VERSATILE Neil Austin insists he has no qualms playing central defence – a position he played when he first started kicking a football around 21 years ago.
Ever since the popular defender joined Hartlepool United, back in the summer of 2009 from Darlington, Austin has been deployed at full-back.
He started out at right-back but over the past 12-months has been moved to the opposite flank, given the impressive rise of Michael Duckworth since his arrival from Bradford Park Avenue.
But this summer Pools manager Colin Cooper has moved 31-year-old Austin into central defence, alongside captain and new summer signing Matthew Bates.
The pair played the majority of pre-season matches there, including against Gus Poyet’s Sunderland and Aitor Karanka’s Boro side.
Then, surprisingly, on the opening day of the season, player coach Sam Collins was recalled to partner Bates for the trip to Stevenage, with Austin again moved to left-back.
But a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of Port Vale in the Capital One Cup four days later has since seen Cooper revert back to Plan A – with Austin moved alongside Bates in the centre.
He is no stranger to that position though, having played there from a young age when he was growing up in Barnsley.
When asked if he sees himself as a centre half or a full-back, Austin said: “You’ll have to ask the manager – I’m happy wherever he wants me to play.
“I started at centre back when I was 10 so I will say centre-back is my favourite position.
“I enjoy playing centre back, you see all of the pitch there and try and organise the players around you - especially the young full-backs.
“I feel comfortable playing there.”
He is also enjoying playing alongside new signing Bates, a former Middlesbrough, Bradford City and Bristol City defender.
Austin said: “I enjoy playing alongside Matty Bates, he has obviously been a good player at Middlesbrough.
“He has come in here and got the armband and communicates well.
“I think he will be a very good signing for us.”
Sadly, sloppy goals and shoddy defending have been an ongoing problem for Cooper’s side so far this season, with Bates and Austin both at fault for goals in the recent home defeats to Bury and Dagenham & Redbridge.
In recent matches they have been gifting goals to the opposition, especially in the cup defeat at Port Vale.
Austin admitted it has been a source of frustration for all concerned.
He added: “Since I have been here we have always been a tight-knit group at the back and we sometimes base our game on keeping it tight and then nicking a goal, 1-0, 2-1 results like that.
“To concede the goals like we have, so early in the season, is quite disappointing.
“The match at Port Vale, in particular, was a shell-shock for everyone, especially after I’d got the penalty and brought the game back to 3-2.
“We weren’t organised, couldn’t handle the two front men and we gave them way too much space.”
This calendar year has been a frustrating one for Austin so far after missing a large chunk of last season after injuring his toe at the start of February while making a block during the goalless draw with Scunthorpe United.
Pools went down every avenue possible in a bid to find a cure for the problem including X-rays, assessments and even having orthotics fitted.
But they all failed to improve Austin’s condition.
In the end there was no other option but for the Yorkshireman to go under the surgeon’s knife in order to knit together the bone in his big toe.
The surgery was a success and now Austin, who signed a new contract in the summer, is back fully-fit.
He added: “Last season was really frustrating for me with the toe injury.
“I had started 39 of the previous games and then got the injury in February and then missed the last 20 odd games of last season.
“That was disappointing and a frustrating time but I am glad to be back now.”