Two years ago, Niamh Charles made her own way to a Champions League final, glad she had a precious ticket and booked flights to watch her beloved Liverpool play tottenham at Madrid’s Metropolitano Stadium.
“Getting a ticket was the most important thing and I just went as a fan, everyone did their own thing,” she says. ‘Since I had 2005, I knew what the Champions League was. I just wanted to be there. ‘
Her story of watching Steven Gerrard and the miracle of Istanbul is quite another. Charles was a five-year-old and was allowed to stay up to watch the game with her family, gathered around the TV in their home on the Wirral Peninsula, while Rafael Benitez’s side turned the game.
Niamh Charles is looking for Champions League glory with Chelsea against Barcelona
Charles was only five years old in 2005 when her beloved Liverpool won in Istanbul
“I remember exactly where I was and it gives me goosebumps even now,” she recalls. “It was such an end to such a crazy game and I was still – still – when they won it.”
This weekend she will be on the same podium herself, in Emma Hayes’ Chelsea team facing Barcelona at the Gamla Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg.
“I can hardly believe it is happening,” she says. ‘If you had told me when I was at that final in Madrid – let alone 2005 – that a few years later I would be part of a team that plays in one, I wouldn’t have believed you. It is incredible to prepare for this and to watch with a group of incredibly experienced players how they approach a match like this. ‘
It was also a sea change for her as she was relegated to the Liverpool team from the WSL a year ago. Just two days after her twentieth birthday, she found herself headed for a Chelsea squad so full of talent that some in the game asked how on earth a broad forward like her would break through there.
As a fullback, the 21-year-old shone in the semi-final of Chelsea against Bayern Munich
As a fullback was the answer. Operating on both the right and left sides of the defense, Charles has brought pace and strength to Chelsea in recent months and was one of the outstanding players in the semi-final victory over Bayern Munich, sending the team to Sweden. .
“When I came here I just trusted Emma,” she says of her manager, after one of the club’s last days of training before flying to Sweden. ‘I just got used to working hard and training with these incredible players and the fullback role just happened on its own.
‘When you become a defender, the most important part suddenly becomes cleaning, so that was different for me. But in our team, everyone defends, everyone attacks. ‘
The ice in her veins has also helped. An injury from Maren Mjelde, linked to Jonna Andersson’s struggle to face Hanna Glas in the Bayern first leg, left full-back openings for Charles and Jess Carter, another young English talent to the right of the defense.
Jess Carter also took her chance in defense of the Blues to help her reach the finals
Even for those of Charles’ generation, the route to the game was much more challenging than it was for her male contemporaries. Like Nikita Parris, a Merseysider who was six years her senior, she spent much of her childhood playing in a boys’ squad – Wirral side West Kirby Wasps – at times facing opposition that the presence of a girl in the side viewed with suspicion, to say the least.
‘When I turned 12 or 13 years old it could be a problem for some other teams. “Oh, there’s a girl playing, we don’t want to play,” she says. There may be words from some of them, but my teammates would always be there to stand up for me.
The guys also started to grow faster than me and I had to adjust my game to deal with it. I was a defender at the time and had to face challenges, so I had to learn to take care of myself. But my team knew I could play. They had my back. ‘
She still visits the wasps, which have become a big part of her life.
Charles joined Liverpool at the age of 14 and stayed there until the end of the 2019/20 season
Signing for Liverpool as a 14-year-old only brought girls’ football and a chance to express themselves more as a player. But at the age of 18, she also began studying for a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University – training at least four days a week with Vicky Jepson’s team and shodding academic work into the evenings, with roommates attending also juggled in the early years. stages of a football career.
“Thursday was my day off from football,” she says. ‘I called them’ uni days ‘when I could actually go in and finally be a student for one day.’
The academic workload, including a dissertation on psychological perspectives on long-term injury, reflects the need for a backup in case a football career failed to pay off. Young players like her needed resilience.
“She’s a good student and that’s why she’s thriving,” said Lucy Ward, a former Leeds United player, who is part of tomorrow’s BT Sport commentary team, and who has closely followed Charles’ progress over the years. ‘She has a good pace, has physical resources and is strong. But she doesn’t need to be told twice either. When Emma Hayes says, “This is what you should do,” she picks it up. She grabbed her chance with both hands. ‘
Lucy Ward believes Emma Hayes knows she can trust Charles as a quick apprentice at Chelsea
Charles’ development through the English youth ranks helped. The FA offers their young players the kind of strength and conditioning work that not all clubs provide. It was in an England shirt that she finally scored a goal with her mother, Liz, present. “I only seemed to score in front of my father.”
The technical adjustment to become a fullback has been picked up by teammates. “I think technically you pick up more stuff from the players you’re with, looking at what they do,” she says. ‘Tactical is where the coaches come in, which suggests that you shift very slightly to different parts of the field.’
The fact that she wasn’t thrown straight into the first team may have helped, giving her the chance to acclimate and avoid the injuries that frustrated Liverpool.
Charles does not reveal much about what a disappointment must have been the way it turned out at Liverpool. She joined the club at the age of 14, when they were the outstanding side of the country: WSL champions in 2013 and 2014.
She played for Liverpool against Everton at Anfield in 2019 when she made a childhood dream come true
She played against Everton at Anfield, the stadium where she and her father, Nick, once posed for photos under the legendary This is Anfield sign. As a girl she sticks posters of Steven Gerrard to her wall. As a Liverpool player, she met him.
“That was a childhood dream for me, to be able to play for them,” says Charles. “But in terms of my career, this seemed like the next step to challenge myself.”
Two summers ago in Madrid, the duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson told her everything she needed to know about how to excel from the full back, although Charles doesn’t seem to feel the need to see Liverpool’s male players as role models.
“They are incredible players, both offensive and defensive,” says Charles of the pair. ‘But of course there are also so many other players. I take small pieces from everyone. At the end of the day, I am me. I’m not trying to be them. ‘
Charles doesn’t feel the need to try to copy Liverpool’s male stars in the fullbacks