It was 10 years ago today Emma Hayes took charge of Chelsea Women. In the decade since, the club and the team have transformed to such an extent we are not only a powerhouse domestically, but on the continent, too. Here we celebrate that journey, and the role Hayes has played in it…
In August 2012, what was then Chelsea Ladies parted company with manager Matt Beard. While the Blues had recently reached the FA Cup final, beaten on penalties by Birmingham at Ashton Gate, the league performances were below par in each of the first two Women’s Super League seasons.
Enter Emma Hayes. The 35-year-old’s playing career had ended prematurely through injury, so she turned her hand to coaching, first with Arsenal and then several clubs in the USA, where she also managed.
This was to be her first role at the helm of an English team, and she had the support of the club, which made the Ladies side fully professional and helped overhaul the playing squad over the next 18 months, bringing in some of the best players from the domestic game and abroad to complement the talented youngsters coming through our Centre of Excellence.
The rise was not immediate. In Hayes’ first full season in charge, during the summer of 2013, we finished second from bottom, accruing just 10 points from 14 matches. The subsequent arrival of Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty from Arsenal, and South Korean superstar Ji So-Yun, highlighted the club’s intent, though. The following year, only an agonising last-day defeat at Manchester City stopped us claiming the WSL title for the first time.
That heartbreaking ending would be laid to rest in 2015 as the Blues won a historic domestic double. Prior to the FA Cup final, the first to be held at Wembley Stadium in the competition’s 44-year history, Hayes’ pre-match talk included an improvised version of Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem If, as well as a gift. Each player received a rose from the manager’s back garden, reflecting their own growth.
In front of over 30,000 fans at the national stadium, and two million more watching on television, Ji scored the only goal against Notts County to secure the club’s first piece of major silverware, and first of the Hayes era.
A second title would follow just a couple of months later. This time, there was no final-day drama as we eased past Sunderland 4-0 at Wheatsheaf Park, our home since 2012, to win the WSL by two points. Men’s captain John Terry was one of the 2,710 supporters in attendance cheering England’s best team on to our first league title of the modern era.
Hayes knew the hard work was only just beginning. As she told her players: reaching the top is the easy part – staying there is the true test of one’s character.
A first taste of the Champions League followed, and in 2016 there was another landmark moment in the club’s history, a maiden competitive fixture at Stamford Bridge. Wolfsburg, who would become regular European foes, were far too strong, but a marker had been set. We would play again at the Bridge on the opening day of the 2019/20 season, a 1-0 win against Tottenham, and next month have a visit from West Ham to look forward to in SW6. You can buy tickets for that one here.
We would have to wait until 2017 for further domestic silverware, Hayes’ charges winning the interim Spring Series ahead of the WSL switching to a winter schedule. In the first such season, 2017/18, we delivered on Hayes’ desire to stay at the top, winning the league and the FA Cup without losing a single game. It was the perfect way to settle into our new home at Kingsmeadow, while the Wembley win over Arsenal turned the home of English football blue for a second time.
The lure of Hayes had helped persuade Fran Kirby to join soon after her exploits at the 2015 World Cup, and in 2018 the forward was named the inaugural FWA Women’s Player of the Year on her way to a clean sweep of individual honours. A couple of years after that, Hayes proved a big pull as striker Sam Kerr, a bona fide superstar in the women’s game, chose Chelsea as her next destination in January 2020.
By then the club had changed name to Chelsea Women, representing a modern view on language and equality, and enjoyed our first serious tilt at the Champions League in 2018. Twelve months later, we were narrowly beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Lyon in one of three semi-finals we reached that season. The crowd of 4,670 for an exciting second leg was a record for a Chelsea Women’s home fixture, soon to be dwarfed by the Tottenham derby at the Bridge a few months later, which had 25,000 people in attendance, among them Emma’s son Harry, a regular at games.
The 1-0 win over Spurs, courtesy of a Bethany England stunner, got the 2019/20 season up and running. Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic would bring it to a premature conclusion.
When the maths was done to decide the title on a points-per-game basis, we edged out nearest rivals Manchester City and Arsenal, against whom we had taken 10 points out of 12 before the football stopped. Our final fixture for six, long months was the Continental League Cup final in February 2020. It was a trophy we had never lifted, but that ended as a late England winner secured a 2-1 success against Arsenal at the City Ground in Nottingham.
A spurt of silverware has since followed, inspired by Hayes’ management. We have now won the WSL three years in a row, Hayes named Manager of the Season in each having achieved that feat for the first time, and the FA Cup for the past two years, Arsenal and Manchester City both beaten at Wembley last term.
In 2020/21 we also triumphed in the Continental League Cup, and the Blues boss guided her team to our first-ever Champions League final with a dramatic victory over Bayern Munich. Unfortunately, Barcelona proved too good in Gothenburg, but the bar had been set. Hayes has acknowledged conquering Europe with Chelsea remains her biggest ambition.
More recently, Hayes was awarded an OBE in the 2022 New Year Honours, having received an MBE in 2016. Since taking over at Chelsea, Hayes has been a consistent force for good for the women’s game, raising its profile and shining a light on areas that need improvement. Her tactical acumen and charisma have won her admirers and individual awards, most notably this January when she was named The Best FIFA Women’s Coach, and she has also become one of the most respected pundits on television since offering analysis of Euro 2021.
Congratulations on your decade of service, Emma, and here’s to many more years of success!