THEY trudged off the Edgeley Park pitch, heads bowed, into the gloom of the dressing-room, resigned to the whim of fate, and leaving the stage to Stockport County, worthy winners of an undistinguished match.
Three minutes later, however, Sheffield United's players were back out, in their bare or stockinged feet, joining the celebrations of their supporters, dancing on the sunbathed terracing.
Birmingham's inability to score at St Andrew's had granted United the final place in the play-offs, an opportunity of promotion that had all but gone with the last dregs of their resolve.
Steve Thompson, the man handed the reins of management in the midst of United's turmoil, slumped on to a bench in the dressing-room and said: "It would have been an injustice if we'd not made the play-offs. That's our 60th game of the season, our fourth cup final in eight days, and hopefully we've got another three to come. Five of our players were only 60 per cent fit."
It showed. United simply could not produce the incisive front play or the drive from midfield to subject Stockport to any sustained pressure. County had their best spell early in the second half and it was enough to win the match, Kevin Cooper's curled shot deceiving Simon Tracey.
Dean Saunders, the United striker, is grateful the door to the Premiership remains open.
"We've got there on what we did earlier in the season, not in the last fortnight.
"It was crazy making us play four games in the last eight days. The boys were running on empty."
United survived two penalty appeals during a frenetic spell, early in the second half. But the pressure was incessant, and the goal inevitable. Cooper, positioned just outside the area, wide on the left, scooped the ball towards the far top corner, Tracey was stranded, and County had a lead that was never seriously threatened.
Goal: Cooper (62) 1-0.
Stockport County (4-4-2): Nixon; Connelly, Flynn, McIntosh, Searle; Phillips, Walwork, Byrne, Cooper (Woodthorpe 82); Wilbraham (Grant 69), Angell. Substitute not used: Dinning.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Tracey; Short, Holdsworth, Sandford, Quinn; Devlin, Wilder, Marker (Morris 52), Hamilton; Katchuro (Taylor 62), Saunders. Substitute not used: Connor.
Referee: C Wilkes (Gloucester).
Bookings: Stockport: Cooper, McIntosh; Sheffield United: Devlin, Marker
Man of the match: Byrne.
Attendance: 9,683.Reuse content