One man may not make a team, but a good enough man can make one better. How might the course of football history in Manchester and North London have been changed had the 12-year-old David Beckham, sitting in Terry Venables' office at Tottenham, agreed to sign on for the next six years? Polite as ever, the young Beckham, who had been training with Spurs for some time, and is now back there again in the American close-season, asked for time to consider. He knew, however, that United were the club of his heart, and when their manager Alex Ferguson made an identical offer on his 13th birthday, the deed was done.
Beckham would become part of the finest young crop since the Busby Babes, of whom Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville are still on active service as United visit White Hart Lane today. Rare have been the defeats any of them have experienced at Tottenham's hands, the last as long ago as the final day of the 2000-01 season, when another championship was already won. More frequent by far have been days like those the following September, when United scored five goals in an astounding second period to turn round a 3-0 half-time deficit.
Two seasons ago at Old Trafford, Harry Redknapp experienced a similar sinking feeling when United did the same thing, from 2-0 down. So as an opposing manager, much as he admires the generation of Giggs and Co, Redknapp will be happy to see the back of them. The consolation is that he believes the current Tottenham side to be stronger than any other he has ever sent on to the same pitch as the red machine.
"It's the closest to a Man United team that I've had," he said as Beckham wandered past the window at the Spurs' training ground on Friday. "But they were fantastic at White Hart Lane last season when we went one up, they came back and really played well. They went down to 10 men [Scholes was sent off] and Rooney occupied our back four on his own. So it's a tough ask, but I don't think there's a million miles between the two teams any more. With this team you can think we can cause them problems and beat them."
There are eight points between the sides, so Redknapp cannot contemplate catching United without bringing about their first defeat of the League season this afternoon. Realistically, he is more concerned with repeating last season's commendable fourth place, which made possible all the excitement of a Champions' League run due to be resumed against Milan next month. Like his friend Ferguson, he is prepared to take a longer view of a club's health, but sees no sign of a new crop to rival Beckham's United generation or the group of future England internationals that blossomed in his time at West Ham.
"I'd be a liar if I said we've got a group coming through that we could think about in the same way. They were the best two groups anyone's produced that I can remember. Young Andros Townsend did well last week but he works hard at his game, he wants to be a player badly. You need a few more with that attitude. Everyone's spending millions on coaching and academies, but are they out there or too busy playing on computers?"
Mutual admiration from the two managers extends to their feelings for each other's teams, Ferguson having said of Tottenham: "They've come through some good tests. They were 2-0 down at the Emirates and won 3-2 and you don't get a bigger test than that. You take them seriously. You also look at the improvement of some of the players, like Bale and Modric, and the addition of Van der Vaart has given them a wee bit of extra energy on the edge of the box."
As for his own team, unbeaten in the League since April, Ferguson believes they have been underestimated this season: "Our form has been wrongly assessed simply because there have been some away games where we have been disappointing. There's not been one home game where we didn't dominate, not one. We even dominated the Arsenal game and could have won by five. The London press said it was a terrible game but Arsenal had one shot against [us] in what was called a League decider.
"But that's no problem for me, and it's good for the players to remind them that sometimes we have to be perfect and that's a fact of life. I understand that. We haven't won League titles by playing badly all the time. If we raise the bar ourselves even by one per cent each season that's what we have to do." Putting one over those London sides has always held a special appeal for Ferguson. Even when it comes to signing a 13-year-old boy.
Tottenham v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4.10pm
Beckham: The London connection
1975 E11 (Leytonstone): Born at Whipps Cross Hospital.
1986 E4 (Chingford): Plays for Ridgeway Rovers and wins Bobby Charlton Soccer Skills competition.
1986 N17 (Tottenham): Chooses to train with Spurs ahead of Arsenal.
1986 E13 (Plaistow): Mascot for Manchester United against West Ham.
1988 N17 (Tottenham): Turns down offer of six-year deal from Terry Venables at Spurs and signs for United.
1992 SE25 (South Norwood): Scores in FA Youth Cup final at Crystal Palace.
1996 (Wembley): Corner leads to FA Cup winner for Eric Cantona.
1996 SE25 (South Norwood): Scores from halfway line against Wimbledon.
1996 (Wembley): Home debut for England against Poland.
1997 SW6 (Fulham): Meets Victoria Adams (aka Posh Spice) after United game at Chelsea.
1997 E4 (Chingford): First date with Posh at Chinese restaurant (thrown out for only wanting to drink, not eat).
1998 E13 (Plaistow): Effigy hung from lamppost after sending-off for England against Argentina.
1999 W1 (Central): First son Brooklyn born in Portland Hospital.
1999 (Wembley): Helps United to win FA Cup as part of Treble.
2001 N17 (Tottenham): United captain for the first time – and they win 5-3 after trailing 3-0 at half-time.
2002 W1 (Central): Second son Romeo born in Portland Hospital.
2003 SW1 (Whitehall): Receives OBE from Queen at Buckingham Palace.