“Will you come to Sheffield United?” then-Blades manager Neil Warnock asked, making his weekly phone call in pursuit of Austin’s services. “This is what I want to do: I want to make you club captain.”
With the impending end of Mark Goldberg’s brief chairmanship, Crystal Palace were entering 16 months of administration and, in an attempt to keep the club afloat, Goldberg was forced to sell many of his most prized assets: his players.
For Dean Austin, that meant facing departure from the club just months after he arrived. “We probably got to about a week before the transfer window closed and the Chairman was trying to get rid of everybody,” he recalls.
“Between the Tuesday afternoon after training and the Thursday, when the transfer deadline was, seven or eight players had gone out of the building.
“I was one of the players Mark [Goldberg] was trying to get out and he was begging me on the phone to leave on the Tuesday and the Wednesday. He’s a good guy, Mark, a really good guy and I felt sorry for him. But at the end of the day, the moves were not right for me and therefore I said: ‘I’ll take my chances come what may.’
“Obviously it’s put to you you’re definitely not going to be getting your money, you’ll be receiving maybe 40% of your weekly wage until such time that the club is taken over.
“I just turned around to Mark and said: ‘I want to help you, obviously, but I’m not leaving.’
“I’d had pretty much a torrid time in my first six-odd months at the club. I’d had a pretty bad time. I was recovering from a very serious knee injury, I hadn’t played properly for a year before I came to Palace and though I felt physically very fit, I was not football fit and, to be honest with you, I was substandard.
“I wasn’t going to leave Palace the way it was. There was no way I was walking out of that club and my perception, which wasn’t necessarily going to define me as a person, was going to define me as a footballer. I didn’t want to be leaving there seen as a failure.
“I think I was appreciated a little bit more than if I’d I left when everything was falling down around me.”
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Despite receiving regular and persistent offers from other clubs, Austin stayed at Palace to play almost 150 times despite only featuring consistently for intermittent spells. Through administration, the captain would compete on heavily reduced wages and guide an inexperienced, youthful team to securing the club’s league survival.
Under Steve Coppell, Austin became a significant member of the team, but his job security remained under threat.
“When the club was in administration and there were two deals [to buy Palace], no one really knew what was going on. Steve Coppell is probably one of the biggest influences on my career as a leader. I had conversations with him and he said: ‘Dean, I really want you to stay but we don’t know if the deals are going to be done at this point.’”
Sure enough, negotiations lingered on and, entering July 2000, Palace were still without an owner. Austin claims Neil Warnock had been looking to secure the defender’s services for almost a year by this point and, with the club still in trouble, a move to his Sheffield United beckoned.
“I was probably 24 hours away from signing for Sheffield United as Simon [Jordan] bought the club,” Austin reveals.
“At the end of the day everyone had families, mortgages, etc. I think they were worried they weren’t going to receive their money. Obviously it’s: ‘What’s going to happen to me? Are the club going to try and get rid of me and cash-in?’ All the stuff like that, especially for younger players, brings uncertainty.
“The thing I’ve always been very good at - or was very good at, I should say - is stepping over the white line and putting everything behind me. It didn’t matter.
“In that year-and-a-bit we were in administration, that was probably my most enjoyable year at Crystal Palace. Forty percent of my wages, but I revelled in the role as leader of the team with a bunch of youngsters.
“For me, playing was never about money. Everyone has to earn money, of course they do, and you have to look after yourself and play to look after yourself. But I never stayed at Palace for money. I stayed at Palace because I loved being there.”
Ultimately, Crystal Palace survived administration and, by 2001, they were enduring a bruising battle under Steve Bruce to fight their way from Division One into the Premier League.
But Austin’s injuries were catching up with him and, as he passed his 30th year, game-time began to dwindle.
Finally, after numerous offers throughout his career in south London and pressure to move on, Austin was contemplating a fresh challenge in a less taxing environment.
“I had chances to go,” he explains, “I knew I wasn’t going to play every game. The years were catching up with me, the knee was deteriorating. I said [to manager Bruce]: ‘I want to go. I want to go because I want to play.’ Steve said: ‘No, you’re not going. It’s stupid. You’re not going.’ I said: ‘No, boss; I want to play.’
“He said: ‘You can’t play two games a week, mate. That’s the fact, the reality. I’m being really, really honest: you can’t play two games a week. You’re the leader of this team, you’re the club captain and you will play 25-30 games this season in this team. You’re staying here.’
“I went: ‘Right. Okay.’ I accepted my role in the team as the club captain and playing sporadically. I accepted playing one game in three, playing a Saturday and then not the Tuesday. Or playing the Tuesday and not the Saturday.
“When I played, two days after Steve wouldn’t make me train. I’d play on the Saturday and get in early on the Monday. Steve knew I was a top professional that looked after myself.
“I’d come in and get myself on the bike. Then I’d go out, walk around training and put some cones down for [coach] Terry Bullivant. I’d put some cones down for Bully, collect some balls up or whatever but Steve never used to make me train. And that helped me with my career.”
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Bruce left the club that season, just three months into the job, and by that point Austin was receiving three painkilling injections to his toe before every match, such was the extent of his ongoing issues.
The captain continued to make fewer and fewer appearances in red and blue and, at only 33-years-old, decided to call time on his bruising professional career.
“I decided to pack up on my 33rd birthday. I was getting married at the end of the following year, I wanted to have more kids and I said to my future wife: ‘I think it’s time.’”
Austin’s involvement with Palace wouldn’t end there, however. “I was far, far more interested in coaching than I was interested in playing,” he says, and thankfully two men had encouraged a new path in the sport long before Austin called it a day.
Terry Venables and Steve Coppell both instructed their defensive protege to start coaching courses as a player, telling him: “‘You are a coach. We’ve had players with us before and we’ve seen them become coaches, you are one of them.’”
And so playing turned to coaching, to Watford, and then to Farnborough Town.
But it was Austin’s arrival at Southend United which penned another footnote in Crystal Palace’s history.
The Shrimpers’ first-team and Under-21 coach had been involved in the procurement of former teammate Dougie Freedman to Essex and, at the other end of the talent pool, his ability to spot and nurture young players helped Southend unearth the likes of Michael Kightly and Gary Hooper.
Then there was Stuart O’Keefe, the young midfielder who would go on to play over 50 times for Palace and help win the play-off final at Wembley in 2013. “I went to watch the [Southend] youth team play one day in the FA Youth Cup,” Austin recalls. “I saw this little, scrawny, skinny whippet of a kid playing right midfield of a 4-4-2. I said to the Academy Director who was a very good friend of mine: ‘Oi, who’s this little kid here?’
“He says: ‘Oh, that’s Stuart O’Keefe,’ and I’ve said: ‘He’s a player. I want to take him, we need to monitor him but I want him to come and do twice-a-week with the Under-21s.’
“Stuart O’Keefe then started coming with me to the Under-21s. I really pushed for this boy to be involved in the first-team. We really, really worked with him and really worked hard. We got him to the first-team. I just felt this kid was going to have a really good career and the kid got hungry. He was really, really hungry.
“I always think if they have the real, real desire to do it and you know they’ve got the ability, you have to give young players a chance.
“From Southend I went to Watford to assist Brendan Rodgers and then I came back to Palace [as first-team coach]. Dougie was already at Palace and Dougie liked him [O’Keefe]. Dougie was assistant manager and I said to him: ‘Stuart could be a good one to get in and develop.’
“As it was, we ended up getting him out of Southend on a technicality in a free transfer and that was the story of Stuart O’Keefe.”
A few years later, on 31st August 2013, with both Austin and Freedman working at other clubs, Stuart O’Keefe jogged forward in the hot south London sun before curling a ball past Sunderland’s Keiren Westwood to seal Crystal Palace’s first Premier League win since 2005.
As Palace fans celebrated their fourth goal of the new top flight era, they were unaware that Dean Austin had yet another hand to play in the history of their club.
You can meet Dean and hear more of his eye-opening stories next Saturday in our Premium Lounges against Newcastle United. Dean will be hosting for the first time, so don’t miss this opportunity to meet a Palace cult hero and enquire here now!
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