England's next generation follow in Beckham's footsteps

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England were basking in the glow of a successful summer when they began qualification for the 1998 World Cup, having recaptured the imagination of the nation after reaching the semi-final stage of Euro 96.

The team that started on the road to France, however, was not the one that had fought so valiantly on home soil that summer, with Terry Venables replaced by the exuberant Glenn Hoddle, and the new manager keen to blood young talent.

Manchester United's Gary Neville had already forced himself into the reckoning during the European Championships, and Hoddle saw a straightforward fixture away in Moldova as an ideal opportunity to integrate more youngsters.

David Beckham profile had risen dramatically in the weeks previous to England's opening qualifier, with the 21-year-old's stunning half-way line goal against Wimbledon in August the first pivotal moment in his fledgling career.

The next was to come in Chisinau, as Hoddle took the calculated risk of starting the Manchester United winger in a midfielder which included Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince and Andy Hinchcliffe.

England strolled to a comfortable victory on that September afternoon, with goals from Nick Barmby, Gascoigne and Alan Shearer providing Hoddle's side with a platform from which to launch their campaign.

Few would have predicted Beckham's star would rise into the stratosphere as the months and years progressed, and few will remember his England debut as a particular highlight in a long career.

It does, however, provide a particular significance this week as England and Moldova meet in Chisinau once again, as Roy Hodgson's side begin their respective quest for World Cup qualification.

Sixteen years on from Beckham's international bow, Hodgson will similarly blend youth and experience, with the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard taking the places of Ince and Gascoingne to fulfil the latter.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the player currently at the disposal of Hodgson most likely to reach anywhere near the heights of Beckham, and the 19-year-old will play a prominent role in the qualification process.

Beckham's introduction into the international fold represented the birth of England's so-called Golden Generation, who amounted to precisely nothing in over a decade and half.

The relics are still there, with Gerrard, Lampard and John Terry forming important parts of Hodgson's plans, but it is down to the new breed to inject some optimism into a squad well best its best.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and, later down the line, Jack Wilshere will be the poster boys of the next generation, but they are unlikely to have to deal with the level expectation placed on Beckham during his 13 years as the leader of the Golden Generation.

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