Northern Ireland’s Dion Charles ‘can lift you off your seat’ says former manager
Included on the list of people Dion Charles got in contact with after his inclusion confirmation last Thursday within the Northern Ireland squad was his former boss at Southport, Liam Watson.
Accrington Stanley striker Charles has lit up League One this season by scoring 17 goals and it’s that form that earned him a maiden senior international call-up for fixtures against Italy, USA and Bulgaria. But it hasn’t always been that way.
After leaving Blackpool in 2014, Charles put the hard yards in at National League North outfit AFC Fylde and when a move back to the Football League didn’t work out at Fleetwood Town, he returned to the lower leagues to prove himself once again.
He joined Southport in January 2018 and a few months later Watson was named as manager of the Merseyside club for the third time.
Watson was well aware of Charles, who was playing as a winger before he arrived at Haig Avenue. As time passed, Watson made the decision to turn Charles into a striker – which was justified as he netted 14 times during the 2018-19 campaign.
“I watched him play when he was on loan at Halifax and he was one of those players that always looked like they had something,” said Watson. “He has a swagger about him.
“When I inherited him as a manager, he used to be incredibly frustrating because he was a right winger and would do some brilliant stuff, but for me as a striker, I was looking at his characteristics and I was convinced he was a striker.
“Within a couple of games you’re just going ‘wow’.
“I think I had to convince Dion a bit too.
“He played the back half of that season as a striker and ended up scoring one in every two games and we spent the whole summer working around Dion.
“We drew the first game 0-0 at Gateshead and Dion missed a good chance and we drew 0-0 at home in the next game and he missed an unbelievable chance, but in both games he was really good.
“At the Tuesday game, John Coleman (Accrington manager) was there.
“I always knew John wanted him but we had an enquiry from another club and then John got him.
“Dion has ended up after six months as a striker going into the Football League.
“The biggest thing with Dion was moulding him as a person to understand that you get nothing out of life without working hard.
“He sent me a lovely text saying ‘Just spoke about you on a BBC interview. Without you changing my position I wouldn’t be where I am today. Thank you very much for pushing me’.
“I told him to stay humble, enjoy the good times and appreciate the hard work that got him to this level.
“That grounding is probably what Dion got more off me.
“We were always better as a team with his work ethic.”
The 25-year-old played three times for Northern Ireland U21s in 2016 but would regularly talk to Watson about his ambitions of making it to the senior level - and he believes the Green and White Army faithful will enjoy watching his former charge play.
“He’s the type of person that can lift you off your seat,” he added. “He can do a little bit of the outrageous.
“Sometimes the outrageous isn’t what you might want, but he will try and do something whether you’re 1-0 up or down if he thinks he can make a difference.
“When I was his manager it didn’t stop me trying to wring his neck sometimes!
“That comes back to the self-confidence he has.
“He’s strong, works hard, won’t be bullied and he will score a range of different goals.
“He’s 25 and only been a forward for just over two years.
“It’s a fantastic story and he has always gone on to me about Northern Ireland.
“He genuinely relates to Northern Ireland even though he sounds very much like he’s from Preston!”
Charles has gone up a level in terms of his performances this season and it has resulted in speculation that teams in the Championship could be ready to make their move.
Watson will be watching on with pride as Charles makes his debut after playing a role in getting the forward to this point.
“Dion is one that you will keep in touch with and try to help him throughout his career,” he said. “Regardless of if it’s his international debut, if he thinks he can do something he will try it.
“As a manager you’re thinking ‘don’t you da… oh what a goal!’.
“It’s nice as a manager to have that on the pitch and I don’t think he will have a problem being himself.
“It’s a really proud occasion for him, his family and us as a club too.
“Somewhere along the line we have made a big impression on the kid’s life and, to be fair to him, he hasn’t forgotten.
“He came down to one of our games this season with his shirt that he scored his hat-trick in all signed.
“The fans have their own room so they have it framed and hanging up.”