Upson's choice puts the down days in the past

By Alex Hayes
Sunday 16 March 2003 01:00
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Matthew Upson cannot believe his luck. Since joining Birmingham City, the centre- back has not only been managed by one of his favourite players, Steve Bruce, but he has even earned his first call-up to the senior England squad. And yet nothing, he says, compares to the simple pleasure he derives from one particular weekly ritual.

Every match-day morning, the former Arsenal player reads the team sheet knowing that he will be in the first XI. "It's really nice," he says ahead of today's visit to Manchester City, "to practise all week knowing that you are going to be called upon at the weekend. For me, feeling wanted is the single best thing about coming here."

Upson speaks for almost every other young English player to have passed through Arsenal's doors in recent years. Paolo Vernazza, Stephen Hughes, Richard Wright and Jermaine Pennant are four who have, like Upson, all failed to make an impact at Highbury.

"For some reason," he smiles, "99 per cent of the guys who go there simply disappear into thin air. It's frustrating, because I don't think we're bad players. But the English lads often get frozen out."

Upson, who spent three-and-a-half seasons in north London, adds: "At Arsenal, I never really prepared myself during the week thinking I was going to be picked on the Saturday. I felt I waited as long as I could, but in the end I just had to leave."

It was during a three-month loan spell at Reading earlier in the season that Upson realised how much he enjoyed playing on a regular basis. "I could have sat in that comfort zone at Arsenal," the 23-year-old says, "but there's only so much I can take. Don't get me wrong, it's extremely difficult leaving a club like Arsenal, but I've made this move to play and to improve myself."

That Upson is now playing every week owes much to the fact that he has a manager who believes in him. "Steve was a brilliant player," the young centre-back explains, "and he knows exactly what it's like to play in my position at the highest level. He's a big help to me, and I feel this has been the right move. I mean, you just have to look at Steve's medals to see he knows what he's talking about. If anyone can improve me, it's him."

Upson has already bene-fited from Bruce's tutoring. Sven Goran Eriksson called him up to the senior England squad for last month's friendly against Australia and, although he did not play, Upson trained with the best defenders in the land. Whether further selections follow remains to be seen, but Upson is not obsessed with international affairs at the moment.

"Ultimately, if I do well for Birmingham, I will get another chance with England," he says, "but right now I have to focus on keeping the club in the Premiership. Steve Bruce showed that you can be one of the best defenders of your generation and yet never play for your country. That's why I'm certainly not going to make England a fixation."

Following two League wins on the trot, the threat of relegation has faded. The last of those two victories, though, came at a price. The derby against Aston Villa was a nasty affair, which saw Dion Dublin and Joey Gudjonsson get sent off, Nico Vaesen injure himself, and Robbie Savage subsequently receive death threats.

"That was a bit of a special game, wasn't it?" Upson jokes. "I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the two teams hadn't played each other for 16 years. Everyone was really wound up."

Today's match will bear little resemblance. "It won't be as physical," Upson says, "and with guys like Nicolas Anelka I will have to watch for movement around the box. I'm facing a different challenge each week, but I love it. Birmingham have given me my chance to play, and I'm determined to grab it."

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