IT is too early in the season for genuine six-pointers or must-win games.
But, as the mood inside Bramall Lane last night revealed, mistakes at this stage of the campaign can still prove costly come April’s final reckoning.
United, including new signings Barry Robson and Jonathan Forte in their squad, looked disconsolate as they trooped off the pitch following another Jekyll and Hyde display which left them still searching for their first League One win of 2013.
The fact that, having overcome a miserable first-half they were the dominant force for much of the second will be of little consolation to Danny Wilson’s side if they lose further ground on leaders Tranmere and Doncaster Rovers following this afternoon’s fixtures.
City, with Stephen Elliott instrumental in attack, broke the deadlock when Leon Clarke pounced upon the former Heart of Midlothian schemer’s cross to claim his fourth since arriving in the Midlands.
Listless and seemingly devoid of ideas before the interval, United emerged as much more formidable proposition afterwards with Forte’s pace and persistence providing them with a cutting edge they had previously lacked.
Having seen Kevin McDonald denied a seemingly stonewall penalty, Wilson’s charges received their rewards when Dave Kitson claimed a deserved equaliser.
Robson, signed to create and score goals, duly obliged by sweeping in the corner which the former Reading centre-forward converted in commanding fashion.
Clarke, though, stunned the home crowd by restoring City’s lead with only three minutes remaining to heap further misery on a United team which returns to action against Crawley Town on Tuesday.
Mark Robins, Wilson’s counterpart at the Ricoh Arena, has already been the architect of one great footballing escape.
And, having transformed yesterday’s visitors from the relegation candidates to play-off contenders within the space of four short months, the man reputedly responsible for saving Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford career could yet orchestrate another.
City, who journeyed north searching for their fourth victory in six outings, displayed the sense of purpose which suggests they will mount a serious challenge for the Championship.
The hosts, meanwhile, must rediscover their confidence and self-belief.
Despite their manager’s sullen demeanour, United’s opponents go about their business with penetration and panache.
Elliott instigated one such move in the ninth minute but captain Carl Baker, despite escaping his marker’s clutches at the far post, blazed wastefully over the crossbar.
United, though, did not heed the warning and when Chris Porter’s mistake gifted City possession in the 14th minute, Clarke made no mistake from another Elliott cross.
With Robins’ men superior in terms of both industry and invention during the opening exchanges, United need something - or somebody - to raise them from their slumber.
Neill Collins, restored to the starting eleven for the first time since fracturing his cheekbone towards the end of last year, attempted to rouse his team mates with some well-chosen words of advice.
But, until Jamie Murphy forced Joe Murphy to smother at the near post just before the half-hour mark, they appeared to have little effect.
Gary McSheffrey’s angled drive flew wide as City went in search of a second while Elliott continued to wreak havoc along United’s right flank.
Clarke, the former Sheffield Wednesday striker, was inches away from claiming a second but failed to connect with Baker’s centre.
Five minutes before the interval, Collins blocked his speculative attempt following another slip in United’s midfield before Murphy injected some impetus into their performance immediately after the re-start.
Unfortunately, his final touch did not befit the run and the ball ballooned high into The Kop.
Having seen their leading scorer Nick Blackman lured away during the transfer window, United had moved quickly to sign two accomplished replacements before Thursday’s deadline for new signings.
Robson, the former Celtic and Middlesbrough midfielder, was recruited to deliver the supply of goals from deep lying positions Wilson has demanded from his team in recent weeks while Forte has been tasked with injecting some pace into a sometimes pedestrian attack.
Forte entered the fray after 56 minutes in response to United’s poor showing during the opening period and nearly made an instant impact after scrambling to meet McMahon’s lofted pass.
But not before Long had batted away William Edjenguele’s header from close range.
Forte, though continued to impress with his dynamism.
More physically robust than the fleet-footed youngster who progressed through United’s youth system nearly a decade ago, he tested Murphy with a sweetly struck as the hour approached before Blair Adams inexplicably escaped censure for hauling down the onrushing McDonald.
Robson used his first touch to take the corner which Kitson powered beyond Murphy and the City breathed a sigh of relief when the experienced marksman failed to hit the target from the edge of the six yard box.
Forte saw an acrobatic effort loop just wide of the upright but Clarke swept home the winner after Long, who made two fine late saves, could only parry Franck Moussa’s low shot.