Dion Charles has taken the long road to the international stage but feels his time in non-league football has only made him appreciate his first senior call-up more.
Charles has swapped Accrington's League One trip to Peterborough on Saturday for a flight to Parma as Northern Ireland begin their World Cup qualifying campaign away to Italy on Thursday night, but that only begins to tell the story of the 25-year-old’s rise.
His call-up has come in a season in which Charles has scored 18 goals in 39 games for Accrington, but rewind to 2019 and Charles was playing in the National League North with Southport, one of four non-league clubs on his resume since he left Blackpool as a teenager.
Charles turned out for AFC Fylde and Skelmersdale United before signing for League One Fleetwood in 2016, but he did not make a league appearance for the Cod Army before heading on loan to Halifax, then leaving for Southport in 2018.
"I never lost hope," Charles said. "From where I was a few years ago until now it’s been a long journey so I had to be patient.
"I knew if I was playing consistently and scoring goals at club level I was always going to be in the back of the manager’s thoughts. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity so I’m thankful and ready to be called upon."
"Given the opportunity, I want to show that I can do very well for Northern Ireland"
Charles sustained that hope through two spells in part-time football, during which he paid the bills by working odd jobs, including time spent working at a barristers’ chambers in Preston, but still put in the hours to keep alive his dream of retuning to the professional game.
"I was told when younger that you don’t get anywhere without working hard and I’ve put in the long, hard yards behind the scenes where people don’t see," Charles said.
"Like going to the gym five, six, seven times a week to get myself into the best shape I can physically and mentally.
"Hopefully it’s what has helped me get here today. Because I’ve got here and have had a bit of success, it doesn’t mean you can stop doing what you did previously."
It is a back story which explains why Charles sees his call-up not as the end of a journey but simply a chance to take another step forward.
"You never know when your career is going to finish so you can’t take anything for granted," he said. "You have work hard every day and play every game as if it is your last. Cherish every moment.
"If I look back in five, 10 years’ time and haven’t got where I wanted to I can at least hold up my hands and say I gave it my best shot. It wasn’t good enough or wasn’t the right time but I did my best."
After Italy, Northern Ireland have a home friendly against the United States on Sunday before Bulgaria visit Windsor Park for a second qualifier on Wednesday.
With Conor Washington out injured and Liam Boyce due to join up with the squad later in the window, there could be an early chance for Charles to make an impression.
"Given the opportunity, I want to show that I can do very well for Northern Ireland," he said.
"As a striker you’ve got to be confident. You might be having a poor game, but in the 85th minute you might get half a chance and you have to put it away."
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