Once described as childhood club Liverpool’s “secret weapon”, Niamh Charles is now being tipped to become a “huge player for England” and is hungry for more success with Chelsea.
The 21-year-old was used as an attacking player at Liverpool but has impressed at right back for the Blues, and since her switch in the summer Charles has won two trophies, played at Wembley and made her England debut.
She will hope to feature in the second leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich on Sunday (12:30 BST), with Emma Hayes’ side trailing 2-1.
So where has her success come from, how has she improved and what does the future hold?
‘It was a difficult decision to leave’
Lifelong Liverpool fan Charles “lit up trials” at the club’s academy while playing for a local boys team.
Liverpool signed her that day and she would go on to make her debut aged 16 and score 11 goals in 59 WSL appearances.
“I remember our technical director at the time being blown away by her talent,” former Liverpool manager Vicky Jepson, who also coached Charles at youth level, told BBC Sport.
“She was the best player in that trial process and stole the show. She gave off so many ‘wow’ factors.
“The difference between Niamh and most others was that she would turn up an hour earlier to work on her weaker foot. She would never cut corners.
“I would speak regularly with [former Liverpool manager] Scott Rogers about the young players and he used to call Niamh his ‘secret weapon'”.
Charles became a mainstay in the first team under Jepson and played at Anfield in the Merseyside derby against Everton in November 2020.
She had a Zoom call with club legend Steven Gerrard and men’s manager Jurgen Klopp in the summer – another “unbelievable” experience – but when the opportunity arose to sign for Chelsea, who had just been crowned WSL champions, it was one that could not be refused.
“Even just being in the academy and going to training in a Liverpool shirt was special. I’m so grateful that I got the opportunity to do that and experience my childhood dream,” Charles told BBC Sport.
“There’s pictures of me as a kid at Anfield in my kit so when I stop and think about it, it’s special that I got to do that as a player.
“It was a difficult decision to leave as it was all I had ever known but it was the right time to progress in my career and challenge myself.”
‘I want to win as much as possible’
Charles joined a Chelsea squad packed full of world-class talent and some observers questioned whether she would get the game time she needed.
But Charles has proven her versatility, becoming a valued member of the squad and playing a key role in their progress to the Champions League last four this season.
She featured regularly as a winger or attacking midfielder while at Liverpool but Charles has impressed as a right-back at Chelsea.
And it is for that reason that Hayes believes Charles, who made her international debut in the friendly defeat by France, will be a “huge player for England”.
So how has she improved since joining Chelsea?
Charles says being around “the best players every single day” has improved her quality, decision-making and knowledge of the game.
“I just want to be as good as I can be. I have realised the privileged position I’m in with these unbelievable coaches and players,” she added.
“The biggest thing I first noticed, especially during pre-season, was the tactical growth and the information I was getting on the pitch.
“It was stuff I hadn’t really discussed before or hadn’t gone into as much detail on before. That really helped my understanding of the game.”
Jepson says Charles has “stepped up another gear” since joining Chelsea.
“Nothing was ever good enough for Niamh – she wanted perfection. I think that winning mentality is something she’s had from a very young age.
“She set standards in the way she applied herself. Now she is playing in huge Champions League games and representing England.”
Chelsea could still win the quadruple this season. Having already won the League Cup, they sit two points clear of Manchester City at the top of the WSL with two games to play. In May they face Everton in the last-16 of the Women’s FA Cup.
And when asked what she wants for the future, Charles said she “wants to win as much as possible”.
“I want to know that I’ve maximised every day in order to get better. When you look at your career as a whole, I want to be competing at the top level and challenging for trophies every year,” she added.
“I just want to win and know at the end of my career I did as much as possible and had fun.”