By Chris Slavin
Darius Charles returned from long-term injury with commanding performances at the back recently and we caught up with the experienced defender for an interview about his return.
For those supporters who may have missed it in Saturday’s matchday programme, the full interview is reproduced below.
Having achieved promotions and come through the lows of relegations and long-term injuries, it’s been a roller coaster of a career so far for Darius Charles. Many players looking to make it in the professional game would despair at spending time in non-league, but for Darius, that’s what has made him the player he is today. And having come through all those ups and downs has made him want to be a father figure to younger players, offering words of encouragement and an arm round the shoulder if needed.
Now back in the team after recovering from a knee injury, Darius Charles is determined to help the Dons to build on recent victories and reignite their season. Manager Neal Ardley recently said that the powerful defender’s return was a major boost to dressing-room morale. According to Darius, his steely resolve comes from his time in non-league football. During his ten years at Brentford, he was loaned out to Thurrock, Yeading, Staines Town, Crawley, Sutton United and Ebbsfleet United, before joining the latter club on a permanent basis.
“It made me a man,” said Darius. “A lot of kids nowadays play reserve football, and I know that’s there for a reason, but playing non-league was the right thing for me at that time in my career. If you’re an electrician, you don’t sit around watching someone else do some wiring! When you go out and play games, you pick things up that you can’t pick up in a non-competitive environment. Going out on loan, especially in non-league, meant a lot to me. It toughened me up.
“People are playing for their lives in non-league. They’re not on as much money, and some of them have second jobs, but what they’re doing means the world to them. It was definitely a tough experience for me, and it made a big difference to my career.
“Fortunately, when I left Brentford I joined a full-time non-league side, Ebbsfleet United. I remember at a young age thinking that if I ever dropped into non-league, I’d never play football again! I couldn’t imagine playing football and having another job – it was always just football for me. In non-league, you can really see the passion that’s missing from higher up the leagues. It was brilliant for me to learn my trade playing at that level.”
Darius initially joined the Dons on loan in March 2016, and less than three months later came his career highlight at Wembley. Having spent over a year out of the game with a broken leg, Darius was grateful to Neal Ardley for the opportunity – and he’s determined to keep repaying the faith the manager has shown in him.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s always good for the ego when a manager shows faith in you. I was thankful I could repay that faith after I joined, and now the manager has put me back in the team. When I first came here, I was getting back into playing first-team football after so long out. The manager set us the challenge of making the play-offs, and it was a really exciting time for the club. We all know what that led to, and it was great to be a part of it.
“Overall, I’d say that my time here has been progressive. Not just for me, but for the club too. When I joined, we were in League Two and now we’re a League One club. With the new ground on its way, I think it’s a great time for anyone to be at this club.
“I’ve had injuries during my time here, and last season I didn’t think I was at my best. But on the whole, my time here has been really positive, and I’m just looking to make this season better than the last one.
“We’ve not had the best of starts this season, but after the victories this week and the work we’ve put in on the training ground, we can begin make our mark in this league. It’s a lot tougher this season than last season. There are bigger clubs with more financial pulling power, but that can’t be an excuse. At the end of the day, it’s 11 versus 11 on the pitch and hopefully we can show what we’re all about and put a run of results on the board.”
Darius was given his first big chance back in league football by Graham Westley, who signed him for Stevenage in 2010. He was part of a squad that achieved success thanks to a great team spirit, according to Darius, and it involved linking up with our current goalkeeping coach, Ashley Bayes.
“I’d played against Stevenage twice for Ebbsfleet, and I think I did well against them. With Ebbsfleet getting relegated that season and Stevenage going up, I effectively moved up two divisions. I had a call from Graham Westley that summer and I ended up signing for them. It was an interesting time for me. There was a promotion, but also a relegation, and I broke my leg playing for Stevenage.
“Bayzo was there at the time, and he could tell you a few stories about how it was there! Dean Parrett was also at Stevenage. It was a unique spirit that we had in the changing room, and the experiences there helped me grow as a player.
“Burton signed me in June 2015, when I was still injured. I was meant to be back playing by September or October, but I wasn’t fully fit until January. I came back and then tore the tendon in my hamstring. There was also a change in manager. It all made me realise that when you’re fit and playing, you have to make the most of it – it can easily be taken away from you.
“Any injury is tough, but when you miss the whole of one season it’s mentally very difficult, especially when you’re trying to impress at a new club. All you can really do is help vocally, which means a lot, but you can’t do what you want to do, which is play. It was a phenomenal atmosphere among the squad there. They won promotion to the Championship despite their lowly financial status, but they had a determined bunch of characters, and the bond within the squad pushed the club on. It was a great experience.”
Brought up in west London, Darius was first spotted playing in a football tournament by Brentford – and that led to a ten-year spell with the Bees.
“I was playing on the estate where I lived when I was spotted by Brentford. I was asked to go to a tournament, but me and a friend got there late, and at first we weren’t allowed to play. We waited for hours, and my mate went home, but then two spots became available and I ended up playing. It all took off on from there, and I ended up at Brentford for ten years. I got a professional contract and played for the first team, but getting a pro deal is just where the journey begins. Breaking into the first team and staying there are different things. But it was a great learning experience, and I have great memories of my time there. Some of my best friends are lads I grew up playing with at Brentford.”
Having had so many good and bad experiences in the game, Darius feels he should be a guiding light to others – and he is proud to do that for AFC Wimbledon.
“I think it’s the responsibility of senior professionals to give something back to the sport by helping out the youngsters. We were all young once, and had to go through the perils and pitfalls of trying to make it in the game. As a young player, you have to keep your head down instead of going out with your mates – and girls also come into the frame, of course! There are a lot of highs and lows in football. When you get a pro contract, it’s good to have people around who can guide you. I think it makes the world of difference.
“Pretty much everyone in football knows the AFC Wimbledon story. I grew up around this area, and I’d also heard about it on Sky Sports. It’s a great underdog story, a tale that everyone wants to hear. What happened to Wimbledon led to rules being put in place to ensure that it never happens again, and that’s a monumental thing in sport. Growing up, I always knew a bit about the AFC Wimbledon story, but the likes of Ivor and the rest of the people around the club make sure the players know the history of it all.
“What I really enjoyed about the play-off final at Wembley was that my son attended. He was just at the age when he could comprehend what was happening – I hope he was proud of his dad! It was great to play at Wembley in front of my missus, my son and the rest of my family – to give them that memory. Obviously, it was a momentous time for the club too. Not many people get to play at Wembley, never mind in a play-off final, and it was a day I’ll never forget.”