Eight seconds after Gareth Bale had been sent flying to the ground for the umpteenth time at Upton Park, the ball was swirling in the West Ham net. In just over a tenth of a minute, he had got up, demanded the ball, shifted his frame and lashed in a sensational 25-yard winner in the 90th minute. Eight of Tottenham's last 10 goals have been scored by the Welshman, who has won the Lilywhites 10 points since his central surge and swerving drive against Norwich in late January. While his teammates have looked laboured he has never looked so lithe, emerging as one of Europe's best attackers not just left, but right and centre.
It could have been so different had Bale not ignored Manchester United's interest to move to London when he departed Southampton as a 17-year-old in May 2007. Although he passed on the chance to work with a manager famed for his nurturing of prodigious players and has deprived himself of trophies, it is difficult to argue Bale made the wrong decision. Like Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Kluivert and Ronaldinho he could be remembered as another of the great Sir Alex Ferguson 'what if's. Ferguson was "not happy" about him choosing Tottenham and not Trafford.
Coincidentally, Bale made his Tottenham debut at Old Trafford in August 2007 when Martin Jol started him on the left wing. Upon joining Tottenham, he was regarded as a left-back but Jol sensibly decided against deploying him in a defensive capacity and he was excellent in his first top flight appearance, as the experienced Wes Brown struggled to shackle the marauding winger.
Ryan Giggs, Bale's idol, started for the hosts but experienced an anodyne afternoon and was heckled by Spurs fans to the sound of "You're just a s**t Gareth Bale." Despite his season's crescendo, the 2007-08 campaign is one of Giggs' worst and glimpsing Bale in full flight was a cruel tease for the home supporters, despite Nani settling a contest United did not deserve to win.
Had Bale joined United he would not have enjoyed the first-team opportunities he was afforded at Tottenham. Patrice Evra was Europe's best left-back and, Giggs aside, Nani had just arrived from Sporting Lisbon that summer. That Nani's signing occurred after Bale had joined Spurs is not an indication the Portuguese was a Plan B purchase, but that Ferguson more likely identified Bale as someone to offer back-up for Evra, with Mikaël Silvestre surplus to requirements.
Ferguson has also arguably failed to get the best out of a number of promising acquisitions. Wayne Rooney should become the United's all-time top goalscorer and has won everything bar an FA Cup, but it is incontestable that he has not emerged into the player he promised to be at Everton and Euro 2004. Ferguson has played the 27-year-old off the striker, as a lone striker, on the wing and in midfield. He even conceded after Ronaldo left in 2009 he had yet to work out Rooney's best position.
Phil Jones joined as a central defender who could play in midfield, yet has played in four different roles at Old Trafford, and although an important squad player is descending into a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, similar to John O'Shea's drastic downfall. Shinji Kagawa has had his debut season with United interrupted by fitness issues but is another example of Ferguson's uncertainty as to where to deploy a player.
The flip-side is Bale's Tottenham career did not hit the heights of his auspicious start for another two-and-a-half-years. Injuries hampered his progress and he did not play in a Premier League win with Spurs until the 25th time of asking, when he emerged as an 85th substitute against Burnley in September 2009 to end one of football's quirkiest jinxes.
One myth to debunk is Harry Redknapp's role in Bale's emergence as a Premier League force. Redknapp was open to selling Bale to Nottingham Forest in the 2010 January transfer window, yet the then 20-year-old stayed and worked his way into the Tottenham first XI again to score crucial goals against Arsenal and Chelsea as the club qualified for the Champions League. Redknapp would still however occasionally demote Bale to left-back when, as he displayed on his debut years earlier, he was a winger.
At Tottenham, Bale is indisputably the club's best player and has been for over two years now. His importance can be measured by André Villas-Boas allowing him to roam and how high Spurs finish is dependent on the 23-year-old's form and fitness. United, a bigger club, boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tévez in Bale's first season of top-tier football and have since bought Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie, as newer talismans have arrived.
Whoever Bale joins when he departs White Hart Lane he will be surrounded by bigger fish. He has voiced his enthusiasm about potentially moving abroad and it would be fascinating to see whether he eviscerates Spanish defences with the ease in which he does in England. However Ferguson, who mistakenly referred to him as "Christian Bale" earlier this season, will just have to make do with Robin rather than Batman.