Of the many things that are surprising about the professional football career of Charlie Austin, perhaps the most surprising of all is that it began only eight months ago.
Since being signed by Swindon Town from Poole Town of the Wessex League last October, the 20-year-old has scored 20 goals in 32 starts, forming a striking partnership with the similarly prolific Billy Paynter which has played a major part in propelling the Wiltshire club to the League One play-off final next Saturday.
Given that Austin averaged close to a goal a game in non-League football for the previous four years, he might have expected to get a chance at a higher level sooner than he did, but suggest that to him and the reaction is philosophical.
"Well, I think a few clubs probably looked at me, and after I scored a few for Poole in the Wessex League, Bournemouth had me in to train with them, but then they had a [Football League-imposed] transfer embargo," Austin says.
"I hadn't given up hope, though. I was working for my dad's building firm, laying bricks mainly, and he always said to make sure I put everything into every game because you never knew who was watching."
Not that he was struggling to find motivation. "I got released by Reading when I was 14 on the grounds I was probably always going to be too small, and though there was some interest from Swindon I had a bit of a knee injury, and in the end nothing came of it.
"At that point I didn't really think it was going to happen for me, so I played at Hungerford – my home town – and lived like a normal teenager really, going out on Fridays and that. But then when I finished at school I found out what working for a living was all about."
One such day he has never forgotten. "It was a cold, wet day on site at a village called Overton, and it was one of the longest days of my life; drenched, freezing, miserable, covered in mud. I was so stiff that I could barely move by the time it came to go home. I'll never forget it."
A family move to Bournemouth saw Austin join Poole Town, and 48 goals in 43 games in 2008-09 brought him to the attention of Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe. Then Swindon's chairman Andrew Fitton, who had been at Hungerford, recommended him to Danny Wilson. Having scored in a trial for the reserves, Austin arrived for a Poole game to see Wilson seated in the stand.
"I wasn't sure what he'd think of the standard, to be honest," Austin admits. "It was a good few levels [six] below League One, and also I'd been at work all day and then had to drive over an hour to get there. But I got stuck in and was lucky enough to score a couple in the first half. When we came out for the second, he'd gone."
Two days later, Wilson called. A £50,000 deal had been agreed. The next call Austin made was to his father. "It was emotional, because he and mum and my grandparents had always come to every match. They still do, it's just harder to pick them out than at Poole!"
Being asked for an autograph still makes him smile. "First time it happened I felt I wanted to ask whether they were sure they'd got the right person. Especially after I made a decent start but then went four games without scoring."
Since then he has barely stopped, including a crucial headed goal in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Charlton. The tie went to penalties but Austin held his nerve in front of the Charlton fans.
Now for Millwall at Wembley, a prospect the young man repeatedly suggests is "unbelievable". "When I think where I was and what I was doing just a few months ago, it's all you can say really. I think the last game I played in for Poole there were less than 100 spectators. We washed our own kit. How are you supposed to put into words what's happened since?"
Remarkably, it could get even better. Austin is said to be close to an England Under-21 call-up. Having worked on building sites himself in his time in non-League football, Stuart Pearce will have a good understanding of Austin's drive to succeed.
Like the former Birmingham and West Bromwich striker Geoff Horsfield, another former brickie, Austin may also be on his way to the Premier League with Newcastle. Wilson is not surprised. "All credit goes to Charlie, he's worked very hard to put himself in a position where he's being talked about," said the Swindon manager.
"Even though he was playing at the level he was, we still felt the basic rudiments were there. He was calculated in what he was doing, always getting into great areas. Of course there's still a lot of his game that he needs to brush up on but one thing you can't give him is that instinct, it is in-built. What's brilliant is that Charlie is maximising that himself."
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