Niamh Charles: ‘My childhood playing football was just pure joy and happiness’
Niamh Charles on her journey from playing in her England kit in the garden to starring for the Lionesses and Chelsea
My earliest memory of football is playing for the boys’ grassroots team in West Kirby where I grew up. I used to go down to West Kirby Wasps and at first I wanted to be there but I hated it at the same time!
I would hold on to my Dad’s leg at the start of the sessions but I would play, love it and by the end I would never want to leave. I always used to remember the summer nights when we would have training and my parents would come to pick me up but none of us would want to leave. So training was meant to be 7pm to 8pm but we wouldn’t stop training until 8.30pm or 9pm.
My close family are into football but they weren’t pushing me towards it too much. I think I just showed a natural instinct and one of my friends joined a team so I just went with him and it went from there. I was about four at the time and I went to this grassroots thing where I thought the coach was scary but he turned out to be the nicest guy ever!
I always wanted to play in goal as a kid. I just found it more fun in the back garden, diving around, but my Mum would never let me go in goal in matches because she didn’t want me to get hurt and still to this day is saying not to go in goal!
I think the rules were that at 12 you had to stop playing with boys to play in a girls’ team but over the summer they changed the rules so I could play a year longer, so I played for girls’ and boys’ teams for a year but then they changed the rules again, so I think I ended up leaving when I was 13 or 14, so there were two years of playing for girls’ and boys’ teams.
Playing in boys’ teams growing up was all I knew so I can’t really compare it to anything else but I loved it. Some of the things that I had to learn as the boys got older and stronger and some of the things I had to adapt and grow about my game have helped me now in terms of the physical side of football. I wouldn’t change playing for boys’ teams because I really liked it.
In the last few years of playing boys’ football, I played as a full-back but as soon as I went to a girls’ team I played as a central midfielder for quite a few years before getting moved out to the wing. It is quite ironic really when you look at it because now I have gone back to full-back where I played with the boys. I did enjoy the position change playing girls’ football because it allowed me to get on the ball more so that was probably the biggest difference but other than that there was not too much change.
Then when I was 14 I went for trials at Liverpool and Everton, which is quite late really to get into trials. So I went to both and then picked Liverpool. I always thought in my head that because Everton had such an established women’s team and had won a lot when I was growing up that I would want to go to Everton. But once I went to the trials, I decided that I wanted to go to Liverpool and it was my first proper exposure to a big club as an under-15.
My extended family are all massive Evertonians so when I was younger I didn’t have a choice who I supported and there are pictures of me in an Everton kit, which they never let me forget. But as soon as I was able to decide, I became a Liverpool fan.
Growing up playing grassroots football, every year I would buy the new Liverpool kit so I loved the fact that when I joined Liverpool, I was getting the Liverpool kit to play in! I would train in my Liverpool kit when playing grassroots football but then would obviously play in the grassroots team’s kit. But then the Liverpool kit was the kit I got to play in!
I loved being a part of Liverpool and I am still a massive fan of them now. To have played for the first team was a dream come true.
I lived in England and Liverpool kits and sometimes I think back to when I was in school and I wonder if whenever I told people that I wanted to be a footballer whether anyone thought it would actually happen because it just wasn’t an option really at the time. I didn’t actually expect that I would go on to play for Liverpool and England when I was a kid saying these things but it is really nice because you appreciate it much more because you never thought it would actually happen. You were just such a fan so to be on the other side now is really special.
When I was younger, I don’t think you realise about making money or making a living but I just wanted to play football as much as possible. I was seeing people who were playing football fully but it was probably not as professional as it is now and you probably couldn’t make the money you can now when being full-time. So I was on the border in terms of not seeing it as an option but then as I have got older I started to have those women’s football idols. People like Fara Williams. I remember watching her and just thinking she was unbelievable.
Growing up as a Liverpool fan, I always looked up to Steven Gerrard. Just watching him play, I wanted to do what he was doing: play for your childhood club Liverpool. He was obviously captain and I loved the way he played. Then as I got older, Fara Williams was playing for Liverpool and when you look at everything she achieved in the game, she was a pioneer and helped paved the way for us. She was incredible.
As soon as I came out of sixth form I went straight into university because I thought if I don’t do it now then I won’t go back to it. So I signed my professional contract but also went into full-time education. I was fortunate I did my degree at John Moores University, where they had a sports scholarship programme so they do support you. But it was full-time with both and there were definitely times towards the end where you could really tell I was doing two full-time things and it was really difficult to juggle.
It was a sport and exercise science degree, which I don’t think I would have done if I wasn’t looking to be a professional footballer. It was a course which was not as many contact hours so I was able to do it and I remember initially I would find myself thinking ‘I really like this because it is helping my football’. You also learned to help other people as well, which I really liked.There were parts of uni that I really liked but it did end up being a chore because football was all I wanted to do. I would have been playing football in the day and whereas my classmates would have been doing their uni work in the daytime and then off in the evenings, I was having to do my uni work in the evenings. But I got it done.
When I look back to my childhood playing football, it was just pure joy and happiness. I just loved going to football. I still remember after school, I hated the nights I didn’t have training and I loved those nights I had training. I couldn’t wait to go.
Niamh Charles v Rachel Daly | Pass Masters
Niamh Charles and Rachel Daly go head-to-head to see who truly is the Pass Master!
I don’t remember doing much else during my childhood. I was just always outside and playing football. Some people were into their gaming or this and that but I just wanted to play football as much as possible.
To any girls thinking of getting into football, I would say go and try it out. If you hate it, then you hate it but I found with my teams that it was just about having fun and creating great friendships with boys and girls, who I still speak to now.
So I would say go down and give it a go. It doesn’t have to be too serious. Just enjoy it, get some time on the ball and try to have as much fun as possible. I did that and it has led to me being here with England now. I was able to take advantage of what was in front of me but it all came from just looking forward to training and playing football every week.