NEIL Austin admits he has a fight on his hands to get his place back in the Hartlepool United side.
The 31-year-old missed a large chunk towards the end of last season after struggling to shake off a toe injury.
But after an operation he is now back fully fit and ready to challenge for his place in the team.
As things stand, with new signings yet to arrive at Victoria Park, Colin Cooper has a confirmed squad of just 16 players at his disposal – with James Poole and Antony Sweeney’s futures still up in the air.
But one area of the pitch that the manager does have strength in depth in, ahead of the new Sky Bet League Two campaign, is the full-back positions.
Austin, who recently signed a new deal, can play either right or left-back but he faces stiff competition from Darren Holden, 20, on the left flank after the South African-born youngster impressed when he came into the team when Austin was out injured.
Meanwhile, at right-back, Cooper has 22-year-old Michael Duckworth, who shone in his first year as a professional since signing from Bradford Park Avenue, to call on or Jordan Richards.
The 21-year-old proving a steady hand when he deputised on the right-hand side for parts of last season.
Experienced Austin, therefore, is fully aware he has a fight on to ensure he is in the starting line-up when the new season kicks off – with the fixtures being released today.
Barnsley-born Austin told SportMail: “The full-back department is probably one of our strongest areas and there are a lot of good players fighting for their positions.
“We might be a bit thin in other areas but I think the full-back area is sorted.
“It is great to have that competition for places and it can only be good for the club because it keeps you on your toes.
“The players know they have to perform to their very best in training and of course in matches, because there are others capable of coming into the team.”
Competition for places will of course crank up a notch when the Pools camp return to pre-season training on July 1.
The club usually opts for a week in Holland, playing friendly matches over there, but this summer Cooper is doing things a little differently with the training camp at the state-of-the-art La Cala Resort, in southern Spain.
The squad will spend a week at the same facilities that have been used by England Under-21s.
Excited Austin added: “It is a different pre-season than we have been used to but we are looking forward to Spain this year.
“I think it is brilliant what the gaffer has done and it helps freshen things up during pre-season.
“Even though the facilities in Holland have been really good it can get a bit repetitive and it is always nice to have a change.
“We are all looking forward to it and I’m all for what the gaffer is trying to do.”