FOR too long Dion Charles perhaps felt like a passenger on the international scene; now he’s in the driving seat up front.
Thirteen previous appearances for Northern Ireland – albeit a dozen off the bench – had brought no goals for the Preston man.
At last, on Thursday night, he broke his international duck, and then added another, away to San Marino in the Euro 2024 qualifying opener, to his relief:
“They say you wait for a bus for ages and then two come along at once,” he said with a laugh. “Hopefully it continues with me scoring – but the most important thing was getting the three points and starting the campaign off the right way. Now we’ve a good game on Sunday to look forward to.”
His opening goal was a classic ‘striker’s finish’, stretching with his right foot to prod in at the back post from a cross by fellow forward Conor Washington. The 27-year-old acknowledged he was particularly pleased with that:
“Yeah, I was. It was a striker’s instinct to get on the end of it. Great ball by ‘Wash’, striker to striker. I’m delighted to get the two goals, three points, and hopefully I’ll get many more.”
The second goal wasn’t a surprise, except perhaps in the method of scoring. He anticipated the cross from left wing-back Jamal Lewis, but admits his finish was unusual: “That is something that Jamal was working on earlier this week so as soon as he was in that area I knew where he was going to put it and I was there to put it in the back of the net…
“I don’t score many headers either, I think I might have closed my eyes after it’s come off my head. I didn’t really see it [go in] I just heard everybody going mad, so I ran off celebrating with all the boys. Great feeling.”
Charles was especially thrilled to hear the Green and White Army bringing back an old classic to pay tribute to their new goalscorer, singing ‘Dion’s on fire, your defence is terrified…’
“It was brilliant. Hopefully I can hear it many more times. It’s been a long journey for me but it’s something that I’m proud of and where I have come from. I think I can show anybody that hard work and dedication can get you where you want to be.”
He admits he senses an imminent hat-trick, and feels he should have had the opportunity from the penalty spot late on after going down following a challenge from San Marino’s 40-year-old debutant Roberto di Maio:
“I thought it was a penalty at the end – if that’s anywhere else on the pitch it’s given, but I’ll take the two goals and hopefully I can get a hat-trick soon.”
As with all strikers, Charles feels better after scoring, acknowledging: “It is a confidence boost for me to get two goals so hopefully there will be more starts and more goals.
“It has been brilliant. The gaffer showed faith in me and I’ve repaid him. Everyone has been working hard and there is confidence that we can do something.”
The next step for Dion Charles is to start a competitive match at Windsor Park, which – injury and illness permitting – will surely come on Sunday when Finland are the visitors in the second Euro 2024 qualifier.
“The last time I started I thought I’d scored,” he recalls, “but it was ruled out for offside. Hopefully on Sunday I can score then.”
The much-travelled forward, now with Bolton Wanderers, isn’t getting carried away, realising that there could be bumps along the road of trying to qualify for the tournament in Germany next year:
“It was a great result but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Come the summer we will see where we are then.
“I’m delighted. It was a great achievement for me but the most important thing was that we started the campaign off on the right foot and now we can look forward to the game against Finland.
“Every game is going to be tricky for us, so we have to prepare right for that game on Sunday now. But if you look at our results at home, Windsor’s a fortress, we always do well against anybody that comes, so it should be a good game.”