Beckham trusts that new life begins at 30

England captain knows he is running out of time if he is to emulate the feats of Bobby Moore
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For football folk who traditionally insist on taking no more than one game at a time, England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and his chosen captain, David Beckham, spent a lot of time in the past week looking as far ahead as June. June 2006, that is. Before then, the national team have a dozen or so matches to play, starting with the World Cup qualifiers at home to Northern Ireland on Saturday afternoon and Azerbaijan next Wednesday, but the month beginning 9 June next year has long been pencilled in as the time of reckoning.

For football folk who traditionally insist on taking no more than one game at a time, England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and his chosen captain, David Beckham, spent a lot of time in the past week looking as far ahead as June. June 2006, that is. Before then, the national team have a dozen or so matches to play, starting with the World Cup qualifiers at home to Northern Ireland on Saturday afternoon and Azerbaijan next Wednesday, but the month beginning 9 June next year has long been pencilled in as the time of reckoning.

The comparative failures of quarter-final finishes at World Cup 2002 and the European Championship of 2004 are supposed to be more palatable not just because of the narrow margins involved, but because, we are told, 2006 was always The Big One; the tournament at which England's senior players will reach their glorious peak just as the younger element are coming to maturity.

There is still, of course, the small matter of qualifying to be accomplished, but despite an unpleasant surprise in the first match, away to Austria, when David James's late howler cost two points (and his place in the team), three subsequent straight victories have confirmed that it is realistic rather than disrespectful for the Football Association to be concerning themselves already with discussions about where England will base their training camp and how quickly the next domestic season can finish.

In a bad week, Eriksson has been criticised by Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson for arranging this summer's tour to the United States, while finding his hopes of a four-week break before the World Cup next year under threat again from the FA's own Cup committee. He acknowledges that many will be as sceptical as Wenger about the need for it, but insists: "It may be strange to some people, but that extra week is very, very important. With the extra preparation time, we'll have more possibilities to be fitter, and the same time as other countries. We don't need to finish the FA Cup, then fly out to the training camp the next day, and can give them the full week off."

Beckham, accused of lacking fitness in Portugal last summer, had made much the same point a day earlier, when launching his ambitious Soccer Academy in London's Docklands. It was an occasion to bring home the fact that the Real Madrid midfielder, giving serious thought to his future, will be 30 in May. While he expects still to be leading the side in 15 months' time, and can count on the head coach's loyal support, Beckham dare not look as far as 2008. Consequently, he is having to contemplate the prospect of next summer's tournament being a last chance to emulate Bobby Moore as the only England captain to hold up a major international trophy.

What would it mean to bow out without doing so? "Initially I'd be disappointed. I wouldn't look back at my career and say I'd been a failure, but of course I'd be disappointed, because I believe this current bunch of lads are some of the best players in Europe, and believe we can win things. What's best about 2006 is it's in Europe and you don't have to acclimatise - it's tough for European teams playing in conditions like 2002 [in Japan]. Everyone knows what I think of Mr Eriksson as a manager and a person. I believe we've got a good, experienced team but also young players coming through, and that we can win something."

Asked to specify names, he came up with Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen ("still young, believe it or not, though he seems to have been around for years"), Ashley Cole and, of course, Wayne Rooney. "That's the incredible part of this team, good young players who've also got experience. Wayne's played in big games for Man-chester United and England and he's only 19 years old. And if players are injured, we've got a squad to cope with nearly every position."

Eriksson, in looking ahead, tries valiantly to slip in the rider "first, let's qualify" but knows full well that if for any reason that does not happen, he too will be concluding his England career with a noose rather than a medal round his neck. He is beginning to get the message too that there have been too many hard-luck stories at the big tournaments - hands of God, shoot-out heartaches, shifting penalty spots, visually impaired foreign referees, and so on - for the public to accept any more with equanimity.

"I agree 2006 should be the year when the team is at a peak," the Swede said, "and I'm very happy to have this group of players. I'm looking forward to qualifying and playing the World Cup in Germany. Normally a European team wins in Europe. We need preparation time, we need luck, and need not to have too many players injured. But England are almost there with the best teams in the world. In the last two tournaments, the difference between going to the semi-final and being knocked out in the quarter-final was almost nothing."

Be that as it may, home games against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan will not permit any excuses. Wales's visit to Old Trafford last October was useful preparation for Saturday, even if the Ulstermen might reasonably be expected to contribute to more of a spectacle than that Britpap occasion. "I'm not used to these sort of [British] games now, because it's a different style of football," Beckham said. "But I personally enjoy them, the pace and the tackling, the whole atmosphere of the game. It's how I've been brought up and I do miss it, though I'm enjoying this [Spanish] experience as well."

Last month's debate about whether Beckham ought to lose his place to Wright-Phillips for the dismal, goalless friendly against Holland (a change which was never going to happen) need not be reprised this time, as the sorcerer's apprentice has been forced to undergo a knee operation. The 4-3-3 formation introduced against the Dutch can also be forgotten, or at least amended back to the version successfully employed against Wales and Azerbaijan last autumn, when Rooney played in the hole just behind Owen and Defoe.

That would offer more than enough firepower, while Steven Gerrard took a restrained midfield role just behind Frank Lampard and Beckham. Alternatively, Joe Cole could be rewarded for his recent Chelsea displays, combining discipline with flair, with Rooney and Owen together in attack.

Paul Scholes has declined to return to international football and there is little chance of Sol Campbell being fit for selection next Saturday. Nicky Butt and Alan Smith are ready to return, which last month's brief debutants, Stewart Downing and Andy Johnson, can only hope will not be at their expense.

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