Charlie Austin is supporting Your Move’s campaign to reward 100 grassroots teams across the country with new kits as the amateur game restarts. The Grassroots Post were lucky enough to grab some time to chat all things grassroots.
Charlie Austin’s route into professional football is a well-publicised one. At twenty-one, he was working as a bricklayer and playing for ninth-tier Poole Town in the Wessex Premier League. Early mornings and hard work in the week, with training and travel to matches around that. For many of us in the grassroots world, that is our lives. And with football being largely removed over the last two seasons, it’s the best version of those lives. Something he sympathises with massively. But then, he’s always been a champion of grassroots football and the role it’s played in helping him fulfil a fantastic career at the top level.
“I live in Hungerford and there’s a great club there in Hungerford Town that gets 300-400 through the gates every game, and that has just stopped. It affects people massively. And you don’t realise how important it is until it’s not there every week. It’s people’s lives. To not have football at the weekend when I was working would have been hard. That’s the release and the fun bit in your lives, not the work!”
Charlie’s an affable chap. He’s relatable not just because of his story, but because of his personality. The loveable rogue. He’s not afraid to offer an opinion on the ills of the game and his heart is in exactly the right place. I remind him about a goal he scored against my beloved Charlton eleven years ago and he remembers every part of the game. He just loves playing and scoring goals – every one matters, and people love to see that.
There’s a nice story from when he’d finally made it as a professional: he was warming up at Carrow Road in front of 25,000 and the away Swindon Town fans (his first professional club) began to chant his name, reducing his grandad to tears. Football runs through the family, and especially at a grassroots level.
“My grandad and my dad played for their local side, Great Shefford. From about the age of four, a football has just been in front of me. I’d go watch my dad’s side and be around that.”
At fifteen, though it may have felt like the end of the road after being released from Reading’s academy, it was actually the beginning of a grassroots career that would propel him onto bigger things.
“I just don’t know if I had the desire at Reading. I dunno. Maybe not. Maybe not in that way. I just think kids should be playing with their mates. I was very young. You don’t really know what you want then or know yourself. But did I make the right decision?” Charlie pauses. “Yeahhh, I think I did.”
And that decision was to go and play men’s football for Kintbury Rangers Reserves in Division Two of the North Berks Football League. A team ran by his uncle, Darren Angel, brother of ex-Everton player, Brett. It’s the fourteenth tier of men’s football. To put this into context, eight years later, Charlie Austin finished fourth-top scorer in the Premier League behind only Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane and Diego Costa.
“I loved it. It was really, really enjoyable. It was about getting back out playing without the pressure. Without judgment. And it was men’s football so I had to learn fast. I was fifteen. Especially ‘the dark arts’. People leaving a bit in and giving you a few bumps and shoves off the ball. I hadn’t had that before!”
Does he think that grassroots football has an important role to play in supporting young players that are released from academies?
“Yeah, it’s everything. Everything. It’s about getting back that self-esteem and falling in love with it again and playing with your mates. Rediscovering why you fell in love with it in the first place. Look, every man and woman that has gone on to do well in the game started in grassroots football. I just wanted to get out there and play and score goals. You have to retain that belief in yourself.”
And was it sausage, chips and beans after the game?
“It wasn’t even that! We weren’t at the level to get sausage and chips. It was a Twix and a packet of crisps from the service station, mate! But no, I loved every minute.”
After that, it doesn’t quite work at his hometown club Hungerford, but as the family moves south, everything clicks at Poole Town.
“I got that hunger back. It was a new place and I didn’t know anyone, so I had to prove myself. I’d started to take it seriously and be a lot more professional. Stopped going out on a Friday night! And we had a good side. Tom Killick was the manager who’d been a serious player in non-league – he’d won the FA Vase with Wimborne. We had players there that I still don’t know how they didn’t go pro.”
Forty-eight goals in forty-two games tell its own story. And it was off to the big leagues. Where he didn’t exactly hang around and was prolific at Swindon and Burnley before reaching the Premier League with QPR. Surely playing men’s football from fifteen as opposed to playing academy or under-23 football served him well?
“100%. You learn so much. You toughen up. You just have to play. I worry these days that kids coming through just aren’t ready for it. They’ve only ever played on carpets. The other week we played at St Andrews and, to be fair, the pitch was terrible, but a lot of us are used to it; we’ve grown up playing on them and you just get on with it!”
I mention that there seems to be a fearlessness to Charlie Austin’s game that stems from his time in the lower leagues.
“I’d say fearless is the word, yeah. I just know that at whatever level and whoever I’m playing against, I can score. Strikers have to be confident. It’s a controlled arrogance, that’s what I’m about. You have to back yourself. And if you miss a couple of chances, get back up on the horse and have another go.”
It’s a mindset that has served him brilliantly and continues to do so. And it’s a story that shows, whether you’re passionate about grassroots football or the professional game, or somewhere in between, there are touchpoints in there that you can relate to. One thing is also for sure: he has in no way forgotten where he came from.
So are there any budding footballers in the Austin household? As women’s football is on the rise and opportunities improve, I ask him if his daughter has shown any interest.
“Yeah, she plays in the goal in the garden. At school. With her mates. Whether she will be into it or not, in the future, I don’t know. I don’t mind! I just love to have football around the house. It makes people happy. It brings joy. But I absolutely love that it’s so open now and that everyone can get involved. It’s great to see how things are changing.”
And finally, with Your Move giving away 100 kits to grassroots teams, has he ever played in any absolute stinkers?
“Ha, yeah definitely. There was this one at Wickham as a kid. It was kind of burgundy with a bit of blue. It was horrible. And about four sizes too big. Probably a hand-me-down from the older lads. It’s a good thing they’re doing.”
“Look good, play good, innit.”
Your Move, Official Communities Supporter of the EFL, are giving away football kits to grassroots teams at www.your-move.co.uk/kit.