By Ed Perchard
Ashley Charles may have been an new name on many Hornets fans’ lips this summer after he stepped seamlessly into the first team for the final three friendlies of pre-season – including an impressive 20 minutes against Italian heavyweights Sampdoria – but, far from an overnight success, Charles’s story is one that has been developing in the shadow of Vicarage Road for over a decade.
A 19-year-old box-to-box midfielder, Charles has honed his game throughout Watford’s community system and academy. And, now that he’s tasted first team football, the former Watford Grammar School student isn’t planning on letting up.
Born at Watford General during the 1999 Division One playoffs, getting his first Watford season ticket during the 2005/2006 promotion season and signing his academy scholarship papers as the first team secured its latest return to the Premier League in 2015, you could say that Charles is a lucky charm for Watford. So it bodes well for the club as a whole that the second year pro is this season breaking into the fringes of the first team.
“I’ve lived in Watford most of my life. I was born at Watford General,” says Charles, explaining his lifelong links to the area. “My family lived in Kenton [in North London] for a little bit when I was really young, and then moved to Watford when I was one or two and I’ve lived here, about 15 minutes from the stadium, ever since.”
Though a Spurs fan through his dad, Charles followed his hometown team closely and got his first season ticket just in time to see Aidy Boothroyd’s men secure a surprise promotion to the Premier League. A seven-year-old Charles even made it to Cardiff to see a much younger Ben Foster keep Leeds at bay in the Championship Playoff final. But back then it wasn’t his new teammate that caught the eye.
“Marlon King was the man,” said Charles. “Hameur Bouazza too. Later on I liked Jobi McAnuff, he was a really good player.”
As a young boy, Charles spent his weekends playing locally, first for Sun Postal and then Cassiobury Rangers, winning plenty of trophies along the way. But, when secondary school came around, Charles’s footballing itch just wasn’t being scratched.
“At Watford Grammar they don’t play football, it’s just rugby, cricket and hockey,” he explained. “I used to play rugby there.
“I was a fly-half and we had a pretty good team, but the only football was on the playground at lunch times.”
To get his fix, he started attending Watford Community Trust’s Player Development Centre at Fullerians Rugby Club, where he trained with club coaches every Monday for several years. “They told me about these trials for Watford that anybody could go to, so I went along.”
It was then that Charles realised that he was dead set on becoming a professional footballer.
He said: “Everyone wants to be a footballer, but when you’re playing Sunday league you just don’t see how it’s going to come about, how you’re going to get to where you want to be.
“When I was on trial with Watford I finally thought ‘this is the opportunity’, and when you get that opportunity you can see the pathway.”
It was a process that Charles remembers vividly.
“One of my first trials, it was pouring down with rain and I came straight from school and I didn’t have a jacket,” said Charles. “I was training and it was pouring down, pouring down, pouring down. I had to get the bus home because my mum doesn’t drive and my dad was working.
“So, I got the bus to Harefield, trained, and on the way home I was just sat there shivering.
“My mum always brings that up to this day – how cold I was when I walked in, but that’s a memory I’ll always remember. I knew I’d done well. I had a really good feeling about it.”
After a trial period, Charles was offered a place in the Under-14s, and a few years later was awarded with a two-year scholarship. For the ball-playing midfielder, working with the likes of former Under-23 coach Harry Kewell and current boss Hayden Mullins was a dream come true.
“I like being on the ball,” said the midfielder. “That’s my game – I like to get about, taking the ball off the defence, playing it forward and trying to get in the box on the other end.
“Harry was a great character, he was very vocal and improved me a lot. He and Hayden gave me a lot of help, believed in me and gave me a lot of confidence.”
He must have been doing something right, because as his 17th birthday rolled around at the end of his first year as a scholar, Charles was awarded his first professional contract.
“It was such a big confidence boost,” he recalls. “To be rewarded for the hard work you’ve put in.
“I was training hard every day, playing with the Under-23s a lot and you just feel like your knowledge of the game rises every time you step up a level. It’s good experiences like that that make you a better player.”
And so to this summer. Charles was a regular participant in first team training during 2017/18, but still wasn’t expecting to be involved in any pre-season friendlies.
However, alongside Under-23 teammate Alex Jakubiak, he was a second half substitute at Stevenage, before starting the very next day at Championship Brentford. A week later he came on for Will Hughes in the Vicarage Road curtain raiser against Sampdoria to make it a hat-trick of first team appearances.
Speaking after the games, Javi Gracia was full of praise for how the two acquitted themselves.
“They were different games in different moments but they always competed at the same level as the rest of the players,” said the Head Coach. “It’s a good thing for the club and for the Academy that two players like them came here today and competed how they have done.”
Charles himself is thankful for the opportunity to learn from the best.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be honest,” said the 19-year-old. “I started training with the lads the week they got back from the pre-season tour to Austria, and was training well, worked hard, and then the gaffer took me to the team meeting and I was in the squad list.
“Brentford was a good game and I played alongside [Étienne] Capoue, who’s a real player. It’s easy to learn when playing alongside players like him.
“Everyone in the first team is welcoming as long as you’re working hard. There’s a lot of friendly guys who will help you along the way, especially Capoue, Troy [Deeney] and [Adrian] Mariappa.
“I just feel like the more you train and play with the first team the more confident you get – you feel like you belong there, and it’s just when you’re playing with players of that quality it’s a lot easier because you know you can fizz the ball in and you just have to trust your ability.
“It’s something that improves you so much more and it gets your fitness better because everything’s a bit sharper, without you even knowing.”
Charles won’t be resting on his laurels, though. He’s set his sights on pushing on and becoming more of a fixture among the first team and getting into the matchday squad. And, though just 19, he is taking on a leadership role within the young Under-23 group.
“We’ve got a lot of young boys training and playing with us now, and they’re good players, they just need a bit of guidance,” says Charles, who captained the Under-23s in this season’s PDL opener at Birmingham. “That will help improve my leadership skills and communication, and I feel that’s improving with every game I play.
“Now I’ve just got to try and play as well as I can, try and push, stay with the first team and maybe get a couple of appearances this season if everything goes well.”
If he can keep pushing onwards and upwards, his continued involvement will surely be a good omen for the club as a whole.