Published 07 April 2021 3 min read
GB WoMEN's FOOTBALL
Learning from the best
Six months ago it would've been difficult to envisage Niamh Charles playing right-back in a Champions League quarter-final but the 21-year-old has been demonstrating her full range of skills of late, and on the biggest stage too.
Twelve months ago it would've been hard to imagine her playing European football at all but following Liverpool's relegation from the top-flight at the end of last season, Charles was snapped up by Chelsea manager Emma Hayes and hasn't looked back since.
Having played as a forward for the majority of her time with the Reds and the England age groups, the role and responsibilities of a defender were still relatively unknown before she was thrust into the position by Hayes.
Charles hadn't long been a Chelsea player when Phil Neville called her up for a training squad back in September last year but with fixtures against France and Canada scheduled for this month, she could be in line to make her full international debut under Hege Riise.
And having helped the Blues navigate the Champions League knockout stages, steered the club on course to retain their Barclays FA Women's Super League title and earned her first call-up from Riise - she now faces the most critical few months of her career to date.
Here's what she had to say when we caught up with her on camp.
How have you developed since the last time you were on camp with England?
"I think the big thing obviously is that I've been brought into this camp as a defender, having been playing as a right-back at Chelsea for a while for now. Since I was last on camp I've got more experience of playing at the top level and spent more time training with some of the best players in the world."
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What has your first season working under Emma Hayes been like?
"I'm just so grateful I get to work with her. I think she's one of the best in the world, if not the best and I think she's showed that with the team she's created not overnight, but over the last five or ten years she's spent at the club. It's a very special place to be at the moment and I'm so grateful for the faith she's shown in me and the opportunity she's given me. Now I'm constantly trying to improve myself and become a better player."
What are the biggest challenges that come with learning a new position?
"I've played there a few times previously but when it happened in the Champions League, it was just sort of thrown upon me and I think that's probably the best way to do it. I was definitely thrown in at the deep end and didn't really have time to think too much about it. And but I've really enjoyed it so far.
"The players I've had around me have helped massively as well, like Millie [Bright] for example, she's been helping me so much. Obviously, it's great when you're playing in a team with the kind of players around you that can help."
Has it changed your perspective on defending at all?
"We've all played football for years and years but you don't necessarily appreciate what the full-backs or defenders behind you are doing throughout the game. As a defender you've constantly got a role to play, and if you don't do that you'll be exposed because you're closer to the goal - you can be punished. So it's probably it's made me appreciate the art of defending a little bit more."
One of the things Hege specifically picked out about you was your physicality - is that something that you've been working on?
"I think it's so essential to be physical because, in whatever team, you need to be fit, fast and strong and then you can let your football do the talking. If you can't even compete physically, then you're going to have a real struggle."
What's it been like working under Hege so far and what are you hoping to take away with you from this camp?
"When she came into the job I got to know everything she's achieved and it's so impressive - I'm actually a little bit jealous of what she's won but to be able to have someone like that to learn from is pretty special. It's refreshing to have someone with a different sort of experience and a different way of playing football so it's been really enjoyable so far.
"There's so many things for me to learn, on and off the pitch, and I want to know that I've maximised every day, every session on the grass, and learnt from everyone else. At the end of the day, I want to enjoy it as well though because this is something that we've all dreamed of as players."
The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind but have you set yourself any targets for the remainder of the season and beyond?
"Nothing is certain at this point of the season and if you start looking too far ahead then you could end up with nothing, so it is just a case of taking it game by game.
"So for the next few weeks, it will just be like that - taking every opportunity I can and whatever happens will happen. Every game is the biggest one of the season so it really is crunch time."