Friday, 6 February 2009

Money Can't Buy You Standards

"I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money."
Pablo Picasso

Be The Best You Can Be: a rather hackneyed expression applied in most walks of life, conveying corny overtones of some self-improvement guru from across the pond. In sport especially, we hear it all the time, so much so, in fact, that it is difficult to believe that the people aiming for this goal are actually doing everything humanly possible to fulfil their potential. With Matthew Upson, however, things seem slightly different. An hour in his company confirms he can't do much more to, yes, be the best he can be at his profession. The defender has used his own initiative, not to mention his own money, to try and reach the level he has always regarded as reasonable.

And by his own admission, it's beginning to work. Having established himself as one of the Premier League's most reliable defenders and on the verge of another call-up by Fabio Capello, the centre-half feels great, more confident now than ever, thanks mainly to a couple of experts in his employ. To start off with, Upson simply had to get fit, find a way of curing a mysterious calf injury that wrecked the beginning of his Upton Park career.

Running out of options, he finally phoned up a specialist in South Africa he'd heard about on the grapevine, a kinesiologist who, as it turns out, deploys an unusual method to construct the orthotic inserts that realign the body when placed inside someone's shoe. "He uses the Yellow Pages to build them up and then wraps them in masking tape," Upson explains, removing a wedge from his training shoe to let me have a look. "Taking out just one page would knock you off balance. That's how delicate it is. He'll gradually reduce the number of sheets as my body realigns itself. Now I fly him over whenever I need to see him. Before, I was constantly overusing my calf because my body was so far out of line. One side of my jaw was cracking, my neck was hurting, one groin was constantly tight. It all adds up to a pretty cloudy picture of how I was moving. I think it started after my cruciate operation at Arsenal. When you start running again, you're bound to protect that side a bit. It's only natural."

It is over a decade now since a highly promising 18 year-old, a rare Englishman in Arsene Wenger's cosmopolitan plan, arrived at Highbury from Luton Town. Five years on and standing in the back row for Arsenal's official squad photo at the start of another season, Upson was doing 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, firmly ensconced 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 later came a transfer to Birmingham City. Scarcely had Upson 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. Solid in the tackle, good in the air and blessed with pace - he comes from a family of sprinters - he effortlessly jumped a queue of international contenders that even a couple of months previous had 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 that season - did he have a premonition of the defensive problems that would strike? - and would have been happy to keep him. All this time later and press speculation during last month's transfer window, linking Upson with a return to the red half of North London, suggests even now Wenger regrets the split.

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 his last season. For a couple of years after the £2million move from Luton Town - then 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 a part in as many as 56 games in five years before Birmingham stepped in. Crucially, only one of them had been in his final 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 had 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. At that time, in the case of someone like [midfielder] David Noble, how would 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."

So off he went to Birmingham where, after a couple of good years, this honest, clear-thinking individual lapsed into a period he describes as 'stagnant'. "I wasn't going downhill but I wasn't progressing", he says. "Sometimes you need the help of someone to explain why you're not achieving what you want." Cue the input of Mike Griffiths, a "performance consultant" who still works closely with Upson to try and maximise potential. "He analyses all my games and comes with me home and away. Do I need more aggression? What's the body language like? Does it need to be more authoritative? All these things are really important and reasons why maybe I wasn't being as successful as I could have been. He's taught me how to achieve my goals. You start at the end, at what you want, and work backwards, thinking about what we need to change."

Upson says changing your mentality is the biggest test; far harder than anything you'll do physically. "Everyone's got something in their mind that's holding them back a little. You've just got to figure out what that is and how to change it, turn it into something that's going to improve you." Upson definitely has improved as well - by a noticeable margin. Capello, for one, has been sufficiently impressed to make Upson a familiar figure on the international circuit.

"I feel I have given a good account of myself and from what I've heard I think he is quite pleased with me," smiles Upson. The feeling is mutual. The Italian has made a lasting impression during the few days he spends with the players. "I think he is excellent, structured and very authoritative. He's got a presence about him due to his track record and the players he's worked with. I think he understands how to win. At times it may be ugly but that's life, isn't it? With the team we've got and the type of nation we are, it sometimes needs to be like that. Look how we won the rugby world cup. At times we were really ugly to watch, weren't we? Really horrible. But they knew what it took to win and that's really important."

Without wishing to be trite, Upson also knows what's important when it comes to his career. He is being paid a wonderful wage. He is playing in the Premier League. Many would be delighted to settle for that. "That's never going to be enough for me", he insists. "I've always wanted more. I want to play for England. I want to play in a World Cup. I'm desperate to do that and I'll do whatever it takes to achieve it."

Upson lives in a £1.5million five-bedroom, detached house – a new-build, Georgian-style property in Essex with girlfriend Elena, who last year gave birth to their first son. The impression you get when visiting their home is that it is a little out of the ordinary for a footballer's abode. There is, for example, a liberal scattering of books wherever you look. "I like reading because you can interpret what you read in your own way and it also broadens your knowledge," he says. Upson picks up a copy of Slaying the Dragon. "Michael Johnson is someone I respect as an athlete and the way he talks about his achievements can be applied to any walk of life," he states. The influence is clear. "I'm a completely different player, on another level to the one from three or four years ago. I'm going into games not questioning anything. I know I've done the work. My belief levels are high. I just feel now that I can fulfil my potential. I feel I can piece things together and become the player I always felt I could be but didn't quite know how to achieve it." He seems to know now that's an achievement in itself.

Back in December, the Boleyn Ground was an anxious place. With the Icelandic owners feeling the pinch and West Ham up for sale, the Hammers were expected to be at the focal point of the New Year player sales. Upson, Scott Parker, Robert Green and Craig Bellamy were the prized assets most sought after but only one first-team regular - Bellamy - left. He joined the billionaire revolution at Manchester City but for the rest Upton Park remains the place to be. Upson may still become a target for Arsenal again in the summer but, for the time being, his footballing ambitions override any desire to chase big-money contracts on offer elsewhere.

"It starts as a football ambition," Upson says. "At nine years old you're not thinking about how much money you want to put in the bank. Then, when you leave school and you're with a club's academy, the question becomes 'Can I make a living out of the game?' Once you get your first professional contract and make the first team, then you begin to think about how to make yourself financially secure. For some of the top international players, it gets to the stage where they have so much money that, financially, it doesn't really matter if they have more success or not. Then it has to be back to a football ambition, otherwise you wouldn't drive yourself on to greater things."

It should be clear by now that Upson doesn’t fit the popular stereotype. He grew up in the market town of Diss, in Norfolk, before being spotted by Luton Town in 1994 where he developed as a trainee. "When I first went to Luton there were times when I had to manage my money carefully, but I’ve never found myself in a difficult financial position. There’s a lot of money in football, but everyone is an individual. You will always see laddish behaviour, but there are many footballers I know who are very careful and are making good, long-term decisions. I don’t socialise much with the England team, but they know how to have fun - it’s their money and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend it."

Far from extravagant, Upson displays the same care in life as he does on the footall pitch. When questioned, he says he rarely carries more than about £200 in cash and does not even own a credit card. "I don’t like to spend what I don’t already have," he muses. "It’s due to my upbringing I think. My parents are good savers and they plan things well. My dad was a sales representative for Shell. He retired a couple of years ago. My mother looked after the children, then ran a sports-retail business." Upson agrees he doesn't quite fit into the popular stereotype of footballers. "I’ve been saving ever since I started earning money at 16. I moved from home to Luton as part of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). They paid £40 a week and set me up with a family. I also put a lot of money aside into my pension - roughly 15% of what I earn. I also have a self-invested personal pension (Sipp) but I still like to splash out occasionally. I bought a silver Aston Martin a couple of years ago for £120,000 - it’s beautiful."

Not that he has always had such good judgment with cars. "About two years ago, I was sitting around at my mum’s house after an injury," he explains. "I was watching a lot of Top Gear and for some reason I decided to buy a bright orange and black Lamborghini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit into it. It was beautiful but I only did about 400 miles in it before I had to sell - it was killing my back. My family seemed to think it was hilarious."

So back to football and back to those dark days of pre-Christmas. Upson had said off the record he would "be very disappointed if I was still at the club in January and others were sold". Now, he is just relieved that all the speculation is over and he can get back to playing for Zola. "The person who has the biggest headache in the transfer window is undoubtedly the manager," reflects Upson. "He may have to make a decision on a player who wants to leave but he doesn't want to let go. As far as I am concerned there was never, ever a genuine enquiry. There were quite a few rumours but as far as I am aware, that's all they were."

The Italian manager has led the Hammers on an eight-match unbeaten run and it is clear that the pull of playing for Zola is important to Upson. "I have to say the club have done a fantastic job in what could have been a difficult month," he said. "They've done the right thing and maintained their ambition on the pitch, which is something I was concerned about back in December. The one player who's gone was out of their control really. It was a situation where the player [Bellamy] took things into his own hands."

Upson, who scored in a West Ham victory over Manchester United last season, now cannot wait for Sunday's game with the champions. "The reason why things are so enjoyable is because we're doing well and that's down to the job the new management team are doing," he added. "People who know about West Ham and who have watched us regularly will have noticed that we're playing with a bit more positivity and confidence and in a fashion which is more attractive to watch. They've been drilling these messages into us from the day they arrived."

The defender looks certain to be included in Fabio Capello's England squad for next week's friendly in Spain, when it is named tomorrow. "This is a huge 18 months for me, both on a domestic and international level," says Upson. "The 2010 World Cup, for example, is something which I'm looking forward to every day and preparing myself for. The football I'm playing every week for West Ham is no less important. I'm very near my peak now. I still think there are improvements to be made but my form this season has been very consistent, which is a sign I'm more mature as a player and a person."

And what Upson has learnt about life? "Simply be the best you can be," he offers, "because money can’t buy you standards."


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