My Journey, by Niamh Charles | ‘You’ll give me stick, I’ll show you what I can do on the pitch’

It’s all I’ve ever known,
and when I get out there and play, the moments you can create with
your teammates, with your family, the passion that I have for the game and
being able to do it as a job day-in and day-out, it’s something I’m very privileged to do
and I never take it for granted. My name is Niamh Charles,
and this is My Journey. My extended family is football-mad, but it was
something I started developing an interest in. Once I found it, I loved it instantly. My footballing heroes growing up
were Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher. I definitely aspired to have moments
like they had, the drive they had in every single game and
the intensity to play for the Liverpool badge, that’s something I wanted to do
when I grew up. My earliest football memory is going to
my first training session with my local team. I was football-mad in the garden,
so my dad took me down. Obviously I went to a boys’ team, so it was
probably new territory for him as well. Suddenly I hated football and didn’t want
to do anything, and I clung to his leg. He obviously saw how much
I loved it at home and tried his best to get me involved in something
that he knew I’d love eventually. But when I was there, he was like,
“Come on, Niamh, let go of my leg.” We’d always be playing together, having
little extra sessions in the back garden. I wanted to be a keeper but
my mum would never let me, so I’ve never actually played in goal, but in
the back garden I was always a ‘keeper. I think at that age it was purely a hobby,
I dreamt about playing it all the time but it was purely a hobby – how much
football could I play every day? Just enjoying it. I probably started noticing the difference
when I turned 12, 13, the other teams would make it an issue. My team, obviously I’d grown up with them, they just thought it was normal,
they treated me like one of the lads, I just rocked up
and it wasn’t really different, but they were a bit like, “Oh, there’s
a girl playing, we don’t want to play.” The boys started going a bit quicker than me and I had to adapt my game
to try and deal with it. But my team was great cos they backed me,
they knew I could play football and they really had my back. But there was a couple of occasions
when the other team weren’t the nicest. I just wanted to play,
male or female it didn’t matter. It wasn’t such a rebellion, it was more, “You’re
going to give me stick before the game “but I’ll show you what I can do on the pitch.” At that time I was playing in defence so
I was having to put in a lot of challenges and really having to stick up for myself. The first time when I joined a girls’ team,
it was difficult for me at the time, because I’d gone from a boys’ team where
it was just about looking after myself and playing as best as I could, to a girls’ team,
where I could express myself more, and it opened my eyes to this new world
that I could maybe be a part of. The first time I got my Liverpool
first-team shirt was a special moment. I lived in Liverpool kits and England kits,
so suddenly I didn’t have to buy them, I was given them, and it wasn’t something
for me to wear at home, it’s what I wear when I go
to play football matches. The first time I got my England shirt as well, getting to play for your country
is what everyone dreams of and being able to pull on that shirt, no matter
if it’s a friendly or a World Cup or a Euros, it’s so, so special. My mum and dad would take it
in turns to come out and watch me. I always seemed to score when my dad
was out there, never when my mum was. I scored my first goal in front of my mum, and obviously I didn’t
have a clue what was going on, but later I saw a picture and she’s
just in tears cos she can’t believe it. so I think that was a special moment,
I got to see how proud I was making her. The family support has been massive,
I’m someone who really relies on it and they know me better than anyone else, and I think in the low times
they’ve really helped me, but in the high times as well
it’s even better to have people there that I can make proud and share it with. Because it’s so much more special when
you’ve got people to share it with. The amount of girls playing football now
is massive and that’s great for enjoyment, they can have their own
childhood memories like I had, but also it creates a bigger talent pool,
so it’s only gonna make football better in this country and make it more competitive and drive it forwards,
which is the way it needs to go. I still try and remember to go
and have a little conversation or something. It made my day when I was younger,
so I try and make an effort to do that. It always comes back to when I’m trying
to improve and doing this and that, maybe even have dips in confidence, it always comes back to, “Play it cos you
love it and have fun in every session, “don’t worry too much.” It’s all I’ve ever known
and when I get out there and play, the moments you can create with
your teammates, your family, your coaches, the passion I have for the game and being
able to do it as a job day-in and day-out, it’s something I’m very privileged to do
and I never take it for granted. I think personally I wouldn’t
change the journey I’ve had, I’m really grateful for it and each thing
I’ve done has really benefitted me, but as a whole, for every little girl
out there when I was younger, it would have been great to have access
to the role models they have nowadays, but I wouldn’t change my journey.

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