Austin comes home - Signing
Wednesday, 2nd Jun 2021 15:49 by Clive Whittingham
QPR have brought talismanic striker Charlie Austin back to the club permanently on a two-year contract following his release by West Bromwich Albion.
At 31 years of age Charlie Austin has grown into something of a modern day folk hero for QPR fans. He has scored 56 goals for the club in just 110 appearances over two spells.
Rejected by Reading as a junior he famously combined non-league football at his home town Hungerford, Thatcham and latterly Poole Town with work as a bricklayer. Scoring 46 goals in 46 apps for Poole in 2008/09 attracted Bournemouth but a trial there floundered on the rocks of a transfer embargo. Eighteen goals in 11 apps at the start of the following season saw League One Swindon Town take the plunge after he scored a hat trick in a reserve game against Swansea while on trial.
His impact in Danny Wilson’s side was almost immediate. He scored 20 goals in 32 starts and six sub apps in 2009/10, including one in the 2-1 home win against Charlton in the play-off semi final, and then a penalty in the subsequent shoot out after the away leg. His good form did not carry through to Wembley however, with an infamous one on one miss costing the Robins in a 1-0 loss to Millwall. Still in League One, he started 2010/11 on fire, with 17 goals in 23 appearances, before a shoulder injury which would recur later in his career curtailed the campaign.
It wasn’t enough to put Championship side Burnley off, and they paid £1m for him that January giving him two starts and two sub apps at the higher level through to the end of the season. In his first full Championship season he averaged better than a goal every other start, with 17 scored in 33 starts and 13 sub appearances. His 2012/13 was even better, with 28 goals in 40 starts. This included his first professional hat trick in a 5-2 home league win against Peterborough, quickly followed by another against Sheff Wed, part of a run of 17 goals in the first 14 games of Burnley’s season. His goals in eight consecutive games between September 15 and October 23 broke a 60 year club record.
Bids from elsewhere were inevitable and he looked odds on for Hull City in the summer of 2013, however the Premier League side failed him on his medical – something he would later remind them of with a goal celebration in QPR colours having scored for the R’s on Humberside. Rangers, newly relegated from the top flight, spent much of the summer chasing Gary Hooper, spending £4m on Austin almost as an unheralded afterthought, but his signing former a key part of the 2013/14 promotion campaign. A ball flicked off him for his first goal in QPR colours in the League Cup at Exeter and it took seven league games, and until September 14 at home to Birmingham, for him to get underway in the league but he finished with 20 for the season including an extra-time winner against Wigan in the play-offs at Loftus Road which took Rangers to Wembley for the memorable Bobby Zamora final victory against Derby.
Although QPR struggled back in the top flight, Austin bagged 18 Premier League goals in a relegated side. He scored in the first win of the season against Sunderland, twice in a Monday night football victory over Aston Villa, and spectacularly in a defeat at Southampton. A hat trick against West Brom saw Rangers rally from two goals down to win. His form was enough to win an England call up that summer, but he remained on the bench for a 0-0 friendly draw in the Republic of Ireland and sadly never got another shot at a cap. He scored seven in his first nine games back in the Championship but with his contract running down a move was always on the cards and Premier League Southampton paid £4m for him that January – he scored a headed winner on his debut at Old Trafford.
His time at St Mary’s was somewhat stop start. Nine goals in 21 apps in 2016/17, seven in 26 the year after that, just three in 27 in 2018/19 (although 15 of those appearances were from the bench) and he spent 2019/20 helping West Brom win Championship promotion after another £4m move – 11 goals scored, six of which came in a five-match flurry in November. Once promoted the Baggies offloaded him on loan in January to QPR where he came into a side that had won just four games in the first half of the season, and 12 in the whole of 2011, and quickly helped it transform into the form team in the league. His fiftieth goal for the club came in a 2-1 away win at Watford, one of 15 victories Rangers managed through the second half of the season to climb out of relegation trouble to ninth in the league. He scored eight times in 19 starts and two sub apps.
Although Austin was released on a free transfer by the Baggies this summer, the level of wage he has reached through two £4m moves to lower Premier League clubs seemingly made a permanent move back to Loftus Road impossible. Not so, he has today been announced as a permanent re-signing by Rangers, on a two year contract.
“I am really pleased to get it done and to be able to continue my journey here. With the way we finished the season – and how I feel about the club hasn’t changed – I wanted to be part of it and as soon as the opportunity was available I wanted to get this done as soon as possible. Despite having other options, Austin was quick to agree terms with QPR, explaining: “I know this is the right move for me and the right move for my family. Where am I happiest? I was going through a period where I wasn’t enjoying my football – I came here and enjoyed it straight away. I love everything that the club stands for. It’s a family club and one that I’m suited to.” - Charlie Austin
“He has a really strong affiliation with the club and a great relationship with the fans, so to get this one over the line is fantastic. Everyone saw the impact he had during his loan spell, both on and off the pitch. Charlie brings real enthusiasm to every training session. He has played at the highest level and he knows the standards that are required if you are to be successful. He demands off everyone – he will very quickly let people know if their standards aren’t where they should be. Charlie obviously had other options so for us to get him says a lot about Charlie, as well as the direction we are looking to move in. Not only does this signing help with future targets, it also helps with current players we have at the football club – it shows we have ambition.” - Warbs Warburton
I find these signing pieces hard to write, and hard to get right. Regular readers (hello to both) will know this from experience because they’ll recall I thought Clint Hill was a lazy, unimaginative signing when we could have got Dusko Tosic in his position for free; that Shaun Derry was miles past it and a real ‘jobs for the boys’ Neil Warnock signing; that Jordan Mutch and Conor Washington were “exactly the sort of players we should be signing”; and perhaps most infamously that “even QPR cannot fail to make a success” of an £8m move for Steven Caulker.
The fundamental reason for this is I don’t know what I’m talking about. When I started writing for this site 20 years ago I was an arrogant, cocksure teenage boy with a giant chip on his shoulder about how unfair the last few years of his life had been, furious about QPR exacerbating that through their general ineptness, and fuelled by the sort of angry certainty that I was right and everybody else was wrong that only comes with the chemicals that rush round the male body at that age and several glorious Champions League campaigns with Castel Di Sangro on Championship Manager. As the years have passed, the anger has subsided, the confidence has drained away, one opinion after another has turned out to be wrong and each passing interview or meeting with intelligent people who work in the sport has made me warm to the Bill James quote about realising how little you know about the game you’ve watched all your life.
I now try desperately hard to write from the position of the fan in the stand, rather than somebody who believes he’d do a better job than the fella in the dugout. The problem with that when it comes to signing pieces is I, like any fan, gets excited by new signings. I may, justifiably, take the piss out of the “#announceRavel” and “sign a fucking striker” brigade on social media, and have rolled my eyes at QPR’s past “more lasers” solution to every single problem they ever faced, but I’m as excited as the next person when the photos of the new face with the QPR scarf held in the air start to filter through, whether it’s Chris Samba and Jose Bosingwa, or Charlie Austin and Ale Faurlin doing the smiling. That’s an issue because if I simply sat here and wrote “this is brilliant” about every player we signed then I may as well go and work for Paul Morrissey on the official website, and I’m not sure they’d have me.
So I try and analyse these signings and spark a bit of debate (because this is how I earn my living) as logically as I can, with what knowledge I have gleaned through attending somewhere north of a 1,500 QPR games, speaking to people in the game, and looking back into history for clues. If the player has been injured, poorly behaved, or crap, for a good period of the time before he joined then it’s fair to point that out and assume it might be the case again for us because… well… why wouldn’t it be? If we’re meant to be skint and we’re signing Dillon Barnes when we already have three senior goalkeepers and a whole clutch of youth goalkeepers on staff it’s not unfair to ask why we’re doing that. If we were to start going down the path of big names for big transfer fees and big wages it would be remiss of me not to point out that this didn’t work for us before and is how we ended up in a mess in the first place. Likewise if you’re bringing in a big name on obviously more money than the rest of the squad, how is that going to affect a dressing room, based on everything we’ve ever heard footballers say about such situations, everything we’ve gleaned from our accounts, and my own experience of managing teams of people in the workplace. It’s also possible to look at other well-run success stories in the sport, aspire towards them, and compare what we’re doing with what they do.
From that position, I did wonder whether Charlie Austin was the best idea we could have had last January. He’d done okay for West Brom the previous season, scoring ten in the league and one in the cup, but in a promoted side, with Diangana, Pereira and Sawyers pulling the strings, you’d have been expecting prime Charlie Austin to double that. Four of the goals were penalties, and six of them came in a five-game hot spell through the end of November. There were two periods of six games where he didn’t score at all, and one of seven. This was not the player we remembered from before, which is often the danger of returning to clubs later in your career where you’ve had prior success.
I also described this idea that Austin would come in as some sort of mentor figure for the struggling Lyndon Dykes and Macauley Bonne as “fanciful”. That’s partly because Charlie, and I mean this as a compliment, had never been anything other than the archetypal selfish striker. Put the ball in the box and his ability to find space and finish the chance is second to none at this level over the last decade – even now, with everything every team knows about him, he’s still able at Stoke away on the penultimate weekend of last season to work himself completely free of markers in the box from a QPR corner and get a shot away that was brilliantly saved, when you’d think job one for an opposing defence would be at least making sure there’s somebody with him. But as for working with others, mentoring, bringing them along… I don’t even really remember him having much of a back-to-goal game last time he was here. Until he became TalkSport’s go-to rent-a-quote in the last six months, you were far more likely to find Charlie getting enthusiastic, talking, Tweeting and analysing horseracing than you were football. No, Charlie was basically being brought in to score us five or six goals, for five or six wins, and 15-18 points that would get us out of the shit and off to Mykonos still a second tier team. It began and ended there.
It was also, apparently, a signing driven by Tony Fernandes, while those running the club day to day were keener on Glenn Murray. Again, alarm bells ring when that’s the case based on past experience. And I wondered whether we were solving a problem that wasn’t there. Sure you could point to a couple of chances for Bonne to win the away game at Bournemouth, bad misses by Dykes at Brentford and at home to Stoke, and a catalogue of misses in the first half at home to Bristol City but, really, prior to the Fulham cup game the day before Austin signed, it didn’t feel like we were creating a whole barrel load of sitters that Bonne and Dykes were butchering.
Bollocks. All of it. Bollocks. From the moment he walked back in the room, he’s been little short of talismanic. He scored immediately, on his second debut at Luton, inspiring the team to a 2-0 victory which was their first win in 11 games. Subsequent goals against Watford, Brentford and Millwall added six points to the team’s total by themselves. He ended up with eight from 19 starts taking him to 56 goals in 110 appearances. Whether he’s the player he used to be or not, he still scores a goal every other game when you put him in QPR colours, and you’ll now also find him dropping short out of the area to bring a ball down and sweep it out wide, as he did prior to his goal at Birmingham, in a way he never did in his first spell. Games like Bournemouth, Bristol City and Brentford, where the team had played well without getting the result, can sap a young team’s confidence in what they’re being asked to do. Having Charlie up there seemed to give the team faith that the hard work would not go unrewarded. His overall performances weren’t that brilliant (8, 6, 5, 6, 5, 6, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 5, 4, 6, 6, 7, 5, 6, 5, 7, 7 = 5.90) but the belief his presence gave the rest of the team has been enormous. Rangers won 13 and drew two of the 21 games he was involved in and he scored in six of those wins. After years of searching for a replacement for Charlie Austin it turns out the best answer was Charlie Austin himself.
He has taken to the senior player role better than anybody could ever have imagined. Some of it has been pure David Brent – “Did a volley in training the other day, casual, thought nothing of it. The gaffer said afterwards everyone stayed out after training trying to copy me... Of course they couldn't and I didn't even think anything of it, just a volley top bins - whatever - but yeah, that's the kind of thing you see...." – but the difference in Lyndon Dykes in particular is there for all to see. Far from selfish striker, Austin seems even more delighted when Lyndon scores than when he does so himself. The reaction to the Scotstralian breaking his duck at Reading was pure bromance. You no longer hear the criticism about QPR being too quiet and too nice, you can hear Rangers clearly now and Austin is a huge part of that – occasionally, such as his stamp at Nottingham Forest, or some of what went on in the Brentford home game, that’s crossed the line, but I’ll take it over what we saw and heard in those weird lockdown games with Reading and Stoke before Christmas. Warbs has talked about building a reputation and an aura, making teams worry about playing us in the same way they do other sides at this level, and we’re a much more fearsome prospect with Austin in attack than without.
I don’t know, given the money he was on at West Brom and the structure we have here, how we’ve done it. I never thought it possible and I desperately hope we haven’t done that old QPR thing of getting stars in our eyes and breaking the budget apart to get a name in, because it doesn’t work when we do that, even if it is Charlie Austin, and would undo so much good work over so many years. If Hoos and Warburton think this is affordable, worth doing, and within budget, then I’m going to trust them with that and get on with the business of being over the fucking moon. Because how can you not be? He fits here, both in this team and at this club. He’s shown over the second half of the season that this is a long way from just a nostalgic thing, or shirt selling exercise.
It may not work out, for all the reasons I doubted it would work in January. Many signings don’t. We may be doing that budget busting, big name, PR move for the fans again, that hasn’t worked before, and will not only not work again but also undo much hard graft of the last few years. These things will be known, and analysed, in time. But knowing, and analysing, in time, saps so much of the joy out of supporting the bloody football club I'm hoping you'll allow my excited child to win through today. I have also written a lot about the importance of re-engaging and enthusing a support base that has become used to not going to football matches and has found alternative uses for their money and Saturdays. The end to last season, the transfer business done since, and now this signing, is sending optimism levels surging after a lean few years, and that's important, particularly with whats gone on elsewhere in West London football these past few days. Just close your eyes and imagine now the opening day of next season, with the team coming out of the tunnel with Charlie Austin in it, imagine the noise that will greet his name, imagine the reaction when he scores in front of us again. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?
It’s ok to be excited, to allow some joy into our lives. We’ve done our time, maybe we are now once again allowed nice things.
The Twitter @loftforwords
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