Saint Charles on learning the ropes, play-off drama and dreams of Wembley

2023-24/Player Features/Shea Charles action/MW_WestBrom_Southampton_049_ibe77n

“It’s my first season – not everything’s going to be perfect.”

Shea Charles is in reflective mood as the Sky Bet Championship campaign counts down towards its ever-gripping play-off crescendo.

It’s been a valuable learning experience for the summer signing from Manchester City, whose only taste of senior club football prior to arriving at St Mary’s was a 27-minute cameo on the final day of last season’s Premier League.

Still only 20, Charles projects impressive maturity. He’s quick to point out he had played against men before, mainly for Northern Ireland, for whom he is already a pivotal figure with 15 senior caps to his name.

Saints have played 51 games this season, across Championship, FA Cup and Carabao Cup, and Charles has been involved in 37 of those, starting 15 of 46 in the league.

The midfielder declares himself “satisfied” with his maiden campaign, but admits he’d have liked to turn more of those appearances into starts.

“I didn’t really have a target about how many games I’d play, but I’d probably say I’d like to have started more games – to get full games and more confidence when you’re playing, that’s when you can get a bit of rhythm,” he explains. “After a couple of good performances in a row, confidence is on a high.

Day one as a Saint: Shea Charles on his signing day in July

“With the amount of games I’ve played (overall), I’m happy. It’s my first season – not everything’s going to be perfect, everyone knows that, but I can be satisfied with my first season in professional football.

“I feel like I’ve done alright. In the games I’ve started, I feel like I’ve been able to show what I’m about a bit more, but I feel like I’ve got a lot more to come in terms of my ability and showing everyone what I can do, taking this end part of the season and next season to push on.”

In reality, Charles has been a victim of the form of Flynn Downes – a frontrunner in the voting to crown Saints’ Player of the Season; a man trusted implicitly by Russell Martin in the No 6 position in front of the back four from their time together at Swansea, and a player rated “the best in the league” by his manager.

Charles, who says he favours the No 6 role having also played at centre-back, right-back and as a more advanced midfielder this season, already looks at home in the Championship.

He even looked at home playing against Liverpool at Anfield in the last 16 of the FA Cup. “I didn’t have any nerves at all,” he shrugs, adding it was “surreal” hearing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in person for the first time.

In action at Anfield, where Charles produced one of his best performances to date

Blessed with an imposing physique, the Mancunian combines stature with style, calm in possession with an unflustered temperament, and has already proved himself to be well-schooled in the art of game management.

With Saints holding a 1-0 lead at QPR in December, Charles committed a deliberate foul to halt a counter-attack, picking up a second yellow card for his troubles. Martin labelled it “a good foul” and valued the youngster “taking one for the team”. With seconds to go, it was the lesser of two evils, and the sort of streetwise decision-making that usually takes years to learn.

It’s clear the raw ingredients to his game are already in place, as Saints’ developing destroyer sheds some light on the dialogue with his boss.

“He’s a very open guy and a good guy to work with, both on and off the pitch,” he says of Martin’s approach. “He’s really good with us players, very honest, so you know whatever he’s telling you is going to be right.

“Obviously we talk about what I can do better and what I do well, and that sort of stuff is what I’m trying to implement into my game. I’d say it’s just the intensity, compared to the kind of football I was playing before in the Under-21s – just adjusting to it.

“I feel like – and he feels like – I’ve got better at that towards the end of the season, so I think that’s probably the main one, but I feel like I’m getting there and I’m improving a lot.”

On the topic of differences between Premier League 2 and the Championship, Charles’s wide-eyed expression suggests there are many.

“It’s obviously a lot different to what Under-21 football is like – even different to international football,” he states. “It’s different having a full season, game after game, two games a week for a long period of time, but I’ve enjoyed it.

“I wouldn’t say the environment [is different], because I’ve been in and around it at my former club, but I’d say more the schedule of how demanding it is – I’ve never been around a Championship kind of schedule, two games a week, especially around Christmas when it’s so busy.

“If you miss a game, you’ve got another game [to rearrange] and it just stacks up, the schedule, so that’s probably the main thing that’s so demanding.”

Charles was Sky Sports' Player of the Match on his first senior start at Plymouth in August

Charles has encountered many different styles, too. From facing possession-based Leicester, the only team alongside Saints to average more than 60 per cent of the ball, the contrast is stark to Huddersfield and Rotherham, who have less than 40 per cent per game, while the likes of Preston and Millwall win more than 20 aerial duels per match – more than double Saints’ tally because the ball spends so much more time over head height.

“The league I was playing in before, it’s Premier League teams but they’re younger players, so most teams want to play football – or at least try and play football,” Charles continues.

“But when you come here, teams know what they want to do. They’ll play channel balls and just hit the wide men, and can be very direct, so the main thing is just teams knowing what they want to do.

“Playing Academy football, some teams are just individuals, like ‘go and do what you want’, in a way. It’s about showing what you can do.

“The league is so competitive compared to when I was playing Premier League 2. My team was so dominant and there was so much confidence going into every game, knowing you were going to be the better team, and hopefully go and win the game.

“Now, obviously we still have that confidence, but you know that the other team is going to cause you some sort of problem. Even when you’re winning, you can be 2-0 up and you still need to be on the ball and be ready for any sort of counter-attack, or any sort of chance that they have.”

Driving forward at St Mary's, Charles is already a physical specimen at 20 years of age

The quick turnaround between games, Charles says, tests your mindset. “You’ve got to have a certain balance,” he’s learned, to ensure any elation or despondency from the previous matchday is quashed in time for the next.

That can be more difficult for young players not yet programmed to the emotional highs and lows, but you sense Charles takes it all in his stride.

He credits Jack Stephens and Adam Armstrong, captain and vice, for their leadership, and namechecks Ché Adams, Kyle Walker-Peters and Joe Aribo for extending an arm around the shoulder when he’s needed it.

With the play-offs getting under way on Sunday, Charles has two goals in mind: for Saints to reach Wembley, and for him to be playing should they get there.

“I’ve been to watch City a few times [at Wembley],” he says, recalling the 2011 Community Shield, when Charles was seven, which City lost to Manchester United after being 2-0 up; the 2013 FA Cup semi-final win over Chelsea, “won 2-1, Nasri scored”; and the 2016 League Cup final, in which former Saint Willy Caballero was City’s hero with a trio of saves in a triumphant penalty shoot-out.

“Never played there, no. That would be something to play there,” his mind wanders. “To find my way into the team and play, that would be a great achievement, especially in my first season.”

Shea's younger brother, goalkeeper Pierce, watched Sheffield Wednesday complete the most dramatic turnaround in play-off history last season

It might be newfound territory, but the youngster knows all about the play-offs. His brother, 18-year-old Pierce, is third-choice goalkeeper at Sheffield Wednesday, who completed the comeback of all comebacks in last season’s League One semi-finals against Peterborough to overturn a 4-0 first-leg deficit.

“That was crazy,” he smiles, shaking his head. “I remember watching the first leg, and I just thought it was over. Obviously I don’t want to go through that, going 4-0 down! But watching them come back from 4-0 was just mental… you never see that.

“In the final they scored in the last minute [of extra time], so that’s the kind of stuff that will happen in the play-offs. We’ve been so good this season and will be going into that with nothing but confidence.”

With such an assured head on young shoulders, Charles might just realise his dream of making his mark at Wembley in a final of his own.