Charlie Austin is crocked apparently.
After his 18 goals in the Premiership (2 more than Alexis Sanchez and 4 more than Saido Berahino, if Spurs are interested) you’d think that rumours about the structural integrity of his human form would’ve dissipated. But apparently not, as David Sullivan took to the KUMB podcast to tell the world that Charlie Austin is a a skeleton held together by reused sellotape and he has LITERALLY NO LIGAMENTS.
Whether it is scientifically possible that Charlie Austin has no ligaments is beyond my medical knowledge. But the outburst does seem extraordinary, and Austin’s response was rightly furious. Austin played and scored against Wolves at the weekend, which, along with his 18 goals last term, seems to confirm that he is, at the very least, able to stay upright.
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of declaring that another team’s player is a worthless crock of shite on a public forum, Sullivan’s point essentially breaks down as this: at 26, Charlie Austin is an unreliable player to spend £15m on. A 5-year contract would take him through to 31 which, for a player who only started professional conditioning when he joined Swindon Town in 2009, might not represent great value for money. But, then again, this is the same David Sullivan who spent £15m to bring Andy Carroll to West Ham from Liverpool, where he had only made 26 starts in two-and-a-half years, scoring 16 goals (12 fewer than Charlie Austin last season, for what that’s worth). Since signing for West Ham, Carroll has managed 46 starts in two-and-a-bit seasons, scoring 14 goals.
Perhaps the reason for David Sullivan’s obsessive sense of caution is West Ham’s recent history of having really good strikers who are also really injury prone. Carroll is, objectively, a very good player – that’s why Liverpool shelled out a British transfer record fee for him – but hasn’t been able to build up a head of form. In that same way, West Ham’s best player of the last decade was, arguably, Dean Ashton. A fantastically effective goalscorer, Ashton scored 14 goals in 46 appearances for West Ham (an eerie symmetry with Carroll) before recurring injury problems forced him to retire. Now, Ashton is 31, the same age Austin would be at the end of a 5-year contract, and it’s hard to remember, let alone imagine, him playing top level football.
Austin, Carroll and Ashton all share a lot of physical attributes, not least the fact that they all sport a bit more upper body muscle than your average top-flight striker. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this creates a lot more stress on your knees and ankles, especially if you’re playing in the Premiership as opposed to the lower leagues. A League 2 striker, like Adebayo Akinfenwa, can afford to carry that bulk because the game is played up-and-down, and there is an urgent need for physicality off the ball. But, in the Premiership, the game is played through the middle or down the wings, and the striker, however bulldozing, has to make their space. And that’s where the problems occur – running, jumping, tackling, shooting, all of these things are putting pressure on the athletes’ knees and ankles. The result is that they become fragile – not as players, they’re all still very physical attackers, but in terms of how they get back up when they’re knocked down.
It’s been hard not to blame Shaun Wright-Phillips for the loss of Dean Ashton, after his reckless challenge in England training left Ashton with an irreparable ankle injury. Ashton considered suing Wright-Phillips, but, in the end, the damage was done. Though it’s pure speculation, I suspect that Ashton’s career would’ve been curtailed by injury at some point anyway – he simply wasn’t physically adapted to the demands of the league.
So, perhaps this is the perspective from which David Sullivan made his remarks about Charlie Austin. It’s a shame because it has essentially put West Ham’s interest in Austin (or Austin’s interest in West Ham) to bed, and an Austin/Sakho partnership at Upton Park would’ve been a very exciting prospect. But we live in an age of extremely judicious, weighed transfer decisions. It’s unusual to hear a figure as high-profile as Sullivan talking so candidly about transfer policy – perhaps influenced by the fact that he was appearing on a fan podcast – and it does seem unprofessional. But transfer acquisitions are no different from insurance brokerages: the participants have to consider the relative gains and losses of each move.
Laying down £15m on Charlie Austin, plus a 5-year contract (at, let’s say, £80,000 per week) is a calculated gamble that pays off if he has two 15+ goal seasons. But you want to be able to successfully hedge your bets on that transfer. Andy Carroll is contracted to West Ham until 2019, following his £15m move, so Austin would be the hedge fund to Carroll’s original investment.
And, in those terms, I can see Sullivan’s reservations. West Ham are still looking to hedge their investment in Carroll, and acquiring Austin would only stack up the uneven gambling.