Upson delighted to escape from Highbury comfort zone

Euro 2004 Qualifier: Neglected for so long by Arsenal, the Birmingham City defender is set to face Slovakia tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Matthew Upson was never so much appreciated at Highbury as when he left.

For five years, since his transfer from Luton, he had been part of Arsenal's future; groomed as a successor to Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Steve Bould, perhaps English domestic football's greatest central defensive combination. Then, without establishing himself or even playing much, he was gone, sold to Birmingham City. Yet as Arsenal's hold on the championship dissolved amid Sol Campbell's suspension and Pascal Cygan's repeated errors, the 24-year-old appeared like a lost leader.

It was the arrival of Cygan from Lille that really forced Upson's hand. "I wasn't concerned when Sol Campbell came," he said. "The defence was ageing so I wasn't worried. But to be fourth-choice in January behind Sol, Martin Keown and Pascal Cygan made me look again. I speak to Martin quite regularly; he has been great to me, one of those special characters. He was 19 when he moved away from Arsenal [to Aston Villa] so he knew what I was going through. He backed me as a player but he also knew I had to go out and play football."

How much Arsenal missed Upson will never be known, although after so long in the shadows he feels he has emerged as a tougher character. However it took the stimulus of a loan spell with Reading last autumn to spur him to seek the move to St Andrew's.

"When I first started it wasn't a problem because Tony Adams and Martin Keown were 30 and 31 and at their peak and Steve Bould was two or three years older. I was building for where I am now; realistically I was there to learn and train with great players."

However he found he had laid the foundations for something that was never built. "The years at Arsenal have helped me cope with rejection," Upson continues. "I have felt frustrated and angry and I've had to cope with those emotions. If you are not playing every week, it's an absolute disaster. Experiencing that for five years gives you more patience, allows you to control your anger and then I went through an injury as well, which was a time I really was low.

"There are not that many players who go on and progress after leaving Arsenal. It's quite difficult to leave a big club but I enjoyed my time on loan at Reading so much that I just wanted to play football. I was handed an opportunity and I'd be a fool not to grab it. Sometimes, if you decide to sit it out and stay, you can be in the comfort zone. You've got your little routines, training every day, but knowing you won't be playing on Saturday. It's an easy life but if you want to get on you have to stretch yourself."

As he faced the press in the lush surroundings of England's retreat in County Durham, Upson realised that tomorrow night against Slovakia he might be asked to stretch himself further, as he is likely to start a competitive international for the first time.

His debut last Tuesday, in the friendly against Serbia and Montenegro, was encouraging but not perfect; he was partially responsible for the Serbian goal and as someone renowned for analysing his displays, Upson would have worried over it.

Gareth Southgate, Upson's central defensive partner - a role he is likely to fill tomorrow - confessed that the main problem was the Serbian team was very different to the one they had expected, but the Birmingham defender admitted: "Their striker [Nenad Jestrovic] still got between us, it was a bit sloppy.

He added: "It was a very different game to any I'd found myself in. It seemed a lot slower, much more tactical and technical; not quite the blood-and-guts that you get in the Premiership.

"I've worried less about performances as I've got older and realised there are enough people to point out your mistakes. Other people may look at me differently but the only thing I see is someone who's been given a decent run of games. I'm no different a person to the one I was a year ago when I was languishing in Arsenal's reserves with a broken leg."