The millionaires who weren't: County ready to face the real deal in City

League One club is trying to rebuild after thinking it had struck gold. Beating Mancini's side would help

Whatever the FA Cup may have lost since it was barged aside in the look-at-me rise of the Premier League, it retains its capacity to give fleeting glory to the underdog. Indeed, the Goliaths drip diamonds now and hit the ground harder.

So when Notts County were paired with Manchester City in this weekend's fourth round, the ghosts of Davids past must have exchanged a few wicked smiles.

It is the club that thought it might be the richest in the world against the one that really is. Has a potential giant-killing ever had such a compelling sub-plot?

They can empathise with the imagery at Meadow Lane, where Roberto Mancini's millionaire players will tomorrow take on a League One side that beat Sunderland away in the last round.

The £300,000 or so they expect to make from the tie is as big a windfall for County as for any club in the lower divisions yet not much more than a year ago it was the kind of sum they might willingly blow on funding charter aircraft for away matches or on the chauffeur-driven limousine that would each day collect their director of football from his riverside apartment.

It was all part of a story bizarre even by football standards, in which mysteriously secretive but outrageously wealthy Arab businessmen would pump limitless millions into a small English club famous only for being the oldest and turn them into a Premier League superpower.

Sven Goran Eriksson was hired to spearhead the project, players such as Kasper Schmeichel, Lee Hughes and (briefly) Sol Campbell were signed on expensive contracts. Yet there was no money. The representatives of Qadbak Investments, and its subsidiary Munto Finance, had no access to the funds they promised and ultimately sold the club for £1. Several of the characters involved, despite being ratified by the Football League as "fit and proper persons", have disappeared, some with police forces on their trail.

Eriksson left last February, waiving the £2.5m contract and admitting he was conned. The present regime, who picked up £7.5m in debts and impossible commitments, are still paying. The chairman, Lincoln businessman Ray Trew, has fought off two winding-up orders, while appointing Jim Rodwell, the former Boston United chairman, as chief executive, to supervise the clear up.

"Like many other people when Munto Finance were making their promises, we saw it as a bad joke that would end in tears," Rodwell said. "We never expected we would be the ones trying to sort it out. They [Munto] did make people think Notts County could be another Manchester City. But the crucial difference was that the people behind Manchester City were genuinely wealthy.

"There is a sense of realism now. By restructuring debts and agreeing payment plans, combined with personal investment by Ray and other members of the board, we have brought things under control and there are fewer ticking time-bombs but it is still a matter of getting from one payroll to the next. The Cup run is a godsend."

Trew appointed Steve Cotterill manager and the players he inherited – minus Campbell and Schmeichel – completed phase one of the project by winning the League Two title. This season has been less successful but under Paul Ince, who took charge in October, they have lost one match in 10.

"We have nothing to lose and we'll give it a go," Ince said. " We know all about them – we see them on the telly every week.

"But they don't know much about us and if they don't play up to scratch and we play out of our skins, who knows what can happen? That's what's fantastic about the FA Cup."