When the final whistle blew in Chelsea’s Women’s Champions League semifinal win over Bayern Munich on May 2, an emotional Emma Hayes was engulfed by her coaching team. Fran Kirby, who had just run the length of the pitch to score into an empty net and put the tie beyond reach, sank to her knees shouting as her teammates enveloped her. The weight of the achievement for the entire squad, nine years in the making, hung in the air. Hayes had been waiting for this moment for her entire career.
“I’m not going to sit here and give you some crappy platitudes,” she told BT Sport after the game. “I’ve worked my whole life for today. I’m so f—ing proud of them.
“I’m going to say this to every coach sitting at home: This is thousands of hours. Thousands of miles travelling. This is thousands of setbacks, working with different teams and different moments. I’m so proud of myself. I got to this level through my hard work and my dedication.”
The forthrightness of Hayes’ comments are outstanding in a football world where it can seem like a competition to be bland and uncontroversial, but anyone who’s followed Hayes’ journey to the pinnacle of European football will know that her uncontrived nature endears her to many. That side of her personality has come out more this season as Chelsea have stormed to the Women’s Super League (WSL) title and Continental Cup, with a Champions League final and a possible FA Cup on the horizon, too.
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The last side to do the Quadruple were Arsenal, who achieved this historic feat — they were the first and only English club to do so — in 2007. Hayes was an assistant coach with that team, which included greats like Karen Carney, Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith. It was a taste of success that stuck with her.
“If you want to compare it, actually, Arsenal’s achievements was unreal. To think Arsenal Ladies won that against a full-time team that was training, with top players,” Hayes said at a roundtable on Monday ahead of the Champions League final and after clinching their second straight WSL title.
“Did we think we were going to win it? I don’t think we thought too much about it, I think the spirit of the squad was so tight that it didn’t stress too much about it, that’s something, I see a resemblance in the team I’ve got now, that’s for sure.”
While there are similarities between what the two sides could achieve, the gulf in professionalism couldn’t be larger. In 2007, Arsenal weren’t training full-time and were playing in a non-competitive league that they dominated. The facilities weren’t what we come to expect for top clubs — or what top women’s clubs still don’t always get — and the financing was non-existent.
Where Arsenal had a fairytale season, Chelsea’s success this term is down to meticulous coaching and planning of Hayes from as early as 2012. However, there were signs even before that and her time with Arsenal that she was a talented coach.
In 2001, Hayes joined the Long Island Lady Riders in the USA’s W-League, which made her the youngest female head coach in the league’s history. (The W-League ceased operations in 2015.) In 2002, when Hayes was 25, she was awarded National Coach of the Year. While she was with Iona College from 2003 to 2006, she was further recognised for her coaching abilities, returning to England not long after to join the Arsenal set-up. After her time in north London, Hayes returned to the United States to take on the head coach and director of soccer operations roles with the Chicago Red Stars.
While that experience ended in her being fired, she still made an impact, namely drafting U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe at No. 2 overall in the 2009 draft. While in hindsight it could be said that Hayes was on a certain path, there was no telling when she rocked up at Chelsea in 2002 that she’d change the face of women’s football, impacting everything to how the team were treated to the level of professionalism in the game.
One person did see it coming.
“I’ve never been to a card [tarot] reader ever in my life, bar once, and she told me that I would do amazing things at Chelsea and would inspire generations of little girls,” Hayes says. “So I’m just fulfilling what I should be doing. The rest of it is sheer hard work and lots of people — like lots of people, players, staff.”
In a now-infamous exchange, Hayes turned to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck during the 2013 Champions League final at Stamford Bridge between Wolfsburg and Lyon and said: “It’ll be us one day, Bruce, it will be us, so give me time.”
Can Chelsea add a Women’s Champions League crown to their domestic dominance this season? Catherine Ivill – The FA/The FA via Getty Images
From when she started at Chelsea in 2012, she took the side from a team that finished consistently around sixth or seventh in the WSL to a side that’s been in the top two teams in the country all but once over that span.
“Adrian Jacob [Chelsea women chairman] said to me yesterday, when Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr were sat eating their dinner together: ‘Would you have imagined two years ago, that they would be sitting here lifting the trophy today?’ And I went ‘yes,’ because that’s who I am. You’ve got to think big in life, and it was my calling,” Hayes added.
“We’re there because we work our backsides off to be in this position, and the highs and lows that come with it. We’ve just learned along the way what not to do, and that’s what learning is about: what you don’t do. Then when it comes to knowing what you want, I always say it’s not about what you want. It’s what you don’t want.
“I always focus on making sure I don’t have those things and keep shifting towards the place you want to get to and trust the process.”
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It was a year without trophies in 2018-19 that fueled the desire to attract players like six-time Golden Boot winner Kerr and Harder, two-time European Player of the Year. The former, who arrived to Chelsea on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, credits Hayes with building her into the player that has been unleashed on the WSL in 2020-21.
“I had a lot of people doubting me at the start of the year and Emma trusted me,” Kerr told reporters on Monday. “She would text me saying I believe in you. Her confidence in me really helped me get back in form. Also on a footballing level, she has worked out what is best for me and got me to a position where I’ll be the best.
“I think her impact on me off the field has been better than the impact on me on the field.”
It wasn’t just big names like Kerr and Harder that Hayes worked with. Kirby, who spent most of 2019 and 2020 recovering from serious illness, has turned into one of the best players in the world. Ann-Katrin Berger, who won the WSL’s Golden Glove and produced numerous show-stopping saves over the 2020-21 season, came from Birmingham, while young players like Niamh Charles and Jess Carter have all found their space in a team stacked with international talent. The rhythm for success in this team is that everyone works for the other.
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“We are approaching our best form,” Hayes said. “Even you could see in the game yesterday [vs. Reading on May 9]. I woke up this morning thinking about what messages of courage I was going to give the team.
“I think a team that has been together for a long time has helped. I never want to paint a rosy pic of what happens inside a dressing room because you have ups and down. It’s a reminder to me that the sacrifices they have made are worth it.
“My job is to keep them on the task. Sometimes I do it with empathy, and other times I drive them hard.”
Those sacrifices will be particularly worth it if Hayes and her side can nab their first UWCL title on Sunday against Barcelona. The Catalan giants are many people’s favourites going in, but Hayes is relishing the task of being the underdog.
“I’m not here for the experience,” Hayes added. “I’m here to win it. My message will be what it has been all season which is: we’ve shown we’re the best team in England.”