Instead, United, now without a victory in six games and bafflingly lethargic in the first half, were two goals behind by the interval after the 13th goal of a remarkable season from the foot of the Colombian Hamilton Ricard and another from the defender Dean Gordon. Though the home team rallied with a vengeance after Brian Deane had made it 3-0, with goals from Nicky Butt and substitute Paul Scholes, they could not further penetrate a defence marshalled so effectively by - of all people - Pallister, who departed for the Riverside this summer for pounds 2.5 million after nine distinguished years and 438 appearances for United. And this on the day that Chelsea, who chiselled out a stylish point here on Wednesday, went top after a 2-0 victory over Tottenham.
What Alex Ferguson, absent because of a family bereavement, would have made of it all does not make for pleasant contemplation. But then again, perhaps it would not have occurred if the United manager had been here, such is his charismatic presence and ability somehow to ward off adversity from the sideline.
Instead he was forced to leave stand-in assistant Jim Ryan (who less than three weeks ago was enjoying the relative anonymity of reserve team coach) and a team he selected, without the injured Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke to do battle without him.
Despite Ryan's protestations that this first home defeat since last April was simply the result of "individual defensive mistakes", in truth the collective effort was too often simply not sufficient in the face of a performance of bravado by Robson's team. "Probably the best result since I came to the club," enthused the Boro manager, whose appetite for the game - exhibited in 13 seasons at Old Trafford - has now raised his side to rare heights. "The lads worked really hard for that, but the game was won for us by Deane and Ricard. Their link-up play was excellent and United always struggled to handle them."
Thirty years ago this weekend one Brian Clough was scoring a hat-trick for Middlesbrough against Brighton. Last season, the man currently filling those shooting boots appeared to be deliberately concealing his talent in front of goal, but now the confidence is surging through Ricard and it was 23 minutes before he was on the score sheet once more, stabbing the ball home after Deane had cleverly pulled the ball back from the goal- line after a cross from Gordon.
Eight minutes later, it was Gordon who pounced with an exquisite volley from just outside the area, after Deane and Ronny Johnsen had both challenged for the ball from Andy Townsend's free kick and it had fallen kindly to him. Peter Schmeichel could only look in bemusement as the ball bounced past him into the far corner.
In the match-day programme, Ferguson had referred to Robson's "bravery" in the transfer market - not necessarily an expression that everyone would choose - but with the unstinting support of his chairman Steve Gibson, he has emerged from the ignominy of relegation with a team capable of challenging for Europe. The recent purchases of players like Gordon and Deane have been astute and it was significant that both played a part in the opening goals. "We're competing with the best teams now, but we've a long way to go to challenge right up to the end of the season," warned Robson, whose team were without the suspended Paul Gascoigne. "We haven't got the squad of a Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal, but at least now we won't go anywhere and just lie down and get beaten."
Not that they will often find United as unassertive as they were before the interval. Their defence, without Stam who has an ankle injury, lacked authority and Ricard was a continual menace. Regular Old Trafford critics suggested it was one of the worst 45 minutes by the home team for many a season.
Such was the paucity of their play that United could only improve after the break. But pressing forward in such cavalier manner was always going to present Robson's men with space to extend their advantage. So it proved just before the hour when Deane capitalised on a misunderstanding in the home defence to force the ball home for his team's third, despite Schmeichel getting a hand to his low drive.
When the Boro fans began to chant: "We're going to win the league..." it was tempting providence and United stifled their euphoric tones within three minutes when Nicky Butt's header from Beckham's cross left Mark Schwarzer stranded.
The goal served to bring the very best out of United, and it must be said, the beast as well - Beckham being cautioned for a petulant foul on Ricard, which had the striker somewhat over-dramatically writhing in agony. That suspect temperament was presumably why the England midfielder was replaced by Scholes, but the exchange also had the effect of increasing the pressure on Robson's hard-pressed rearguard. Ferguson will be hoping that his team can start as they finished when the two teams meet again in the FA Cup third round in a fortnight's time.
With Ryan Giggs at his most imperious, United's retrieval mission appeared a more realistic prospect when Scholes squeezed the ball between post and goalkeeper after Andy Cole had been thwarted. Then Schwarzer presented United with their best chance of an equaliser with a poor clearance to Pallister, which was seized on by Cole, only for the goalkeeper to redeem himself with a fine save at the striker's feet. His counterpart Schmeichel rampaged upfield in the final moments for a corner, but even the great Dane's presence in an already congested area was not enough to salvage a point.Reuse content