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'I wanted to challenge myself' - Charles thriving with trophy-hungry Chelsea after switch from Liverpool

09:00 GMT 13/03/2021
Niamh Charles bespoke feature graphic
The 21-year-old scored perhaps the most important goal of the Blues' run to Sunday's Continental Cup final, in which they face an in-form Bristol City

“Could you get used to this?,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes asked Niamh Charles. The 21-year-old had just made her club debut, her first appearance at Wembley and won her first piece of silverware, all in one go.

What the forward has done since suggests she’ll have no choice but to get used to it, such has been her impressive integration at the champions of England.

Her move to the Blues raised some eyebrows in the summer, leaving childhood club Liverpool after their relegation, but Hayes had no doubt about Charles’ ability to make the jump.

“I recruited Niamh to the club based on the fact that her performances for Liverpool against us were outstanding,” she said this week. “I always remembered that.”

When Chelsea were reduced to 10 players after 13 minutes in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Atletico Madrid last week, it was Charles who came on and helped stabilise the team.

When the Blues were 2-1 down in a Continental Cup quarter-final at Manchester City, a place they’ve never won, Charles found the top corner in stoppage time.

That goal was perhaps the most crucial of the 16 that they have scored on their way to the final of that competition, in which they will face Bristol City on Sunday.

After getting her hands on the Community Shield on her debut, the weekend presents a chance for Charles to win the first major trophy of her career.

“You know when you come to Chelsea that the expectation is winning,” she tells Goal. “The expectation is being a part of these big events.

“The players that we have are so experienced already in these occasions. Wembley was a great experience for me to add to that, so it's not just new to me when I'm at the Conti Cup final.”

The difference between the club she joined and the club she left was evident right at the beginning of the season. While Liverpool were readying themselves for life in the second tier, the Blues were eyeing up “every single trophy” on offer.

“I've got nothing but great things to say about Liverpool and what they did for me, but the clubs are in probably different places,” Charles says.

Not that it was easy for her to leave the club. Not only had she played for the Reds since she was a young girl, she has supported them for even longer. In 2019, when Liverpool's men's team lifted their sixth Champions League title at the Wanda Metropolitano, Charles was in the crowd. She’s followed them around the world.

“That was probably the hardest thing. It wasn't just leaving the team as such, it was leaving the club you represent, the badge that you have on, that I've been wearing since I was four years old as just a fan,” she explains.

“But then, when you hear that Chelsea, who are one of the best clubs in the world, [are interested], that was, at my age, the natural progression. I wanted to take a step out of my comfort zone and start to challenge myself.”

Making the move has helped elevate her game to another level with the 21-year-old earning her first senior call-up for England back in September.

Playing at right-back during an in-house friendly was a new experience, but one that has become a little more familiar since. In both legs of Chelsea’s European tie with Atletico, that is where she was deployed. It’s where Hayes has said she sees her future.

Not that the forward has lost her attacking nous, at all. Her goal against Man City in the Conti Cup was the most notable example. With Chelsea staring a quarter-final exit in the face, Charles received Guro Reiten’s lofted cross on her chest and set herself up to strike the ball on the volley into the top corner. Goals from Reiten and Sophie Ingle won the tie in extra-time.

“There is just a feeling in the team that there is a 'never say die' attitude,” Charles says. “There's still time left in the game, so there's that belief there.

“The reason my goal went in was probably because I wasn't thinking. It just happened. Then after that, it was the togetherness, from the bench to the pitch, it felt like a proper team effort.”

Their opponents in the final, Bristol, are gathering great momentum and have an exceptional attacking talent in Ebony Salmon. But the Blues are the favourites, having beaten the Robins twice already this season.

With a league title to fight for and the Champions League quarter-finals to come, a win on Sunday could be a springboard for Hayes’ side.

“That experience of winning will hopefully breed more winning, because that's what, at the start of the season, we set out to do,” Charles says. “It was every single trophy, it wasn't just one. That's the expectation of this club.”

She’s only been at Chelsea for a few months, but Charles is sounding and looking like a player with all the traits that the club want.

“When she realises how good she is,” Hayes said of her summer signing, “then I think she'll take another step.”