An afternoon which began portentously with thunder and lightning ended in bitter anticlimax and undisguised anxiety for the welfare of two young Watford goalkeepers. One was in the hospital adjoining the Vicarage Road ground, and the other was in a private hell.
The worrying facial injury to goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, sustained halfway through a first half which stretched to 62 minutes, was a moment of brutal perspective which introduced Jack Bonham to the pitiless realities of the professional game.
Watford's third-choice keeper, dragooned into his debut, was culpable for both of the goals which condemned them to defeat, and a Championship play-off semi-final against Leicester. They will be without striker Troy Deeney, sent off for a scything foul on that enduring irritant Michael Brown, for the first leg at the KP Stadium on Thursday.
Bonham may be pressed into service again because, in keeping with the surreal nature of the occasion, Watford lost first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia in the warm-up with a recurrence of a hamstring injury. Bond's season is surely over, although his manager, Gianfranco Zola, suggested, somewhat improbably, that he might be able to play in a protective mask. Bond had demonstrated the requisite bravery of his trade, throwing himself into the path of the ball, and into harm's way, just before the Leeds substitute Dominic Poleon appeared to push the defender Ikechi Anya into him at pace.
It was a sickening collision, and the alarm signals from the players around him were stark and immediate. The goalkeeper was attended by seven medical staff and two paramedics for fully 12 minutes. He was given oxygen and taken away on a stretcher to a standing ovation.
Bond had broken his nose, badly, and left Zola awaiting the results of scans. "The way he went down looked very bad," Zola said. "It looked like he wasn't responding." Staff had to clear the pitch of bloodied tissues and pour water on a bloodied patch of turf before play could resume.
Bonham consequently became a central character in a game he assumed he would be watching from the stand. A gangling figure in a silver-grey shirt that was a little too short for his torso, he looked unkempt, and on the verge of hyperventilation. He was Watford's most unlikely recruit since Graham Taylor selected Gary Plumley, a wine waiter, for the 1987 FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham. They lost 4-1 that day, and, with a place in the Premier League at stake, Bonham did not have long to discover the limits of romanticism.
He had touched the ball only twice when he failed to command his area and clear out a hopeful punt forward. He collided with the defender Joel Ekstrand, who could only hook his attempted clearance into the face of Poleon, who blinked before walking the ball into empty net. Watford's equaliser was worked across the box by Anya into the path of the outstanding Almen Abdi, whose driven shot into the top corner was a mark of genuine quality.
Everyone then entered a parallel universe of hope and hysteria. Watford's players were confronted by sudden opportunity when they were still in the sanctuary of the dressing room as Cardiff took the lead at the KC Stadium, but hope appeared to die when Hull scored twice in five minutes.
News that Hull had eventually drawn was greeted with frenzy. Watford, reduced to 10 men when Deeney picked up his second yellow card, had almost a quarter of an hour to score the goal which would have earned them a promotion popularly assumed to be worth £120 million.
"At that moment, I thought we could do it," said Zola, whose optimism was undermined by Paddy Kenny. The Leeds goalkeeper showed remarkable agility for someone so heavily boned, and made three outstanding saves before, with 35 seconds of regulation time remaining, Aidan White sent Ross McCormack clear.
A goalkeeper with greater experience than Bonham would have come out assertively and narrowed the angle. But Bonham hesitated, and could only paw McCormack's chip into the net. Zola refused to apportion blame, but the dream was over, in nightmare fashion.
Watford (3-5-2): Bond (Bonham, 24); Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti; Anya (Vydra, 63), Hogg (Yeates, 83), Chalobah, Abdi, Pudil; Forestieri, Doyley.
Leeds (4-4-2): Kenny; Peltier, Lees, Pearce, Drury; Green (Hall, 90), Brown (White, 62), McCormack, Tonge; Varney, Morison (Poleon, 10).
Referee Graham Salisbury.