COLIN Cooper has praised the form of make-shift centre-half Neil Austin – but admits he is still looking to boost his defensive options.
The 31-year-old has partnered new signing Matthew Bates in the majority of the first team’s pre-season friendly matches, with player coach Sam Collins’ appearances restricted so far.
Cooper has been impressed with Austin’s form, especially in the friendly games against Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite the end results of 3-0 and 2-0 respectively.
The Pools manager has “no problem” playing Austin centrally but with just days to go before the first League Two match at Stevenage, Cooper admits he is still on the lookout for reinforcements in central defence – with a loan recruit the more likely.
He has been pleased though with “versatile” Austin, who came to the club as a right-back but has since played left-back and now centre-half.
Austin played centrally away to Sheffield United in last season’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, helping Pools to a 1-0 victory with a commanding display.
The Yorkshireman went on to miss a large chunk of the campaign after suffering a toe injury at the start of February while
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making a block during the goalless draw with Scunthorpe United – but he has come back fully fit and in good form.
“Oz [Austin] is a versatile player,” said Cooper.
“I think he would like to play there but I have also said if we get chance I’d like to bring a centre half in.
“I have said to big Sam [Collins] that I still see him as a valuable asset but while he has been having a look at things from the outside, Oz is more than capable of playing centre-half.
“Him and Matthew [Bates] look fine as a pair and I would have no bones about playing them together – I would have no problem playing all three of them if I am honest.
“As it stands, Oz is enjoying that challenge but he offers us the versatility of being able to play anywhere across the back four.
“He is such a good pro that he can do an awful lot of things for us but I have no problem playing him there.
“Oz was excellent away to Sheffield United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last year and in the games he has played so far this pre-season, against some strikers who have good movement.
“Kike’s movement was excellent for Middlesbrough, trying to pull off his shoulder, and on the whole I thought Oz dealt with it well.
“Against Sunderland and Middlesbrough him and Matthew have looked more than capable of forming a decent partnership.”
Sam Collins, who has only completed 90 minutes against Whitby Town, was named in the starting line-up for the friendly at Bradford City.
However he was withdrawn after just 17 minutes after being struck in the back of the head by Gary Liddle’s powerful shot. Austin was then moved back into central defence to parter Bates.
Despite being visibly shaken, Collins had recovered to oversee a youthful Pools side win 4-1 at Spennymoor Town on Monday night, the club’s final pre-season match.
Cooper is adamant that the player coach still has a big part to play but said he would also like to bring in some cover at centre-half to give him “more options”.
SportMail revealed last week that Cooper would “love” to see either Middlesbrough defender Christian Burgess or Sunderland defender Scott Harrison back on loan this season.
Burgess is said to be keen on a return if Boro agree to loan him out again.
Cooper added: “I keep saying to Sam [Collins] he still has a role to play in the team but if there was an opportunity to bring a Christian Burgess or a Scott Harrison or someone else of that ilk back in on loan, then it would give us more options.
“We are still a little short on depth and that is no disrespect to the lads on the bench against Middlesbrough.
“I’d like to think there is another two or three options for me to choose from when we get to Stevenage on Saturday.
“That will give us the bit of strength and depth and we’ll see where we go from there.”
Further up the pitch and Cooper is believed to be keeping tabs on 6ft 3” Sunderland striker Mikael Mandron, ahead of a possible loan move.
The Frenchman, who signed for the Black Cats in the summer of 2011, was on Pools’ radar last season as well but instead opted to sign on loan for Fleetwood Town in January.
The 19-year-old has been in impressive form in pre-season, averaging almost a goal per game and Gus Poyet included him in the first team squad’s recent Portugal tour.
Mandron qualifies internationally for England and Scotland and had been playing in his homeland with Bolougne.