So long as there are games like this, and clubs like Hereford United, rumours of the FA Cup's demise will remain gloriously exaggerated. True, Championship side Cardiff's victory over League Two rivals could hardly be called a cup upset, but the narrowness of its margin, together with the spirit in which yesterday's match was conducted, was a credit to the world's greatest club competition.
A brace of goals either side of half-time were enough to see the Welsh side advance to the last 16 for the first time in over a decade. But before the final whistle blew at Hereford's rickety, rackety ground, the sell-out crowd was treated to a 20-minute barrage of attacking football which came within inches of opening another chapter in the home side's famous history of giant-killings.
For Cardiff's manager, Dave Jones, the reward for survival is a nervous wait for today's potentially money-spinning fifth-round draw. His slim-line squad recently suffered the enforced sale of star defender Chris Gunter to Tottenham, and during yesterday's game looked short on the composure needed to properly challenge for a promotion to the Premier League.
On a blustery afternoon, which contributed to occasionally unsubtle footballing fare, Cardiff dominated possession, and displayed sharper skill-levels than their lower-league rivals – yet they were unable to put the game beyond doubt.
Only a frantic display late on by the visitors' goalkeeper Michael Oakes prevented them from throwing away a victory that ought to have been in the bag from the moment they had gone two-nil up in the 64th minute.
The visiting side's first goal had come in the dying seconds of first-half injury time, when defender Kevin McNaughton, a Scottish international, struck a sweet, right-footed volley from 25 yards out after the Hereford defence had failed to clear one of the Cardiff left-back Tony Capaldi's trademark long throw-ins, which had been a threat all afternoon.
Fifteen minutes later, McNaughton, who had never before scored for Cardiff, was again the creator after being crudely bundled over by the Hereford substitute Clint Easton during a seemingly unthreatening foray into the opposition's penalty area. From the penalty spot, Steve Thompson sent the Hereford goalkeeper Wayne Brown the wrong way.
That should have been the end of it. But the home side were handed a lifeline in the 74th minute when their talented striker Theo Robinson – on loan from Watford– latched on to a long ball, and got the better of both opposition centre-backs before whipping home a low shot from the edge of the Cardiff area.
In a frantic final period, Hereford twice went close from a corner, before forcing a series of fine saves by Oakes – notably from Toumani Diagouraga and Simon Johnson – in the dying minutes of injury time.
Cardiff, the only non-English side to have won this competition (albeit in 1927) greeted the whistle with relief. For Hereford, whose own most famous cup exploit (the 1972 defeat of Newcastle United) is now a generation ago, it came as an unwelcome reminder that FA Cup upsets do not come along every day.
Goals: McNaughton (45) 0-1; Thompson (64) 0-2; Robinson (74) 1-2.
Hereford United (4-4-2): Brown; McClenahan, Rose, Collins, Beckwith; Taylor (Easton, 63), Johnson, Smith, Diagouraga; Benjamin (Gwynne, 68), Robinson. Substitutes not used: Ingham (gk), McCombe, Palmer.
Cardiff City (4-4-2): Oakes; McNaughton, Capaldi, Johnson, Loovens; Ledley, Whittingham, McPhail, Rae; Thompson (Hasselbaink, 85), Parry. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Purse, Ramsey, Blake.
Referee: A D'Urso (Essex).
Booked: Hereford Robinson; Cardiff Parry.
Man of the match: McNaughton.