When Chelsea signed Niamh Charles from Liverpool in the summer, there were a lot of eyebrows raised.
Charles had just been relegated with Liverpool, scoring just twice in 13 starts and creating less than one chance per game on average.
While those numbers were no doubt impacted by the Reds’ general struggles, few expected the youngster to get many minutes for the recently crowned Women’s Super League champions, particularly given how stacked the Blues’ squad is in those forward positions.
But though chances have been rare for Charles, it’s not stopped her shining. On Wednesday night, she had her biggest moment yet in a Chelsea shirt, scoring a sensational 90th-minute equaliser to send a Continental Cup quarter-final tie with Manchester City to extra time.
Emma Hayes’ side looked down and out when Lauren Hemp put City 2-1 up in the 85th minute, but Charles, subbed on late in the second half, suddenly produced a moment that showed exactly why the club signed her.
Teeing herself up perfectly with a great first touch on her chest, she struck the ball perfectly on the volley to send it looping over the outstretched Karen Bardsley and into the top corner.
What followed was historic: Chelsea were 4-2 victors in extra time, sealing their first ever win at the City of Football Academy on their 10th visit.
Two more substitutes made sure of the win, with Guro Reiten scoring the third before teeing up Sophie Ingle for a stunning fourth, with Hayes putting the win down to “the depth of the squad”, before singling out Charles for praise.
“She has been unbelievable in the training environment and she's been patient, she's been quiet, she hasn't said anything when she hasn't been in the team, she's just kept at it.
“I'm telling you, that whole dressing room is over the moon for her, just like it will be Sophie Ingle, because sometimes the quiet ones don't get all the credit.”
This season, Charles has played five league games, starting just once – but she’s got one goal, one assist and is creating a chance for a team-mate every 23 minutes.
She might not be leading the league with stats, but the glimpses she has shown were enough to earn a handful of England call-ups at the end of 2020.
The Lionesses didn’t play any competitive fixtures in that time due to a number of coronavirus-related reasons, denying Charles a first senior cap, but she thrived in the team’s in-house friendlies, even when playing as a right-back at times, rather than her more natural roles as a playmaker or a winger.
On Wednesday, she discovered a new position too, playing the last 15 minutes as a No.9 for Chelsea.
“I think she could play full-back, she could play out wide, she could play up top,” Hayes said. “England have got a cracker on their hands.
“She's playing with world-class players every day, so your application and your attitude have to be spot on because it's easy to fold. I have to put Jessie Fleming in the same category.
“Those two people have been diligent and patient in their work and they're in a world=class team, so it's not going to be easy for them.
“But I promise you this: those two people will find plenty of opportunities playing for this team because of how they apply themselves on a daily basis and how respected they are in the dressing room, because of how hard they work and contribute to the team and sometimes without even getting picked on a weekly basis.”
That win over Man City sent Chelsea into the semi-finals of the Conti Cup, keeping them fighting on four fronts. As well as the league, they are into the last 16 of the Women’s Champions League and will have Women’s FA Cup fixtures later this season, the competition currently on pause due to all grassroots football in England being suspended.
With all of those fixtures on Chelsea’s calendar, Charles will no doubt get plenty of chances to shine.
With the manner in which she’s grabbing those opportunities with both hands at the moment too, Wednesday night’s strike will be the first of many memorable moments as a Chelsea player.