Ebbsfleet boss Dennis Kutrieb admitted having victory snatched away from them in the dying seconds on Saturday was worse than losing on penalties or being thrashed.
The Fleet were just moments away from promotion when Dorking Wanderers equalised in the ninth minute of stoppage time to force extra-time. Dorking won 3-2 in the end and Fleet remain in National League South.
It was tough to take for Kutrieb and his players, the Fleet boss admitting he’d rather have been stuffed or lost on penalties than being so close and yet so far away from going up.
“It would have been better for me to get battered 5-0 or 5-1 than have a lead until the 99th minute, that’s really tough to take,” said the Fleet boss.
“I would take a penalty shoot-out defeat all day long, it’s much easier for me to take as then you can say your goalkeeper wasn’t good enough or one player missed and that wasn’t good enough. But here the referee put more minutes on and just waited for another chance - that’s tough to take.
“It’s tough to take for everyone. You need to defend it better. I would say (we were) unlucky but everything happens in life for a reason. We don’t know the reason why yet but we will find out.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t get over the line in the last 20 seconds. I’m disappointed for every fan, player and staff member.
“We worked hard (over the season) and I was sure we’d get the reward but we didn’t get what we deserved. We weren’t good enough to get over the line.”
Kutrieb sprang a surprise by drafting Joe Martin into his starting line-up and moving Jack Paxman into a central midfield role.
But it – and the Fleet’s gameplan – worked as they dominated for large periods of the first half and had the better chances.
When substitute Craig Tanner, who was only fit enough to take his place on the bench, scored in the second minute of stoppage time it looked like they were going up, only for there to be one more dramatic twist.
“I think we were really spot-on, outstanding defending and team display,” reflected Kutrieb.
“We fought so hard but it makes it even more disappointing for me as a manager when the gameplan is working, you limit them to almost nothing, just crosses and even then we defended them so well.
“The players didn’t stop, I’ve said it during the whole season. They would never stop, to go and try hard is the only thing you can accept from them. From a tactical point of view we were outstanding as everyone stuck to the plan for 120 minutes, it worked but almost – not 100 per cent.
“I told them that I’m proud of them. After going 3-2 behind early in extra-time you can get frustrated and let it go, kick the ball, kick the players, shout at the referee and get red cards.
“They have nothing to regret tomorrow, maybe that they didn’t stop the last cross or win that last header, but if you put so much effort into a game it’s normal you get tired and make more mistakes later in the game.
“That’s how we scored our goal, we said just wait and stay in the game until 70 minutes and we’d get our chance to finish it off. It was almost perfect.
“Craig Tanner was injured, he came off against Chelmsford and couldn’t play last week. We knew Joe Martin wasn’t ready for 120 minutes but we wanted him to go as long as he could. Craig Tanner maybe had 30 or 40 minutes in him but not 90 or 120 so those decisions were ones we had to make.
“Unfortunately, we tried a few other players but they were not ready to go. We had two or three little chances to get an equaliser at 3-3 but it didn’t happen unfortunately.”