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Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007


Upson saga illustrates how much power today's players have on transfers

LONDON -- West Ham United should beware after signing Matthew Upson from Birmingham City.

Christopher Davies

There is no doubt Upson is one of the Premiership's better central defenders and will boost West Ham's chances of staying in English football's promised land.

But if Birmingham chairman David Gold is to be believed, Upson is also a disloyal player who effectively held a gun to the club's head to "allow" him to leave.

Maybe, just maybe he could do the same to West Ham in a few years if he gets a better offer?

Birmingham gave Upson the chance of regular first-team football in 2003 when he joined it from Arsenal where, like so many English players, he could not gain a regular place in Arsene Wenger's multinational side.

Upson, who cost Birmingham £2.5 million, has signed a 4 1/2-year deal and the fee could rise to £7.5 million based on appearances. Arsenal will receive 25 percent of the profit, so Birmingham is not exactly making a huge amount on the player.

Birmingham had rejected bids of £4 million and £6 million for Upson, who had made it clear he would not extend his deal after it ran out at the end of next season.

The Midlands club hoped Upson would stay until the summer, help it to promotion back to the Premiership and sort his future out then.

Upson and his agent had other ideas. Upson wanted to leave Birmingham before the end of the transfer window, and as so often is the case, what a player wants a player gets.

Gold was less than impressed, to put it mildly, by Upson's behavior.

"This is not and never has been about money," he said. "It was always about Matthew doing the right thing and honoring his contract, as we did when he was out injured for the past year.

"This is just simply about player power and the player clearly did not see his future with us. He and his agent campaigned to the board for him to leave.

"Birmingham wishes to have its team populated by players committed to achieving Premiership status with Birmingham and remaining at the club thereafter."

There may be a knock-on effect of the defender's departure, as manager Steve Bruce was left feeling "hurt and disappointed" after a player he had claimed was "priceless" was sold against his wishes, and he made it clear it was not his decision.

But Gold is confident the board and Bruce can continue to work together, although he appreciates the manager being upset at losing one of his prized assets.

Gold said: "I spoke to Steve and he was very down and I don't blame him. I feel down and I would have liked the player to stay for Steve, the board and the fans and we were 24 hours from that being the case.

"The nearer we got to the deadline the clearer it became the player did not want to be at Birmingham and, if a club that is more powerful and in a higher league wants a player, it does have the advantage.

"This is one of the most difficult times I have experienced but I am confident there will be no long-term damage to the special relationship we have had with Steve Bruce."

Upson became West Ham's sixth January signing, the former England Under-21 international joining Luis Boa Morte, Lucas Neill, Calum Davenport, Nigel Quashie and Kepa Blanco at Upton Park.

It underlines how a club like West Ham, currently third-from-bottom and two points adrift of fellow relegation-battling Wigan, is prepared to invest heavily to remain in the Premiership, where next season television revenue will see the bottom club picking up £30 million.

Upson's move is further proof how top players these days can pretty well come and go as they please.

For too many contracts are becoming a one-way street -- players like the protection they offer but when it suits the mega-ambitious they know they can effectively hold the club to ransom.

No club wants a disaffected player disrupting the team harmony, and Upson is not the first to force a chairman's arm.

In fact, two years ago, Birmingham did all it could to keep Robbie Savage, but the Welshman joined Blackburn four months after signing a new four-year contract with the Midlands club.

Savage claimed he wanted to be nearer his sick parents who live in Wrexham, even though Birmingham and Blackburn are almost equidistant from the Welsh town.

Unsurprisingly Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, stuck up for his player.

"David Gold is a man of the world, he is a businessman and know how things work," said Taylor whose members certainly do.

"He has his opinion but it's not a question of player power. The player would not be going anywhere unless he had the consent of the club. This type of thing goes on among all clubs."

So that's all right then.

Nicolas Anelka (or perhaps his influential brothers) made it clear he wanted to leave Arsenal when Real Madrid came knocking, so it was au revoir for the Frenchman.

William Gallas (Chelsea) and Ashley Cole (Arsenal) wanted to leave their respective clubs earlier this season, and reluctant as they were to lose the defenders the pair eventually swapped teams.

Many times we have heard chairmen saying no, so-and-so will NOT be leaving this club, but when push comes to shove clubs know players will have their way.

No manager knows more about top players than Sir Alex Ferguson after 20 years in charge of Manchester United.

"More and more we are dealing with player power," he said. "I grew into that, but a young coach must realize he's walking into it."

ARSENAL's success in reaching the League Cup final where it will play Chelsea is a double-edged sword.

The Gunners reached the final with basically a reserve side playing outstanding football and displaying the sort of team spirit and commitment that astounded onlookers.

On the other hand, what hope do those clubs outside the Premiership's elite have when a reserve side can win through to a final?

It illustrates the incredible strength in depth manager Arsene Wenger has at his disposal.

Wenger has promised to keep faith with his young guns for their League Cup final showdown with Chelsea, which was secured with a 3-1 semifinal, second-leg win after extra-time against Tottenham that clinched a 5-3 aggregate success.

The manager is determined to reward the players that have featured in Arsenal's impressive march to the final. His inexperienced team has already beaten Everton and humiliated Liverpool with a 6-3 win at Anfield before seeing off their north London rivals at Emirates Stadium.

Wenger will gamble that youngsters like Theo Walcott, Armand Traore, Denilson, Jeremie Aliadiere and Justin Hoyte can overcome the English champions at Millennium Stadium.

"I will try to find the right mixture of youth and experienced players again," said Wenger. "This team has produced. We have not had one boring game from first to last in this competition.

"We showed mental strength, resilience and heart. I'm very proud of them. They deserve to be involved in the final. I want them to be there and some of them will play."

"I don't want to promise what I cannot deliver, but I will stick to the squad that has played in this competition."

Wenger insisted Arsenal has nothing to fear from Jose Mourinho's expensively assembled side.

"We played at Liverpool, Everton, West Bromwich," said Wenger. "Why should we suddenly get a complex if the color of the shirt is different in the final?

"It is fantastic to see that at such a young age they can cope with the pressure. They've shown great heart and resilience.

"They say life is too easy for young boys, but it's just a question of how motivated they are. They showed how motivated they are, and it's good news for the club."

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

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