Unprecedented. Chelsea Ladies won the double last season for the first time in their history and under manager Emma Hayes, the club will be looking to build on an unforgettable 2015. Ahead of a new season, FIFA.com caught up with the FAWSL-winning manager to talk about the growth of the women’s game in England, her plans to build on Chelsea’s success, the competitive nature of the FAWSL and her vision for changing the pub conversation in England.
FIFA.com: How have you seen England’s success at Canada 2015 lived out on the ground this past year?
Emma Hayes: I think it goes beyond England’s success. The league was growing before the World Cup’s success, but since the World Cup, Chelsea alone have 164% increases in terms of fan engagement. We’re finishing our third full season as WSL teams and everybody is fully professional. It’s grown at such a rate that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it! 2015 will go down in history as being a significant year for women’s football in England.
How do you build on the success from last summer?
The hiring of Baroness Sue Campbell as head of women’s football is significant. We have someone dedicated to growing the game domestically, internationally and in grassroots. To some extent there’s apathy towards top Premier League games where players are earning a lot of money. There’s a disconnect between the fan base and millionaire footballers and as a result I think the women’s game is drawing new fans, especially from the men’s side. I see scores of more and more males and young boys coming to our games. I think it’s important that our clubs involved continue to promote and market the game as they have been doing the last 12 months. It’s not a hard sell in England anymore. I don’t have to go to my marketing and commercial team and say, “Can you sell women’s football?” I don’t think there are too many NWSL teams that have bigger budgets than three or four teams in England, for sure. It’s a fully professional sport and the great thing is we’re connected with men’s clubs, so we get all the support that you need.
Do you see the support Chelsea’s given the women’s programme the past few years becoming the norm financially and in terms of infrastructure across the FAWSL?
I do. I think 2017 is when the licenses need renewing. You’ll see other big teams apply for licenses. Will we see a Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur women’s team? I could see that. There’s very much an acknowledgement that the women’s game is at the point where everybody’s talking about how we make it commercially viable. We know there’s a fan base, we know there’s interest. We’ve got TV coverage, regular highlights packages, live games, there’s an awful lot of coverage. It’s not selling the product, it’s selling the game so that it makes money. That’s the stage I think the owners are coming together to work towards the best solution so that it becomes a sustainable business model.
What do you think finally clicked for your team the last couple of seasons?
I took over a team that was second bottom. To go from second bottom to champions overnight isn't going to happen. We lost the league on the last day of the season when we really shouldn’t have been in that position. I thought realistically we would challenge this year. I think the failures of the year before made the players more determined. It hardened them. I think you need that failure. You have to go through that. Bringing in better spine players, Hedvig Lindahl in particular, and Niamh Fahey. Two or three players made a significant difference to my team because not only were we the top goalscorers but we had the best defensive record and that wins championships. We were tough to beat. Ji So-Yun needed one year under her belt. She now speaks the language, got physically stronger and adapted more to the level.
Do you think that the structure you have in place now you’ll be able to maintain that level where you’re going to be contenders year in and year out?
Yes, I do. Much like the game in USA we could see winners change hands every year. There’s not a lot to separate an Arsenal, Manchester City or Liverpool, really. We’ve all got similar budgets. It’s going to come down to details here and there. At least while I’m there, we’ll always compete! My whole goal is to put in place an infrastructure so that if I left tomorrow it keeps growing. This is the chance for me to leave my legacy. Chelsea’s home for me, so I treat it like that.
What is the FAWSL’s standing competitively with other leagues in women’s football?
Much like the USA, there are several teams that can win the league. You go to Germany, it’s four teams, France it’s three teams. In Sweden it’s much the same. I think in England it’s similar to the NWSL, but I do think it’s more frantic in the USA. In England, more football is played, there’s a little bit more time and space because teams have been together longer. When you’re together longer, tactically you adjust better. I think you’ll start to see the league improve here (USA) on the pitch because you’re starting to see teams stay together. The game’s about chemistry, so I think the FAWSL is closest to the NWSL in terms of there being eight to nine teams that could win the league. I think we are probably just a little bit behind the league here, physically.
How would you describe what you wanted to bring to this team?
We wanted to change the pub conversation. I wanted men to sit in the pub and when they were asked in a pub quiz, “Who’s the best women’s team in the country, they no longer said Arsenal Ladies.” That’s what Bruce Buck and I wanted. At the macro level, we wanted to change something, and I think we’ve done that. The strange thing is, for the 20 years of Arsenal’s success, in 12 months Chelsea Ladies are the most famous team. And I just won two trophies. It’s because of the media. I had three hours of interviews after the FA Cup final. Three hours! I couldn’t get out. I didn’t even celebrate with my players. I walked in and I went to a mixed zone and I never saw anything like it for a women’s game in England. It’s growing so quickly. For everyone involved in football, it’s been so much fun.