Chelsea reclaim the high ground thanks to inspirational Emma Hayes

Suzanne Wrack on 16 May 2018

Chelsea travelled to Bristol City on Tuesday needing a point to clinch the Women’s Super League title, and thereby the double, with one game to play. They have produced some stunning free-flowing attacking football but that was not on display on this occasion. Instead, the Blues showed the grit of champions as they ground out a 2-0 win with what the striker Fran Kirby, who provided the assist for Jonna Andersson’s goal, described as an average performance.

One person absent from the touchline and the celebrations, yet overwhelmingly responsible for the team’s success, was Emma Hayes. Rather than shouting and leaping from her seat in the dugout, as is often the case, the Chelsea manager watched her team clinch their second double – her double double if you like – from her sofa at home, with an altogether different double on her mind: the imminent arrival of twins. Hayes is 35 weeks pregnant and this season she has juggled Chelsea’s phenomenal campaign with the emotional and physical demands of pregnancy.

It is an incredible feat and has put the 41-year-old in a bigger spotlight. Yet her management, recruitment and development of players deserve the spotlight on their own.

Hayes joined Chelsea in 2012, replacing Matt Beard, who moved to Liverpool. She had gained managerial experience in the US, having been assistant manager at a then all-conquering Arsenal, and she swiftly set about building the team she wanted to lead.

Two years into her Chelsea reign the side narrowly missed out on the WSL1 title – on the last day of the season to Beard’s Liverpool – and a squad overhaul, which included winning the race for Kirby’s signature for a British record fee, put Chelsea on a firm footing for 2015.

That year, Chelsea won their first double. An FA Cup final victory over Notts County – the first time Wembley hosted the final – was followed by an emphatic 4-0 win at home to Sunderland to seal the league.

It confirmed what Hayes is good at: analysing the strengths and weaknesses of her players, finding ways to pull more out of them than they might have thought possible, and working out how to take her team to the next level.

It is what she has done this season too. The arrival of Manchester City on the women’s football scene offered a different challenge and they toppled Chelsea from their perch in 2016, Nick Cushing’s side winning the league by five points. But whereas City have failed to build on that, and have ended a promising season without a trophy, Hayes has reconstructed her side, again, into one of the world’s best despite an ever-improving field around her.

Emma Hayes shows off the Women’s FA Cup after the 3-1 victory over Arsenal at Wembley earlier this month.
Emma Hayes shows off the Women’s FA Cup after the 3-1 victory over Arsenal at Wembley earlier this month. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Hayes’s ability to sign players who dramatically improve her squad is enviable and it is hard to see where she has put a foot wrong. After City’s title win, Hayes brought in Ramona Bachmann from Wolfsburg and the Swiss forward has shone alongside Kirby and Ji So-yun up front, her two goals in this year’s FA Cup final the icing on the cake.

Deanna Cooper arrived from London Bees at a similar time and was a mainstay in the Chelsea defence as they won the Spring Series (the mini-season designed to bridge the gap between the old summer league and new winter one). A cruciate ligament injury ruled her out for most of this WSL season but she returned in Chelsea’s last home game.

Hayes, recognising defensive weakness before the campaign, brought in Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson and Norway’s Maria Thorisdottir and, in January, Andersson – who has scored four goals in her nine appearances – and Anita Asante. All when called upon have stepped up to the plate.

Despite injuries and a fixture pile-up that has come from the winter switch, Hayes has built a squad capable of being rotated to excellent effect. It is well balanced, with experience and youth gelled, and she has a remarkable likability that makes players want to run through walls for her.

Hayes, having signed a contract extension until 2021, will no doubt, despite having two new familial team-mates set to disrupt things, be preparing to rebuild and recruit again as the captain, Katie Chapman, leaves, the striker Eni Aluko moves on, Claire Rafferty departs after 10 years and others look destined for the exit.

Having lifted Chelsea from five points behind City in 2016 to nine points clear with a game to play, Hayes means business. Next on the hit list is the elusive Champions League and increasing her five major trophies in west London. If history is anything to go by, she is the manager capable of doing it.

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