Football: A chance to forget the Upson downs

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The Independent Online
MATTHEW UPSON heard last week that his dream of becoming a regular member of Arsenal's defence had been put on hold.

Arsene Wenger had invited Steve Bould (36), Nigel Winterburn (35) and Lee Dixon (34) to stay for at least another year, while no doubt Tony Adams and Martin Keown (both 32) will play out their days at the club. Although only 19, Upson has become philosophical. "I'll just have to take my chances when they come," he said on the eve of a big one, today's FA Cup tie against Wolves at Molineux.

His chances since moving from Luton for pounds 1m two years ago have been limited. This season he has played one Champions' League game, two in the Premiership as a sub, plus two full matches in the Worthington Cup. Not that Luton had given him many. He made only one full first-team appearance before Arsenal made their bid.

A regular England Under-21 player and presumed successor to Adams or Winterburn, he says the old stagers at Highbury have been "highly encouraging" to him while remaining discouragingly determined not to let him take one of their places.

He is also in competition with Nelson Vivas and, specifically, Gilles Grimandi, who could yet pip him for a place today. Wenger will not commit himself. He is concerned about facing Wolves with a weakened team. "Wolves gave us a very tough match on a neutral ground in the semi-finals last season, so we know it's going to be difficult. If we are going to win the Cup again this season we will need some luck and no more injuries and suspensions. But real champions achieve something, then have the ability and the determination to go out and do it again."

Having seen Upson involved in one or two of Arsenal's worst defensive performances,Wenger admits: "I had thought that we would let him go on loan for some more experience this season, but because of the injuries we decided not to." A wise decision since for today's game the defence is without Seaman, Bould and Keown.

Upson said: "I went to the manager to discuss my situation, but we couldn't do much about it. I kept thinking my big chance was around the corner, but it always was. You have to be very professional in your outlook when you're playing at Borehamwood against someone like Brighton Reserves."

His frustration has been made worse by seeing young players such as Wes Brown, and Gareth Barry getting regular first-team football at other big clubs. "I need that sort of experience, more games," he said, but he was well aware that when he joined Arsenal the famous five were still in such imposing form that his first few years would be a matter of waiting and learning. "I've learned a hell of a lot from them." In particular he finds Adams's achievements an inspiration.

Wenger said: "I think Matthew is one of the big defensive talents we have in England. He has all the ingredients but he must be consistent and improve from game to game. He has a lot to learn but at a club like Arsenal you can't afford to make three or four mistakes in each half. We bought him as a successor to Tony Adams, we think he has the potential and he has to show it. But I don't judge a player on one game." For Upson, though, this is going to feel like judgement day.