Gifted and wrapped

World Cup qualifiers: Hoddle builds on class of Euro 96 as Scotland plan to get it right this time and Wales look to youth; Ian Ridley finds David Beckham being guided on to the international stage
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The Independent Online
The conversation with Alex Ferguson, at 8.30am last Monday, went something like this.

"Good morning Alex. How are you?"

"Fine."

"Congratulations on your start to the season."

"Aye."

"Alex, I was wondering if there might be any chance of doing an interview with David Beckham."

"No chance."

"Why did I know you were going to say that?"

"Why did you ask then?"

"Always worth a try. When do you think he'll be ready?"

"About two years."

"Really? He's a level-headed lad isn't he?"

"Maybe."

"OK. Thanks, Alex. Speak to you again soon, perhaps."

"Aye."

According to his manager at Manchester United, whose policy of shielding his younger talents proved beneficial if frustrating with Ryan Giggs, the 21-year-old Beckham may not be ready for the glare of publicity, but according to the new England coach, Glenn Hoddle, he is ready for the exposure to international football.

Beckham's elevation to the squad to travel to Moldova for England's opening World Cup qualifying match on Sunday, along with that of Matthew Le Tissier, represents Hoddle's initials on a document that he does not yet feel able to sign with a flourish. "Don't judge this team as the image of what I might be building in the long term," he insists.

With a four-year contract, as opposed to Terry Venables's two, Hoddle has set about structuring to his liking the England Under-18 and Under- 21 set-ups. His playing system of sweeper and wing-backs will soon take shape. Moldova on Sunday, however, is a job for the confident, experienced class of Euro 96. Of the five changes to the Venables 22, only one, that of David James for Tim Flowers, is not injury-enforced.

"In an ideal world, how I would want to send a team out is to have a sweeper breaking in, but that wouldn't be right at this moment," Hoddle says. "One, we have got to find out if we have got that person. Two, the players haven't really looked at that even in the championships so there are things I want to introduce as we go along."

It is why Beckham and Le Tissier are probably going along for the experience, to see how they blend with the squad and so that Hoddle can begin his own work with them. Poland at Wembley five and a half weeks later may be less intimidating than Chisinau and more appropriate to them.

Beckham, at least, deserves an early introduction. Flavours of the month and Showbiz XIs, as Venables used to call them, have little place in the real world of international football these days, something acknowledged by Hoddle, who is more pragmatic than his playing image might suggest, but the London-born United midfield player is no flash 'arry.

Under Ferguson's feet-on-the-ground tutelage, Beckham is learning his trade soundly. His manager still questions his durability for the extended rigours of an English season, which explains his less immediate promotion at United, and less frequent appearances than such contemporaries as the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt, but his passing ability eclipses all.

"Alex knows these things better than I do," Hoddle says. "But if you are talking about the ball at someone's feet, well we know the boy can use it. Now we have got to find out if he has got the temperament, the character to perform at the highest level." Beckham has so far shown it one notch down, scoring, for example, the winning goal against Hoddle's Chelsea in last season's FA Cup semi-final.

Maturity is the word Hoddle uses. "His passing is his talent, his maturity is to do with staying calm on the ball when he needs to. He makes decisions and selections on the pitch in a mature way, far more advanced than his age suggests. My theory on experience has got nothing to do with grey hairs, it is whether you have got experience in doing the right things and you can be doing those at a young age."

Ferenc Puskas, the great Hungarian, often spoke of looking for the long pass as the instant response to being in possession, something which Hoddle the player also believed, and he sees it in Beckham, too. "For me he is a player, like Le Tissier in many respects, who sees the furthest one first. There are enough players around who see the nearest ball first but if you see the furthest one first then come back from there, your options are better."

The case of Le Tissier, and all the baggage he brings to the squad, is a different one altogether, even if he and Beckham do share a penchant for wonder goals. Le Tissier has not shown his form for more than a season now, however, and Venables, who could - perhaps should - have given him a run of several games during the Southampton player's season mirabilis, grew frustrated at his inability to adapt to the energetic demands of the regime.

It has seemed for the past year as if Le Tissier has sulked and loped his way through matches, surrendering possession and disdaining the winning of it again, to the frustration of those of us who once championed his cause. His start to the season has done nothing to alter that impression - how one wishes that he could be subjected to the Ferguson ethic at Old Trafford - although perhaps his selection will enliven him anew.

Hoddle talks of a balance of attributes within a team and believes Le Tissier can be fitted comfortably into the system. "It's building a platform for these players to go and perform," he says. In there is the echo of Hoddle's own staccato, much-debated England career, though the two players differed widely in committed contribution. Beckham is a better comparison.

Hoddle talks of this coming week as comparable to preparing for a Cup final, with the need for victory excluding all other considerations. It does seem unkind to point out the last time he did prepare for one was with Chelsea against Manchester United two seasons ago. Better to remember his debut as an international player and a marvellously struck goal in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria.

A similar result will serve England well in Chisinau. Then it will be a question of ensuring that what subsequently happened to him does not re-occur to such as David Beckham. One suspects it will not.

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