The Blades’ cup odyssey is over for another year after they let slip a one goal lead to lose their FA Cup fourth round replay with Preston.
North End landed a triple suckerpunch on the Blades to turn the tie on its head at Bramall Lane.
Jamie Murphy gave United the lead against the run of play in the first half.
But the Blades failed to get their act together after the break and after Paul Gallagher equalised with a fine free kick, Paul Huntington put North End in front from a corner.
And then Gallagher scored again from the penalty spot as a potential fifth round clash with Manchester United slipped through the Blades’ fingers.
Boyhood Blade Kevin Davies made an instant impression up front for Preston, barging over Jay McEveley in the opening seconds of the game.
United began the game with some attacking intent and Murphy, as expected, was a focal point, first sending McNulty clear down the left and then linking up with Baxter and Stefan Scougall in an attempt to carve open another opportunity.
But Preston issued a reminder of the threat they pose, too, with pacy winger Chris Humphrey and former Blade Paul Gallagher looking dangerous early on.
And the first serious attempt of the game came from North End when Chris Basham’s weak back header left Davies one-on-one with Howard. The former Blades trainee took his time before attempting to lob Howard, only to see the ball hit the right hand post and bounce across the line and to safety.
McNulty then enjoyed United’s best chance of the contest so far when Scougall, who had earlier stayed down clutching his knee after a 50/50 challenge, fed him inside the box. McNulty’s angled drive took a welcome deflection, from the away side’s point of view, and went out for a corner. Then, at the other end of the field, Humphrey’s left-footed effort was similarly deflected for a corner and from the resulting set-piece, Tom Clarke’s close range header was brilliantly parried away by Howard.
Howard was then forced to tip away Scott Laird’s header after Gallagher’s clipped cross but could watch moments later as Laird’s shot - after turning and then nutmegging Scougall - drifted harmlessly wide.
United had been sloppy throughout the first half hour of their fourth round replay at Bramall Lane.
But Murphy showed composure at the right time to put the Blades in front after 37 minutes.
Michael Doyle won the ball back in midfield and despite appeals for handball, he threaded a pass through to Murphy who checked back on his right foot before firing home.
Soon after the break Gallagher entered referee Lee Probert’s notebook for a cynical trip on Baxter when the former Everton man was about to release Campbell-Ryce. McNulty suffered a similar fate minutes later and Howard was again forced into action from the resulting free-kick.
Bob Harris’ superb last-ditch intervention prevented Humphrey dragging North End on level terms after Howard had denied Laird, as the visitors began to threaten.
And the equaliser soon came.
Harris dragged down Humphrey on the very edge of United’s box, and Gallagher - who scored a stunning free-kick in the original tie - repeated the feat here, leaving Howard with no chance as he found the top left hand corner to send the North End fans into raptures.
Preston then turned the game on its head when they went in front, Huntington diverting home Gallagher’s corner with 70 minutes gone.
North End then further extended their lead from the penalty spot. McEveley miscontrolled the ball and brought down Humphrey clumsily, with Gallagher making no mistake from the spot by smashing the ball home past Howard’s right hand.
Blades: Howard, Harris, Basham, Flynn, Doyle (De Girolamo 80), Murphy, Scougall (Reed 64), Baxter, McNulty, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce.
Subs: Turner, Alcock, Davies, Kennedy, Cuvelier.
Preston: Stuckmann, Laird (Welsh 88), Clarke, Huntington, Woods, Wiseman, Humphrey (Reid 83), Brownhill, Kilkenny, Gallagher, K Davies (Garner 88).
Subs not used: Hudson, Wright, Browne, Ebanks-Blake.
Referee: Lee Probert