Self-belief the key as Upson rises to Blues challenge

Football: Birmingham defender realises potential to boost England career and bury ghost of Highbury disappointment

Plain speaking is merely one of the attributes that make Matthew Upson stand out as a footballer. Consider his take on the half-time fracas between Turkey and England, dismissed as "handbags" by Sol Campbell. Upson, who sprinted 100 yards from the substitutes' bench to the tunnel, reveals with a knowing smile: "It was a little bit more than that."

In an England squad strewn with stellar names from Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, Upson is the sole representative of comparatively unfashionable Birmingham City. He is 24, was turning out for Reading on loan less than a year ago and has a modest five caps. As such, he could be excused for hiding behind a "no comment" on the events of Istanbul, and the Rio Ferdinand affair that preceded them.

Instead, as we chat amid the autumnal golds, greens, browns and burgundies of the sun-bathed Belfry to discuss tomorrow's collision of Blues and their claret-clad neighbours, Aston Villa, Upson shows the same readiness to tackle issues that he extends to opposing forwards. Were it not so, he might still be a frustrated figure on the fringes at Arsenal rather than striving to uphold Birmingham's ascendancy over Villa at St Andrew's.

The candour and fluency with which Upson offers an insight into the world of the élite players is a reflection of the self-belief that has burgeoned since his £3m escape from Highbury 10 months ago. He even feels sufficiently assured to throw in an irreverent reference to his manager at Birmingham. Having supported Norwich as a boy, he recalls Steve Bruce, in his extravagantly permed, pre-Old Trafford incarnation, "charging around in his curly wig".

Bruce was also a centre-back but, although he captained Manchester United through several controversial episodes and some fractious nights in Istanbul, he was never picked for England. Nor did he ever participate in anything quite like the "crazy, mad" scenarios, as his player describes them, which convulsed the English game last week.

Upson acknowledges that Ferdinand was wrong for failing to attend his drugs test and admits he and his fellow England players might have handled matters better, including the meeting at which refusing to play was discussed. "The committee of senior players presented the case," Upson says, conceding that it is "always difficult" for young players to disagree with established opinion leaders in such circumstances.

Not that he was inclined to dissent. "We had a chat about it and everyone came to the conclusion that what happened was not dealt with in the right way. But we never really had a voice in the media during those two days [before the flight to Turkey]. I don't think anyone spoke openly about what had happened. That was always going to be our downfall.

"There was never a realistic shout that we would miss the game. Everyone in that room was desperate to play Turkey. We were just concerned that one of us could have found ourselves in trouble after making a mistake. If it happened to you, you would like to think there would be more protection.

"The whole thing was a strange turn of events. Presumably the FA had known about it [Ferdinand's failure to attend the test] for some time. It was just strange that it came out at such a bad time."

Upson can understand why the England players had such a bad press. "To a lot of people it just looks like you're taking the piss. Look at what's happened in football lately and you'd say it's in a bit of a state. I think it was the final straw for some people. The columnists stopped writing about the Tory party and were writing about football."

They were alleging, moreover, that the top players are pampered millionaires, loaded with cash and leisure time but bereft of brain cells and any sense of responsibility. "I'd like to say that to play at the level of pressure that England players do, for the top clubs, where you are expected to win every week, 50 or 60 times a season, is not easy mentally," Upson says, seeking to explain rather than to excuse.

One effect of Riogate was to bond even more tightly players who spend much of the year kicking lumps out of each other. Upson reflects on the "club" feel of the England set-up and, in what was either a rare careless phrase or a case of tongue in cheek, on how the treatment of Ferdinand strengthened their willingness "to fight for each other".

Seldom can exotic, historic Istanbul have been compared to Small Heath, the inner-city suburb which is home to the Premiership's fourth-placed team. However, Upson expects that the "hostile atmosphere" he encountered in the former will stand him in good stead tomorrow.

He was still an Arsenal understudy, anxious for the opportunity to be "relied upon", when Birmingham won 3-0 in the corresponding fixture 13 months ago, the first top-flight derby in 16 years. When they completed a double at Villa Park in March, prevailing 2-0, Upson was inadvertently involved in one of the flash-points, Joey Gudjonsson following Villa's Dion Dublin in being sent off for a reckless challenge on him.

"I'd put this derby in the top three in the UK, including Celtic v Rangers, and I'd say it was bigger than Arsenal v Tottenham. It's more ferocious, probably because the clubs didn't meet for so long. Mind you, I was on the bench when Sol went back to Spurs. The reception he got..."

Another Birmingham victory would be a step towards confirming a shift in the balance of power in the Midlands. They have come a long way in a short time, much like Upson. As the "most pissed-off man in the world" at Arsenal, where he never quite convinced Arsène Wenger of his worth, could he have envisaged such a rapid turnaround in his fortunes?

"Of course. I knew I was good enough. It's just a matter of getting the right break, with the right manager and the right situation to express how good you are. Martin Keown, a good friend, had to leave Highbury to prove himself before going back. He could see things opening up for me but I wasn't prepared to take that risk again. I'd just returned from Reading and had to strike while the iron was hot."

Other young Englishmen have complained upon leaving Arsenal that Wenger always favours ready-made foreign players. "I can't imagine why any Premiership manager would not want as much English talent in his side as possible," Upson says pointedly. "There's no logic to it."

Bruce takes a hands-on approach to his development. Pairing him with Kenny Cunningham proved inspired, Upson assuming the more physical and aerial duties while the unsung Irishman anticipates danger and, according to his younger foil, "orders me about". In Tuesday's draw with Chelsea the duo subdued Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Hernan Crespo to help secure Birmingham's sixth clean sheet in nine games.

Tomorrow, a Villa side now managed by another ex-Arsenal centre-back, David O'Leary, should be desperate for revenge. No one wants "handbags" again, but if it happens, Upson will be nothing if not prepared.

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