Upson's down times are firmly in the past

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The Independent Football

Standing in the back row for Arsenal's official squad photo at the start of last season, Matthew Upson did his best to raise a smile, but only had to glance around for uncertainty to kick in.

Down at the front with the Premiership trophy, FA Cup and Community Shield were two England internationals in possession of the central defensive positions, Sol Campbell and Martin Keown; fair enough.

Yet here was Upson, five years at Highbury, a championship medal to his name and ready to fight those two for a place, and still Arsène Wenger had deemed it necessary to buy another centre-half. It seemed reasonable to assume that the Frenchman Pascal Cygan, 28, with Champions' League experience as captain of Lille, had not been signed to play in the reserves. And just look along that back row: Igors Stepanovs, Stathis Tavlaridis, Oleg Luzhny... It wasn't that Upson was paranoid - just that he felt everyone was out to get his place.

All's well that ends well. Eleven months and a transfer to Birmingham City later, the impressively sculpted stopper is an England international, having substituted for Rio Ferdinand in the second half of the recent game in South Africa. Solid in the tackle, good in the air and blessed with pace - he comes from a family of sprinters - he is now in line for a first start against Serbia and Montenegro, having jumped a queue of contenders that even a couple of months ago looked more formidable than Arsenal's.

Naturally, he would rather have made it at Highbury, but is not going to cry about that, nor, refreshingly, sound off about the club's strange treatment of him. Intelligent, as well as reluctant to bear a grudge, he will admit only to a slight disappointment that the club concluded a deal with Birmingham at board level before even consulting him.

"I wasn't really getting the information I needed from the manager at Arsenal, so until I got that I couldn't really make a decision. Once I sorted that out and met Steve Bruce I was impressed, and thought it was a good opportunity for my career."

Wenger, he felt, "never really backed me and believed in me 100 per cent", though to be fair, the Arsenal manager suggested hanging on until the end of the season - did he have a premonition of the defensive problems that would strike? - and would have been happy to keep him. The suggestion is that even an initial payment of £750,000 was attractive to the men in suits, who are already counting further contributions: the same amount for helping Birmingham to stay up, £250,000 for that first England cap, and before too long another £750,000 for 50 club games.

The key points of Upson's Arsenal career were two injuries just as he was on the point of establishing himself, and then a successful three-month loan to Reading at the start of last season. For a couple of years after the £2m move from Luton Town - a remarkable fee for a player barely 18 years old, who had one substitute appearance to his name - he was prepared to bide his time and take what few chances came along.

In the end it was surprising to realise he had played as many as 56 games in five years before Birmingham stepped in. Crucially, only one of them had been this season, in the FA Cup third round against Oxford United, and it proved to be his last.

He left with mixed feelings: "The set-up is fantastic and in Don Howe they have one of the best coaches, but playing the odd game isn't really enough for most young players to progress. Unless you've got an absolutely outstanding talent on show I think most young players need 40 or 50 games to really establish their ability. In the case of someone like [midfielder] David Noble, how do you play on a Saturday when you've got Vieira, Edu and Gilberto?

"The only way you can get in front is to play games. It's a no-win situation. But in my time at Arsenal they won two championships and I had a great time."

Scarcely had he found his way round Spaghetti Junction than Sven Goran Eriksson did the same, and fast-tracked him into the England squad against Australia. It was a good game not to play in, whereas 45 minutes against South Africa's unthreatening strikers enhanced a swiftly growing reputation.

Whatever the next fortnight holds, Upson will be beaming in Birmingham's pre-season photo-shoot.

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