Emma Hayes on how she led Chelsea to WSL dominance over 10 years

In August 2012, Emma Hayes got off a train and arrived at a club in the process of finishing third bottom of the Women’s Super League.

Two of Chelsea’s three wins that season had come against the teams below them, Doncaster and Liverpool. Hayes’ initial challenges included finding offices to work from and footballs to work with.

“When there’s nothing there, you have to put everything there,” Hayes, 45, told BBC Sport.

“Having nothing to start from made things very, very difficult, because it meant that very few people had to do a lot of jobs in the beginning. It was tough.”

Chelsea reached the FA Cup final the season before she joined – and were ahead in regular time, extra time and the penalty shootout before eventually lost to Birmingham.

But Hayes felt their place in the bottom two at the end of his first full season in charge, four points clear of relegation, reflected the talent in the part-time squad.

“We did very well, considering how behind we were,” she says.

“I don’t want to remember it. All my focus was off the field, getting the infrastructure in place. That’s all I was interested in.”

Hayes also held a job in financial services at the time, building on the polymath and breadth of vision she had developed during her first 11 years in the game.

She served as an assistant, first team coach and academy director at Arsenal, forming part of the team as won the 2006-07 Women’s Champions League – then known as the UEFA Women’s Cup – under venerable Gunners manager Vic Akers.

At 31, Hayes turned down the chance to succeed Vic Akers as Arsenal manager because she didn’t feel it would challenge her enough, instead moving to the US

Before joining Chelsea, she had built a team for Western New York Flash, based in the United States, in the capacity of technical director.

“I came from America, where I had trained at a higher level, so it was a step back for me,” she says. “I had to change my mindset to realize there was so much work to do.

“It takes at least two seasons to get a team that represents something that you want it to.”

Consistency – a word Hayes repeatedly returns to – as well as making Chelsea difficult to score against and changing the team’s long-ball style, were among her priorities during the slow burn of the early seasons.

Emma Hayes
A 2-0 defeat at Sincil Bank helped Chelsea finish below third-bottom Lincoln in the 2013 WSL season

Unlike those clubs chasing instant success through big investments, Hayes targeted free agents and focused on a sustainable approach that would last.

Hayes describes then-Bundesliga top scorer Yuki Ogimi, signed in 2013, and legendary Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, as “indispensable” in helping to transform the professionalism of the club and its global image.

Only one last day defeat denied Chelsea the title in 2014. They had the considerable consolation of reaching the Champions League for the first time, and Hayes’ shrewd signings inspired them to the league title and FA Cup glory the following year.

Ji So-yun and Emma Hayes
Ji So-yun was one of Hayes’ key Chelsea signings, scoring 68 goals in 208 games between 2014 and 2022

England internationals and WSL champions Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty, whom Hayes knew from his Arsenal days, were also hugely important, paving the way for players such as playmaker Ji So-yun and Fran Kirby, the club’s all-time leading scorer and assist-giver. supplier, to choose Chelsea.

“People don’t realize that when we won the double in 2015, I was part-time,” says Hayes. “A lot of the players were part-time, a lot of the staff were part-time. We didn’t have much more resources than we had two or three years before that.”

Chelsea have repeated the League and FA Cup double three times since then, adding the League Cup for a memorable treble in 2021.

Sam Kerr and Emma Hayes
Sam Kerr has been the WSL top scorer in each of her two campaigns with Chelsea and was the 2021-22 Player of the Season

Having watched the profiles of her star players blossom alongside the sport, Hayes is just as interested in the business side of football as she is in her coaching sessions.

“I’m one of probably a handful of people who did it when nobody was there, so I get as much pleasure from the growth of the game as I do from winning,” she says, pointing out that the cost of opening Stamford Bridge would necessitate nearly full house. The team’s home is currently Kingsmeadow, which has a capacity of around 4,000.

“I’ve been in women’s football for a long time. I loved watching England wins the European Championship, any sold-out stadium, turn on the television and watch Manchester United v Manchester City. It looks good when it’s at Old Trafford.”

A banner by Emma Hayes
Chelsea are chasing a fourth consecutive WSL title in 2022-23 and remain contenders to win the Champions League for the first time

But 10 years after being appointed manager of Chelsea Ladies – as the team was then known – Hayes is in no mood to dwell on the past.

“It’s been 10 years – what were you doing 10 years ago and can you remember?” she asks.

“My preoccupation is how I get to a place, not how it feels when I’m there, let alone when we’ve won.

“I’ll be honest with you – every time we win, I’m just relieved and I’m glad it’s over. I love my job, but it takes its toll.

“I always knew we were going to succeed. I know who I am and I’m confident in that.

“I’ve always felt I’m here for a reason. And that reason, beyond building a club, was to win trophies.”

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