Photograph: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Getty Images
Big sheepish grin, arms wide and low, Lauren James jogged along the standhousing the Manchester United fans that had booed her moments earlier. It had taken Chelsea five minutes to take the lead and it was James, a former United player, who put them ahead, heading straight for the corner of away fans that had naively chosen to single her out while taking a corner early on. James went on to earn a hat-trick that ensured a comfortable 3-1 win in front of 20,473 fans at Stamford Bridge.
“I think she enjoyed that,” the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, said. “I don’t mind these things in the women’s game. You give someone stick, you have to get it in return, right?
Related: Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United: Women’s Super League – as it happened
“I’ve never seen a player like Lauren, doing the things she does… There were a lot of unbelievable performances today that allowed LJ to thrive.”
Hayes is experimenting with her forward line in the absence of the influential forward Sam Kerr, who sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury during the Blues’ midseason training camp in Morocco. Against West Ham last week in the FA Cup fourth round, James had led the line, before dropping into the more familiar No 10 role in the second half.
Chelsea came from a goal down to earn a 3-1 win in extra time and James pulled the strings. Hayes described her as “instrumental” to that second half and a week later James was positioned in that No 10 for the visit of United, given free rein to cause maximum damage.
The US forward Mia Fishel started in the No 9 just in front of her. There was more tinkering by Hayes, Niamh Charles handed the captain’s armband days after signing a new contract, Nathalie Björn handed a first start on joining and goalkeeper Hannah Hampton making a rare start, preferred in goal ahead of the Sweden international Zecira Musovic.
“I’m not one to make safe decisions in life, even on my way out [of the club],” Hayes said. “I believe in putting the best XI out, no matter what anyone says. Based on training, based on the way the game is going. Everyone is good enough to be in the XI.
“We’ve come away from being a counterattacking team. To do that you have to sometimes sacrifice experience and you won’t know how that’s going to pan out until the end. I’ve been adamant with the club that I will continue to grow the locker room.”
James’s second goal was more direct. A wonderful searching ball over the top from new recruit Björn, who Hayes pointed out has joined the club at the same age former captain and Björn’s compatriot Magda Eriksson did, picked out James who had got behind Hannah Blundell and fired past Mary Earps.
United were handed a lifeline moments before the end of the half, Lucía García’s strike was blocked on the floor by the body of Kadeisha Buchanan but Hayley Ladd leapt forward to slam it in.
Only one goal down, United looked far stronger after the break. Chelsea’s decision to bring on Sjoeke Nüsken for Fishel, with the German forward and James partnering up top, also gave United a bit of breathing space in the middle.
However, wherever James plays she can cause problems, regardless of how involved she is in dictating the tempo of the game, and with Chelsea feeling the heat a little, the England forward would seal the match and her hat-trick, powering past Maya Le Tissier before slotting past Earps. The celebration would look a little different this time, James racing towards the Chelsea fans to the left of the goal and dishing out the high-fives.
Download the Guardian app from the iOS App Store on iPhone or the Google Play store on Android by searching for ‘The Guardian’.
If you already have the Guardian app, make sure you’re on the most recent version.
In the Guardian app, tap the Menu button at the bottom right, then go to Settings (the gear icon), then Notifications.
Turn on sport notifications.
A lone fan held aloft a “Skinner out” sign in the away end, while a small pocket chanted “We want Skinner out” just shy of the final whistle. An inability to trouble Chelsea in their last five league meetings is heaping pressure on the United manager.
Related: Manchester City v Liverpool: Women’s Super League – live
The Red Devils now sit 10 points behind league leaders Chelsea now and could end up seven behind third-placed Manchester City by the end of the day.
“The fans are absolutely entitled to do what they want, we’ll never silence them, they pay their money,” Skinner said. “My job is to stay focused on what I can do with this team and that is success… we’re in two cup competitions and have a 10-point gap on the league leaders to chase. I still think there’s points to be dropped in this league.
“There’s a lot in this job that could pull you in or down. This game is about opinions and it’s healthy. I have no doubt what we’re going to achieve with this team. I’m not going to let it drip into my psyche.”