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World Cup 2010 Comment: Slovenia vs England - Matthew Upson, are you ready for the game of your life?

With England being shorn of centre-halves almost as quickly as Wayne Rooney loses his temper, Matthew Upson finds himself thrust into the spotlight. Wednesday’s game against Slovenia has assumed career-defining significance in the Three Lions’ camp as they attempt to extend their World Cup 2010 participation beyond the obligatory three group games.

Following injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King, and the suspension of Jamie Carragher, West Ham United captain Upson will be required to step up to the plate as John Terry’s central defensive partner against the surprise Group C leaders.

It’s a situation in which Fabio Capello’s charges must produce a performance to match the nation’s massive expectations on Wednesday – and in which, on a personal level, Upson can show that he should have been higher up the pecking order in the first place. Fortunately, the 31-year-old from Suffolk has had to prove himself in the past, too – experiences that may benefit England in what has become their hour of need.

Arsenal rookie frustrated by lack of opportunity

Despite having made more than 300 League appearances, Upson’s profile has been low-key enough for many to forget that he was the first English player signed by Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger; that the Frenchman paid a hefty £2 million in May 1997 for an untried 18-year-old who’d made just one appearance for Luton Town; or that Upson picked up a Premier League title winner’s medal with the Gunners in 2001-02.

However, his time at Highbury proved unfulfilling for the future England international.  Always behind the likes of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown and later Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure in the queue for a first-team starting berth, his chances of staking a regular claim were also hampered by frequent injuries.

Opportunities usually came his way only when one of the established centre-backs at Arsenal was out injured, so it was particularly galling when a run in the team was halted by a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in December 1999 that sidelined him for a year. Having recovered, he was regarded by Wenger as too inexperienced to command a regular place at the top level, yet unable to gain that experience through playing.

Nevertheless, Upson earned England Under-21 caps on a consistent basis before, having forced his way back into the Arsenal team by February 2002, he suffered a fractured ankle. Frustration at his lack of progress at Highbury prompted Upson to sign for Steve Bruce’s Birmingham City in January 2003 for £1m rising to £3m depending on appearances.

1997 - 2003
2003 - 2007
2007 - Present

First choice at last at St Andrew’s – and picked for England

Having spent loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and Reading while a Gunner, Upson was finally considered the main man when he joined Birmingham – and his form and fortunes correspondingly soared.

Given a platform on which to display his pace, ability in the air, cultured left foot and air of composure, he quickly justified Bruce’s faith in him. Indeed, within five months of his switch to St Andrew’s he won his first full England cap in the friendly against South Africa in May 2003.

However, misfortune came back to haunt him in April 2006 when he sustained a leg injury while preparing for the Second City derby against Aston Villa, and was forced to miss the rest of that season as the Blues were relegated to the Championship. Upson remained at St Andrew’s as he worked to regain his fitness, and returned to first team action in December 2006, scoring in a 3-0 win against Plymouth Argyle.

But in January 2007, Birmingham eventually succumbed to West Ham’s persistence, accepting a bid from the east London club of £6 million, rising to £7.5 million depending on appearances, on the last day of the transfer window. Upson agreed a four-and-a-half-year deal with the Hammers and returned to the capital.  

Back to London - and England

His West Ham debut was inauspicious as, less than half-an-hour into it, he suffered a calf injury against Aston Villa as the Hammers lost 1-0.  And his comeback from that set-back lasted a mere 11 minutes before he limped off injured in a derby defeat against Tottenham.

It wasn’t until August 2007 that Upson was able to complete his first full game for his new club, against Manchester City. But a week later he captained the Hammers for the first time away to his former club Birmingham, and in December he headed the winning goal against champions Manchester United.

Having won seven full England caps at Birmingham, Upson was selected in Capello’s first squad as England coach, for the February 2008 friendly against Switzerland, and named in the starting XI alongside Ferdinand. He thus won his eighth cap nearly four years after his seventh, and earned another against Kazakhstan in a World Cup qualifier, albeit as a replacement for the injured Terry.

Upson scored his first England goal in November 2008 in a 2-1 friendly win over Germany, when he was named man-of-the-match by ITV, and has been in and around the squad throughout Capello’s reign as an able back-up to either of the two first-choice centre-backs.

The man who has added leadership credentials to his CV since being appointed West Ham captain in August 2009 is therefore familiar with the role that almost certainly awaits him this week. The pressure will be intense given two tepid draws by the team, reports of divisions within the camp, unhappiness with Capello’s regime and clear-the-air talks.

England need Upson and his team-mates to deliver as never before; but the West Ham skipper has spent much of his career overcoming adversity and proving critics wrong, and is unlikely to be exposed as the weakest link.   
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