After this humdinger of a replay, they are unfortunate not to be in the fifth-round hat after a defeat in extra-time to last year's semi-finalists. "I thought we were out," Sheffield United's manager, Steve Bruce, commented afterwards. And so they should have been.
As hosts, Notts County were overwhelmingly generous, conceding three late goals in nine minutes to a Sheffield side who were, for the most part, unimaginative and pedestrian. County, in contrast, were a breath of fresh air and their defeat came down to a lack of concentration and self-belief which finds them fourth from bottom of the Second Division.
History, ancient and modern, dictated a cup classic. Notts County's Gary Owers played on the losing side for Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup final while Steve Bruce was twice a Wembley winner with Manchester United, his last medal coming a century after Notts County's only Cup success at Goodison Park in 1894. Jimmy Logan was the East-Midlanders' hero that afternoon, becoming the first player to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final. A year later he died of pneumonia after a team-mate forgot to pack the kit for an away trip.
While Saturday's result was not a tragedy of that order, events, like their truly dreadful pitch, cut up rough for Notts County. Gary Jones put them ahead with a shot high into the net, before Vasillis Borbokis regained undeserved parity with a neat free-kick which wrong-footed the goalkeeper, Darren Ward.
Shaun Murray, by a street the classiest player on the pitch, put County ahead with a beautifully struck left-footed drive from 30 yards and Jones increased their lead with seven minutes to go with his sixth FA Cup goal of the season.
With the never-say-die spirit of their manager, David Holdsworth pulled one goal back for United before the Brazilian forward Marcelo equalised almost on the final whistle. In extra-time, as heavy legs dragged in the sand, it was the Sheffield stealers who emerged as unlikely winners as Marcelo scored his second goal from close range.
Sam Allardyce, the Notts County manager, remarked that he was "gutted" and "very down and disappointed by the outcome".
"We have to defend a lot better than that," he said. "We just didn't defend properly and when you're 3-1 up you just don't let teams back into the game. At the moment, football is not a game I'm enjoying."
A feeling exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that his team had only themselves to blame.
Goals: Jones (19) 1-0; Borbokis (40) 1-1; Murray (57) 2-1; Jones (83) 3-1; Holdsworth (85) 3-2; Marcelo (89) 3-3; Marcelo (94) 3-4.
Notts County (4-3-3): Ward; Pearce (Tierney, 108), Richardson, Redmile, Hendon; Liburd, Owers, Murray; Jones, Hughes (Garcia, 56), Dyer (Strodder, 99). Substitutes not used: Beattie (gk), Dudley.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kelly; Quinn, Sandford, Holdsworth, O'Connor (Ford, 75); Borbokis, Henry (Morris, 61), Woodhouse, Twiss; Stuart, Marcelo (Jacobsen, 110). Substitutes not used: Walker, Davis (gk).
Referee: A Wiley (Stafford).
Bookings: Notts County: Murray. Sending off: Sheffield Utd: Quinn.
Man of the match: Murray.
Attendance: 7,489.Reuse content