Charles 'full steam ahead' as Chelsea seek big WSL finale

In the final days of the Women’s Super League season, it’s hard to deny the whirlwind this season has been. In every part, it has provided thrilling comebacks, surprise losses, ‘sock-gate’, and sold-out fixtures.

It comes as no surprise that the race for the title is set to conclude on the final day – an experience that Chelsea defender Niamh Charles is all too familiar with.

“I guess for the neutral, it’s nice that it’ll go down to the last day, but less so as a player,” says Charles ahead of Chelsea’s game against Tottenham on Wednesday evening, before a final-day showdown with Manchester United.

Emma Hayes’ side – three points behind leaders Manchester City – play their game in hand tonight and can return to the top of the WSL table after an 8-0 previous win against Bristol City swung momentum back in their favour.

“At the moment, I’m just thinking of one game at a time, which is Spurs. Hopefully, we can do the job, focus on ourselves and what we can control. But sure, it’ll be an exciting day.”

To say the last few weeks for Chelsea have been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. In a period spanning over seven weeks, they’ve lost the Conti Cup final to Arsenal and were eliminated from the FA Cup in the semi-finals.

Hopes of winning an inaugural Champions League in Emma Hayes’ final season concluded with a defeat against Barcelona.

Their hopes of any silverware now rest entirely on winning a historic fifth consecutive WSL title. This was further impeded by a dramatic 4-3 loss to Liverpool – one that saw Charles and many others visibly upset as the final whistle was blown.

For the first time since joining Chelsea in 2020, a trophy-less season was a looming possibility for Charles. Nevertheless, that all changed when their London rivals, Arsenal, took on Manchester City.

“I’m just superstitious,” laughs Charles as she recalls the morning of the game. “I didn’t watch it at all. Usually if we ever have a late kick-off, I will watch one game or keep it on in the background.

“I just didn’t watch anything, and I was keeping myself so busy. I was eating my pre-match meal and I thought ‘just look at the score’. I was like ‘that can’t be real’.”

Gareth Taylor’s side held the Gunners at bay for 89 minutes, but a lapse in concentration was all it took for Stina Blackstenius to find the back of the net on two occasions. Arsenal ultimately picked up all three points with a 2-1 win.

Charles’ smile on the recollection is a stark difference from the emotions that were felt a mere few days before – hope had been restored for the reigning champions.

The focus then had been on overturning a seven-goal deficit on goal difference to boost their chances of taking the race to the final day of the season. In true Chelsea fashion, they delivered with an 8-0 win against Bristol City.

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Highlights of the Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Bristol City

“That was an unbelievable result, but we were also conscious that it didn’t mean anything yet. We still very much have a job to do. There has been disappointments. But at the moment, we are focused on what we can control and are chasing for the end of the season.”

It’s hard to overlook how integral Charles has been for Hayes this season. With a turbulent backline tested with injuries and departures, Charles has been one of the few consistent factors.

The 24-year-old has started every league game this season. Her versatility operating as full-back and wing-back on both sides has also favoured her with another Lionesses call-up.

“People have asked me, ‘What do you prefer the right or the left’, but I think it was just that I am comfortable with either. But it’s just been nice to be able to work more consistently on certain things that always happen in the game when you’re on the left or the right.”

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Emma Hayes says she’s happy with Chelsea’s position heading into their final two games and is determined to savour her last week as manager

Separating her own personal achievements this season from the lack of Chelsea’s is certainly a challenge. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to overlook just how transformative this year has been for Charles. Her stats are impressive across the board – 80.7 per cent pass accuracy, 66.7 per cent of aerial duels won, and 50 per cent of tackles won.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in the absence of Millie Bright, Hayes decided to reward Charles with the captaincy.

“I remember the moment because I just kept asking, ‘Are you being serious?!’. I really thought she was having me on, for quite a while,” shares Charles. “It was a big shock to me completely. But it was an honour and I enjoyed it.

“I’m really happy that Millie’s back now and it was nice to pass that back over. But I really enjoyed the challenge of it. Me and Erin [Cuthbert] sharing it and it felt like we were doing it together.”

The occasion was as much of a surprise to Charles as it was to her family, adding: “I didn’t tell them they just saw it when I walked out. I left it as a surprise for them – a good surprise though.”

Beth Mead and Niamh Charles battle for the ball
Niamh Charles has captained Chelsea this season in the absence of Millie Bright

As the finishing line on what has been a testing season approaches, Charles is adamant that this is not the time to reflect and ponder but to focus on the next two games.

Tottenham will be hoping to bounce back following their FA Cup final defeat, while Man Utd have proven to be a persistent, stubborn opponent. Marc Skinner’s side, fresh following their first FA Cup win, stand between Chelsea and the WSL title at Old Trafford on Saturday May 18.

“They’re both enjoyable teams to watch. It’s going to be a really tough test,” says Charles.

“The fact that there is rivalry as well adds a little bit to it. They are top sides and we’ve seen across the season with every team, you can’t take it lightly at all.”

With seven trophies in her cabinet since joining Chelsea from Liverpool, Charles appreciates the belief and support the club continues to give her. Despite the difficulties this season has presented, she has immense gratitude for Hayes and the many accolades she has collected.

“When I look back, I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened. Because now I sit here, I feel grateful for the experiences and the journey I’ve been on,” says Charles.

“We’re full steam ahead for the WSL title, really sticking together and hopefully it works. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

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