When FFT rocks up at QPR’s Harlington training base for a chat with arguably the most in-form Englishman in the Premier League, we quickly discover that speaking to Charlie Austin is not like chatting with most Premier League footballers. Then again, we should have known – after all, this 25-year-old isn’t like most Premier League footballers.
Austin bounds into the bar/media room and introduces himself (just in case) before QPR’s press officer enters to make the formal greeting. “Yeah, we’ve already done that while you were sat outside chilling,” the striker says cheekily.
There’s a lot to talk about as far as his recent form is concerned: five goals in six games against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and, most recently, the crucial winner against Leicester at Loftus Road last weekend.
We ease into discussing QPR’s season so far, and his own terrific run, but Austin doesn’t seem particularly enthused by our ice-breakers; bored even, like he’s heard them all before (he has). Without being rude, his responses are quick and to the point: as a team QPR would like to have a few more points, but it’s still early days. Yes, he’s chuffed with his haul so far but he’d trade in all of his goals for a spot in mid-table instead. No, he never sets himself any targets.
FFT opts for a change of tact. “Sum Harry Redknapp up in three words.”
“Ooh, that’s a good question actually,” he grins. It feels like a test has been passed. “Three qualities? That’s tough. Man management... knowledge... helpful. There aren’t many one-on-one chats, only when needed; so when I first came here and when I came back from injury. That was it really.”
The academy of life
FFT’s lesson over, we move on to more interesting matters, like his incredible five-year route from ninth-tier Poole Town to today, within touching distance of an England call-up.
So why on earth did it take so long for him to get noticed? “I think it was more about myself,” he shrugs. “You’ve got to be dedicated haven’t you? Let’s be honest. After getting released by Reading I wasn’t dedicated to being a footballer.
"I’d play on a Saturday, go out on a Saturday night and then play on a Sunday morning. That’s how seriously I was taking football.”
It all seems suspiciously easy. By his own admission, Austin has scored goals at a healthy rate wherever he has been, from netting 64 goals in just 57 games for Poole to stepping up with Swindon in the Football League, Burnley and now Rangers in the top flight. Academy life is not the be-all and end-all, it seems.
“If parents asked me for advice I’d tell them to leave their kids alone and just let them keep playing with their mates on Sundays,” he says bluntly. “That’s my personal opinion; others would see it differently. Why? Well, it didn’t work out for me did it?
“Clubs now are signing up players when they’re seven and eight-years-old at primary school. They don’t even really know what’s going on. Then when it comes to 10 or 11 it’s ‘No, sorry, we can’t take you’.
“I just think it’s a bit too much. Then again, if you ask someone like The Chief [Nedum Onuoha] who went through at Manchester City, then he’d be different. Joey Barton, too. But it wasn’t for me.”
After being released by Reading for being too small aged 14, Austin’s options were limited. At 16 he left school and “went straight on the hard, putting in bricks”. Football was just a hobby – and, more to the point, the man himself wasn’t even trying particularly hard to change that.
“I didn’t even sign anything for Kintbury or anything like that. A contract? Don’t be so silly. Hungerford wasn’t a ‘move’ either. To get that you put in a seven-day approach.
“I started taking it more seriously when I went to Poole. It was a bigger area than Hungerford, and there were a lot of other teams around: Gosport in the Southern League, plus Weymouth and then Dorchester in the Conference South. I was talking to my dad at the time thinking I might nick a half-decent non-league team and earn a few quid.”
In the end, Austin went three tiers better – but not without a hitch. Poole’s assistant manager, Steve Cuss, also happened to work for Bournemouth’s community team, and a 20-year-old Austin was soon enjoying an intense pre-season trial with the Cherries. From training twice a week, the young striker was preparing himself properly with a rigorous full-time schedule.
Eddie Howe wanted to sign him, but a transfer embargo put paid to any hopes of a move.
“When that fell through I was even more determined; I wanted to get there as quickly as I could,” Austin admits. “But I’ve always said that if I didn’t do those six weeks at Bournemouth then I wouldn’t have been able to get a move to Swindon. When I went back to Poole I was four or five steps ahead of everyone else.”
Fast-forward to today, though, and Austin remains cautious about his incredible progress. “You can never think that you’ve made it,” he says, shaking his head. “Even now as an established Championship player who’s scoring a few in the Premier League, I can’t think that. I signed a nine-month contract at Swindon – if it hadn’t gone right I would have been straight back on the hard.”
In that case, would the R’s goal-getter have fashioned a decent career as a brickie? “I grafted,” Austin smiles. “I’d get up about 6ish, start about 7:30 and finish at 4 or 5. Those were the worst times. Now I’m doing what every boy wants to do. So when you ask if I know I’ve made it I’ll always say not really, because I’ve been lucky enough to know what goes on outside football. I use that to my advantage.”
It’s a drive that’s propelled Austin up the English league pyramid at an alarming rate, but it’s easy to forget that he could have been netting in the top flight a year earlier had a failed medical not thwarted a move to Hull last summer. Rather than spur him on, however, the setback was to prove the most difficult episode of the striker’s career to date.
“How did I feel? I didn’t really want to play football after that to be honest,” he admits. “I thought ‘Yeah that’ll do, I’m not playing anymore’. But even though I only had a year at Burnley left I thought... [puffs out cheeks].
“Sean Dyche was fantastic, though: he got on the phone to me, told me to have three days off and then fly to Ireland with the team for pre-season. I went there and the lads were brilliant; they were happy that I was back and staying. I thought that was the case too. But then I got the phonecall saying that QPR were interested. It was time for me to leave.”
Reflecting now, though, Austin admits his botched move to the KC Stadium was perhaps for the best. “At the time it knocked me back, but not now,” he shrugs. “I think I’ve grown as a person from it. Maybe going to the Premier League a year before would have been too soon anyway.
“Maybe I’ve grown as a player more having another year in the Championship. People were trying to knock me to see what I could do but then I scored 20 goals for QPR and helped get them promoted. Maybe I needed that extra year.”
Austin, like his club, need not dwell on last season any longer. The R’s made a meal of making their way back up via the Championship play-offs, but you can’t help but feel they’re a far more promising team than the one which left the top flight in 2013.
Saturday’s victory over fellow strugglers Leicester lifted Harry Redknapp’s men off the bottom, following promising displays against Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City. Defeat to Swansea on Tuesday kept them in the drop zone, but the mood is upbeat in this relatively sleepy corner of west London. “We’re turning it around,” agrees Austin, “and there are definitely points to be won in the next few games.”
Like Saturday’s trip to Burnley, for example, as Austin returns to face the team for whom he scored 45 goals in 90 games from 2011-13. QPR lost last season’s early-season tussle at Turf Moor with Austin up front, his Clarets replacement, Danny Ings, netting both in a 2-0 win. Was he surprised they did so well?
“When I left I honestly thought they’d have a great season; Sean Dyche has done brilliantly there,” says the Rangers hitman. “Of course I didn’t expect them to go on the massive run they did, or Ingsy and Vokesey to score so many goals, but I take my hat off to them – they were very, very good last year.”
Much like Austin’s career, football moves on quickly. So there’ll be no room for sentiment when the 25-year-old aims to avenge last season’s defeat. “Come on, in football you move on,” he says. “You still have your friends there, but you have a job to do and that all goes aside as soon as you cross that white line.”
As for England... well, you won't catch him fluttering eyelashes at Roy Hodgson just yet. “It’s not on my mind; maybe it’s on everyone else’s but not mine,” he declares. “I’ve got a long way to go to do that – goals to score for QPR to help the team win. Who knows what could happen in the future, but my feet are certainly on the ground and I’m just concentrating on playing here.”
QPR fans can only hope he continues doing that job with the same gusto. Austin might not think he’s made it yet, but the little boy inside certainly has.
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