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Beckham begins remarkable England journey

Josh Williams September 6, 2012
David Beckham started in central midfield for Glenn Hoddle's first match in charge © PA Photos
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With England poised to open their World Cup qualifying campaign against Moldova on Friday, we rewind to 1996, when they faced the same opposition and gave a debut to a certain young Manchester United midfielder...

We didn't know about Diego Simeone, we didn't know about LA Galaxy - and we certainly didn't know about Posh and Becks.

All we knew, when David Beckham made his England debut against Moldova, was that he was one of a handful of precocious talents in a Manchester United team that had, in the 1995/96 season, completed the Double. His inclusion in that team was the initially the focus of frenzied debate - had Sir Alex Ferguson committed a grave error by replacing established internationals such as Andrei Kanchelskis with untested youth? - but Beckham's performances silenced doubters.

At the start of the subsequent campaign he was catapulted into the national consciousness - where he's resided ever since - with a brilliant lobbed goal from inside his own half against Wimbledon. The clamour grew for him to be included in the England squad - and Glenn Hoddle obliged, picking him for the first match of World Cup qualifying ahead of France 98.

With that decision, Hoddle sparked off the sequence of events that would see Beckham return to England post-World Cup as a villain, having seen red in the defeat to Argentina for kicking out at Simeone.

"It was not a difficult decision to call up players of the calibre of David Beckham and Paul Scholes - they were top, top quality right from the start," Hoddle said in England Centurions, a new book by Harry Harris. "In fact David first came to my attention as an 18-year-old when I was saw him playing for Manchester United when I was Chelsea manager - he came on as a substitute then.

"You could tell straight away the quality of his passing and his vision, and along with Paul Scholes it was not difficult to select that kind of talent as soon as I become England manager."

It was also Hoddle's first match in charge of the national team, grabbing the reins in unenviable circumstances after the run to the semi-final of Euro 96, masterminded by Terry Venables, had raised expectations. England, who failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994, were once again an international force.

Hoddle took over from Terry Venables after Euro 96 © Getty Images
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Hoddle was regarded as one of the most promising young coaches in the game, but was lacking in terms of tangible achievements, with an FA Cup final defeat when in charge of Chelsea probably the high point. However, the attractive style of play he brought to Stamford Bridge had helped attract illustrious names such as Ruud Gullit, and the club were undeniably heading in the right direction.

Hindsight sprinkles humour onto the dilemma Hoddle faced pre-Moldova: would he go for Beckham, or would he plump for Mark Draper, who had recently earned a big-money move to Aston Villa? Draper, who after retiring from playing in 2003 became Notts County's kit man, would be forgiven for wondering what might have been. There but for the grace of Hodd.

In a manner befitting his reputation as a tactical visionary, Hoddle lined the side up in a 3-5-2 formation, Beckham joining up with Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne in central midfield, while Andy Hinchcliffe of Everton was the other debutant at left wing-back.

It was a gift of an opener for Hoddle: the Moldovan team was extremely limited, but a trip to a tiny stadium in Eastern Europe implied a stern test, and would earn a victory respect. In the end it was a routine 3-0 triumph, with strikes from Nick Barmby and Gascoigne in the first half crushing any thoughts of an upset, before Alan Shearer rounded off the scoring.

And as for Beckham? Well, over to John Giles, advertised as "the man the players read", in the Daily Express: "Among the bonuses of Glenn Hoddle's international baptism, one stands supreme. A young English player who can operate on the right side of midfield with a natural authority and excellent distribution. David Beckham is a real find ... Hoddle deserves credit for recognising an authentic international."

In the same paper, Steve Curry had a different take: "For young Beckham this was an ordeal ... If his passing was not always as visionary as we have seen in more familiar environs, then this was a satisfactory investiture. It will have taught him there is a post-graduate course in football when you reach this level."

So it was an understated start to Beckham's life with England - but it veered out of that territory soon afterwards, never to return.

What happened next? Well, how long have you got? The Beckham and England saga takes it all in: heroism and vilification; the captaincy; injury heartbreak - and, ultimately, 115 caps. The Hoddle story was far shorter, but no less dramatic: after leading England to the second round of World Cup 98, he lost his job in 1999.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Josh Williams is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk