Charlie Austin has taken the long way on his path to Premier League success
Queens Park Rangers' season is ending with almost all hands lost. A squad of ageing veterans and mediocre imports will be broken up in the summer, as the club's owners attempt to salvage order from chaos while also mounting a legal battle to evade a £58 million fine for breaching Football League financial rules during the club's last stay in the Championship.
Charlie Austin, though, looks certain to be back in England's first division next season. A club that desperately needs the money will surely cash in its most sellable asset. The Premier League will find a place for a striker who supplies a range of finishes and possesses the broad shoulders of the bricklayer he once was.
There were only brief slivers of the season when survival looked possible for QPR, and almost all of them arrived through Austin. In the end, the burden carried proved too great, and it was his missed penalty against West Ham on April 25 that all but confirmed the drop -- though that will not be held against him.
"Him and [goalkeeper] Rob [Green] are two of the main reasons we have even got a fighting chance," said manager Chris Ramsey after that 0-0 draw, after which Austin took it upon himself to apologise to staff for allowing Hammers keeper Adrian to save his shot.
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Austin spoke to Rangers coaches that afternoon as a player whose Premier League status has been hard-won. He has become the latest poster boy -- perhaps a successor to Rickie Lambert -- for lower-league football's continuing ability to unearth talent. Rejected by Reading as a teenager, Austin's route to the top tier has been circuitous.
Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas arrived at Rangers on loan from Napoli, having starred at the World Cup, but has never come close to matching the impact made by a player who has wended his way up from playing for Poole Town in the Wessex Premier League while working 10-hour days on a building site. Vargas has been identified as one of Joey Barton's "bad eggs," but the out-of-contract midfielder has described Austin, for whom Barton has huge admiration, as someone who has "done it the hard way."
Disappointment is no stranger to Austin. The chance to join Bournemouth, his local league club, and work under manager Eddie Howe in the summer of 2009 was denied after a transfer embargo prevented a successful trial being converted into a professional contract. Instead, he became an instant hero at Swindon Town.
At the County Ground, he was feted as the striker who never missed. Then came Wembley, and a 2009-10 League One playoff final with Millwall. Town were a goal down, but a 72nd-minute chance fell to Austin, with only goalkeeper David Forde to beat. Swindon fans' premature celebrations were cut agonisingly short when the ball somehow billowed wide. Replays showed that Austin had been a victim of a pockmarked Wembley playing surface, but "Charlie's bobble" is still recalled with pained wistfulness in Wiltshire.
Swindon did not reach the Championship, but Austin did, and he finally got the chance to work with Howe at Burnley in January 2011 after the recently arrived manager made the striker his second signing. Although Howe eventually walked out on Burnley to return to Bournemouth, his greatest legacy was Austin, who scored 41 goals in 82 Championship games.
In February, Hull City manager Steve Bruce could be heard lamenting the failed medical that stopped him from making a Premier League striker of Austin in the summer of 2013. "It is a question you have to give to my doctor," Bruce said ruefully of the knee problem identified but which has not since hindered Austin. "He has proved he is a quality player."
In stealing Austin for £4 million for QPR that same summer, Harry Redknapp rediscovered his taste for a bargain as Rangers secured promotion. Like Howe at Burnley, Redknapp quit Rangers this January with Austin as his most valuable bequest. Austin's rate of scoring at Rangers continues at a career rate of a goal every other game, and not abating once in the Premier League. In the winter months, when Rangers were relying on home form to keep their season on life support, Austin's goals supplied the medicine.
A beneficiary of Bobby Zamora's hold-up play this season, Austin is a striker who takes on opportunities from all angles, and who does not allow misses to stop him seizing on the next chance -- reflecting the arc of his career. The overnight sensation with years of graft in unglamorous surroundings has meanwhile suffered further disappointment beyond his club's relegation slide.
In November, England manager Roy Hodgson mentioned QPR's striker, then in the richest form of the season, as a "player we have our eyes on," but no call was forthcoming. Austin lost out to Harry Kane's thrilling breakthrough at Tottenham when Hodgson made his selection for March's matches with Lithuania and Italy, after Austin's scoring form had slowed a little, although he did follow up that bad news with goals in his next two games.
This summer, according to strike partner Zamora last month, and with Kane headed to play in the European under-21 championships, Austin delayed his holiday to stay available should Hodgson choose him for selection. His patience was duly rewarded, as the England manager made the call ahead of the friendly with Republic of Ireland and the qualifier with Slovenia.
Premier League suitors, meanwhile, will almost certainly be trying his number in the near future, too.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.