 minutes of first-half stoppages – with Watford’s reserve goalkeeper Jonathan Bond taken to hospital after a clash of heads – meaning that youngster Jack Bonham was thrown in off the bench to make his debut.
And Bonham let McCormack’s chip through his hands in the dying stages as Watford were forced to settle for a spot in the playoffs.
“It has been a long day but we tried. They really gave everything they had and unfortunately it didn’t work out for us,” Zola told the club’s official website.
“To be honest at the end I thought we could have done it. It was a strange game (with all the stoppages) – things didn’t flow although I thought we started well.
“We tried everything at the end but it wasn’t to be…we’ll get ready for the next game. We can’t do anything more – we can only be prepared for the next one.
“Today would have been the perfect ending but it didn’t work out unfortunately. I’m very disappointed, but there is still plenty to play for and we will do our best.
“It is hard to take but we have to face it and make sure we’re ready for the play-offs.”
Zola refused to blame Bonham for his mistakes – he was also partly at fault for Leeds’ first goal, scored by substitute Dominic Poleon – on a crazy day when Watford’s first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia injured himself in the warm-up.
“It has been very unfortunate with the goalkeepers,” the ex-Italy international forward said.
“I feel for Jack because he had to come on in a difficult moment and it wouldn’t have been easy for anybody to handle.”
Watford will play Leicester City in the semi-finals of the play-offs, with the first leg to be held at Vicarage Road on May 12.