From sponge balls to Swindon via a building site

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Swindon fan Nick Judd on why the Robins' young striker Charlie Austin is more than deserving of his current success

At a time when many footballers’ reputations are in the gutter, it’s refreshing to meet a player mindful of his roots and supported by a family who appreciate what it means for him to succeed.

It would be easy for Swindon striker Charlie Austin to get carried away with his new-found status as terrace favourite.

His rise to stardom has been well documented after he scored 13 goals in his first 16 starts as a professional. Yet he continues to keep a level head.

This, in part, is down to his background. Dad Fred and mum Karen go to every game as they always have, home and away, and they’re accompanied by an assortment of relatives and friends who have seen him swap non-league football for League One. Not least granddad Ozzie, a County Ground stalwart who still gets overcome with emotion every time Charlie’s name is read out on the tannoy.

I had the pleasure of meeting the Austins at the County Ground a couple of weeks ago. Not surprisingly, they’re delighted with their son’s progress. More than that, you can see why his feet are seemingly still on the ground.

There is a Facebook site with more than 1,000 members and Austin has been the focus of numerous interviews in the national media. Yet he still seems grateful just to have been given his shot.

“He doesn’t say a lot about all that to be honest,” admits Fred. “I think everything was a bit strange to start with. Training with professional players, talking to the media... It’s funny; when he started at Swindon he would clean his own boots after training because that’s what he was used to.

“Then one of the young players told him he didn’t have to do that anymore. I think the youth team goalkeeper cleans them now, but at first he was happy just doing it himself. Having his kit laid out for him…”

Austin thought his chance at professional level had gone. An academy player with Reading in his teens, his Mum would drive him all over the place to training and matches. He became injured and was later released. Even Swindon missed the boat, initially.

“He was at Swindon when he was seven. He was at the School of Excellence and came back here when he was 15 when Iffy Onoura was manager. Unfortunately Charlie had problems with his knees – he had a cartilage operation on one of them. Iffy said to give him a ring as soon as he was fit to play again, but Iffy then left the club.”

Still, Austin never stopped believing. From an early age he had kicked a ball about and even despite his setbacks, his family knew he had an ability in front of goal.

“He had a sponge ball he’d kick about,” continues his mum. “He was always hyper as well,” adds granddad Ozzie. r“He loved his football.”

“When he was younger he was very good,” says dad Fred. “Then he got to about 10 or 11 and he didn’t grow. All the other lads shot up and he stayed where he was.”

“It wasn’t until he was 16 that he started to catch up,” adds Ozzie. “More recently, I think the labouring work done him good. He started building himself up and getting stronger. He’s probably still growing now.”

Six months ago Austin was a bricklayer for his dad, and it could be his hard work ethic on the building site that makes him a grafter on and off the pitch. Recently, when he experienced his first ‘dry-spell’ in front of goal – with no goals in four – he went back to the training ground.

“I did a bit more in training - more shooting practice,” he admitted after his first strike in five ensured a crucial victory for his team at Brighton.

“He was a hard worker,” says his dad of his son’s work ethic. “He was up every morning at half five. He’d do a hard day’s work and then go for a pint with his mates. He was a bricklayer mainly, but he enjoyed it. It was a different way of life.

Now he says every day feels like a new day to him and he loves it. We try and keep on at him as well. We keep telling him that he’s got to keep working hard every day.”

If the hard work continues, who knows where he could go. The play-offs are a very real possibility for Austin, even automatic promotion as Swindon sit fourth in League One, thanks in part to his goals. Meanwhile, England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce is known to be an admirer.

Whatever he achieves, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving family. More to read...
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