HOWARD WILKINSON ushered in his latest reign as England under- 21 manager by maintaining the current side's perfect qualification programme. With their group already won, England strolled to a seventh consecutive victory - 22 goals scored, still none conceded - after two of the under- 18 internationals Wilkinson introduced got the show on the road with goalscoring debuts.
The Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard and Francis Jeffers, the Everton striker not originally named in this squad, produced the first-half finishes which whetted the sizable crowd's appetite for a goal glut that belatedly materialised with strikes from the relatively established figures of Lee Hendrie, Carl Cort and Frank Lampard.
Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, has made a cornerstone of his succession to Peter Taylor the mantra that "if it isn't broken, don't fix it."
He was previously in charge of this level of English football back in the latter days of Ron Greenwood's reign and he has been sensitive to the progress this team has made during Taylor's three years in charge. "They've been moulded into a very good unit and credit goes to Peter Taylor for that," he said.
The new coach maintained the 3-5-2 formation and reaped dividends from the outset, wide players cutting in from the flanks to set up the first two goals. Certainly this performance should send all the right vibes through to England supporters and seniors rather less sure of qualification for Euro 2000. Kevin Keegan, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and company were among the 18,094 spectators and they will be hoping the visitors' senior side provide as little resistance at Wembley this afternoon.
Wilkinson is keen for this side to maintain their progression while overseeing a more structured development of players coming through from the youth sides. So he was delighted to see Gerrard, who captained his under-18s last, impress throughout and opening the scoring. A low cross from the right by Manchester United's Luke Chadwick, was deflected out to the edge of the penalty area, and Gerrard struck home a left-footed drive.
"There are players coming through and we've got to keep them in the stream and make the system we started in the summer work. This is just the start of the journey for them," Wilkinson said.
The lead was doubled after 32 minutes. Jeffers has come through a sticky early-season period with Everton to regain the scoring touch, which he displayed to devasting effect last night. Matt Upson ventured all the way forward into a left-wing berth and his near-post centre was flicked nonchalantly home by the Everton teenager.
Luxembourg have managed no goals and have no points, in this qualifying campaign and they did not muster an effort to trouble the debutant goalkeeper, Nick Weaver.
The Aston Villa midfielder Hendrie scored a lovely third for England after 62 minutes. When Lampard's corner was deflected out to the edge of the area, he shaped to shoot, cut back on to his left and then arrowed a right-footed shot into the far corner. Cort came on to make his customary impact, scoring his sixth goal from as many games when he converted Chadwick's right-wing delivery at the second attempt before Lampard, fittingly, completed England's second five-goal rout of these opponents by producing a delightful chip when sent clear by Cort.
ENGLAND UNDER-21S (3-5-2): Weaver (Manchester City); Mills (Leeds United), Carragher (Liverpool), Upson (Arsenal); Chadwick (Manchester United), Lampard (West Ham United), Gerrard, (Liverpool), Hendrie (Aston Villa), Ball; Jeffers (both Everton), Heskey (Leicester City). Substitutes used: Cort (Wimbledon) for Heskey, 49; King (Tottenham) for Upson, 69; Thompson (Liverpool) for Lampard 81.
LUXEMBOURG UNDER-21S (4-5-1): Gillett; Bollendorf (Schaack, 77), Parasch (Molitor, 68), Beffort, Hellenbrand; Birtz, Huss, Pace (Koenig, 41), Teixeira, Santos; Braun.
Referee: B Pregia (Albania).
n Stephen McPhail suffered damaged ankle ligaments as Republic of Ireland youngsters were beaten 5-1 by Croatia in yesterday's European Under-21 Championship qualifier in Zagreb. The Leeds United midfielder was sent for an X-ray to confirm that he had not suffered a fracture.
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