Matthew Upson was back on the Arsenal training ground yesterday - four months after ending five and a half years of frustration. But this time the 24-year-old was taking part in an England session, with the national team having borrowed London Colney for the morning. The moment completed the remarkable rehabilitation of a career apparently destined to remain unfulfilled.
A move to Birmingham City not only helped preserve the Blues' Premiership status but also, because of Upson's impressive performances, led to questioning of Arsène Wenger's judgement - particularly as he let him go for a cut-price fee just before Arsenal's defence started to collapse.
The player is frank in his assessment of what happened. "I never got the vibe that the manager really backed me and believed in me 100 per cent," Upson said. "It is difficult to get the best out of you as a player unless you have the full backing. That wasn't only due to the manager, that was also due to the injury problems and the run of bad luck that I had." Bad luck indeed. Upson, who signed for Arsenal as an 18-year-old for £2m, after just one appearance in league football for Luton Town, first ruptured a cruciate ligament (1999) and then broke a leg (2001) at times in his career when he appeared set to advance.
Nevertheless, after a successful three-month loan spell at Reading earlier this season - "it gave me everything I needed to get me out of the rut I was in... they helped me back on my feet" - Upson returned to Highbury determined to determine his own future. "Arsène Wenger would not give me a positive answer as to what he had in mind for me," the central defender explained. "That kind of game went on for a couple of weeks and I thought I really had to do something, I was running out of time." His words may strike a chord with another, older Arsenal player this week - one with a ponytail, perhaps.
"He wasn't using me and the board were looking at players they could sell during the transfer window and I was one of them. So I guess he had pressure from a few angles. He had pressure from me wanting to play and he could not give me enough positive reasons to stay other than: 'Leave it to the summer and see how it goes'. That really wasn't enough."
No sooner had he gone, of course, than Arsenal suffered a defensive crisis. Martin Keown was injured, Sol Campbell suspended and Pascal Cygan unable to fill the gap. "I like to think that, had I stayed this season, and looking at the way things have gone, I would have got an opportunity, but at the time I did not have enough positive feedback to suggest that," Upson said. "So I made the decision to progress myself, leave and get out and play. And I am really happy with that decision."
Has he read the criticism Wenger has received for selling him? "Yes," he said, "but I don't read it and chuckle because I still wish the club every success. But I guess they are quite positive comments about me." Still, he watched the FA Cup final win more as a spectator than a fan. "I did not really mind who won," Upson added. "I did not watch it as a fan, I just enjoyed watching the football." No regrets there, either.
Birmingham has been good for him, he insists - not least because he has been playing for Steve Bruce. "He motivates very well and it is useful that he was an exceptional player in my position." It has made him more combative. In the process he has played 13 times for Birmingham, with the team collecting 22 points to finish mid-table. "It has gone as well as I could have hoped. I am enjoying myself. Playing regularly is the only thing I want to do."
The fee Birmingham paid Arsenal now appears a steal - £750,000 paid in advance, a further £750,000 on the club avoiding relegation and £750,000 more on 50 appearances. Plus £250,000 when he makes his international debut, which could well come against South Africa on Thursday. Upson almost made that debut back in February against Australia - his inclusion in the squad by England coach Sven Goran Eriksson raised a few eyebrows - although he was one of the few unused substitutes in that now notorious encounter. In fact, he appears relieved to have sat that one out.
Now it is different. "For the Australia game we had one and a half days training and then a game," Upson says. "It was in the middle of a very busy schedule so it was difficult to make an impression. For this trip you cannot fail to make an impression. We have three weeks together so he [Eriksson] can see what you are like on and off the pitch, which is very important."
Somehow, judging by the way Upson has been conducting himself of late, making an impression is not something he need worry about.Reuse content