Emma Hayes won her third WSL title with Chelsea last season
She strengthened her squad with the likes of Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder
Hayes speaks about challenging Lyon, embracing lockdown and coaching through Covid-19
Emma Hayes’ Chelsea story encapsulates the recent history of English women’s football.
When she took charge in 2012, the Blues were – in the words of Hayes herself – “an amateur team”. And they were far from alone.
Just eight years on, Chelsea stand as the antithesis of amateurism. In fact, Hayes’ side embody the vision, ambition and slick professionalism that has transformed the FA WSL into women’s football’s go-to destination.
Pulling off the two biggest transfers of 2020, in signing first Sam Kerr, then Pernille Harder, provided prominent proof of their standard-bearer status. Melanie Leupolz and Jessie Fleming have been recruited too, further bolstering an already star-studded, title-winning squad in which the likes of Erin Cuthbert, Fran Kirby, Ji Soyun, Maren Mjelde and Bethany England jostled for positions.
Hayes’ task? To maintain domestic supremacy and challenge Lyon's European hegemony by moulding that embarrassment of attacking riches into a fully functioning unit. And if anyone is equipped for the job, it is the straight-talking Londoner.
Long renowned as one of the game’s foremost coaches, the 44-year-old – who took her first steps in the profession when she was just 20 – seems to be at the peak of her formidable powers. And as Hayes told FIFA.com, she has returned refreshed from football’s Covid-enforced lay-off and is relishing the challenge of leading her team into an uncertain but exciting new era.
FIFA.com: Emma, are you happy with the unbeaten start your team has made to the season? Emma Hayes: One thing I have learned is that you can’t win a title in this early part of a season, but you can definitely lose it. And I think it’s been a solid start. I feel we’re getting better and I’m happy with the way the new players are integrating into the team.
You place great importance on the team culture you’ve established at Chelsea. Have the new signings been fitting in just as well in that respect? Absolutely. They’re all fantastic characters. The most important thing for me is seeing that they’re integrating into the way we do things and the way we play. Some of that takes time because they’ve got new team-mates, new coaches and new ways of working, and time is needed to fully understand our ethos and principles. But all of them are great students of the game and keen to learn and improve, and that’s all I ever ask for.
Are you enjoying the tactical challenge of cramming all that attacking talent into one team and finding the right blend and balance? I am but I’d say every season, and every group of players, presents that challenge. One thing I do know: to improve, you need to keep evolving. What got us to our title win last year more than likely wouldn’t have been enough this year. You always have to look for new solutions and, for the players, that means being open to new partnerships and challenges if we’re going to climb the mountain again. Fortunately we have the type of characters in this team who understand and embrace that.
We’re extremely blessed to have wonderful talent at this club and you never know how that will all come together on the field. But it’s an exciting challenge as a coach and I’m very pleased that these elite players are choosing to come to Chelsea because they want to reach and test themselves at the very top. Defensively, we’ve proved over recent years that we can compete at the highest level. It’s been going forward, especially in Europe, that we’ve needed to improve. With the development of the team in the past two years, allied to the signings we’ve brought in, I feel we are improving in that area.
Are you facing any new challenges as a manager this season, given the sheer number of world-class players you now have and the inevitability of some sitting on the bench? I’ve never known a happy bench, and any coach who says they have one is lying. I don’t even try to keep everyone happy because I know it’s not possible. But I do try very hard to keep everyone engaged and working towards a common goal because the minute that stops happening is when the team becomes compromised. My job is to keep everyone on the right path.
What have the biggest challenges been of coaching in the midst of a pandemic? I think the biggest thing is that, whatever people say about a ‘new normal’, it really is alien to be playing without fans. Our players, especially our international players, are also getting used to not being able to go home to see their families because they can only leave our bubble to go into another bubble with their national teams. That’s not nice, and you have to remember that people are worried about their families right now with everything that’s going on. We also can’t socialise as a team as we’d like to because of all the Covid measures – there’s been no team bonding as such because of that, so we’ve needed to look at different ways of building the togetherness and spirit that can be so important.
During football's shutdown period earlier in the year, how did you find the experience? Was it torture being away from football, or were there positives in being forced to draw breath? I’ve got to be honest: I loved it. I loved being at home, being able to spend time with my son, recover, get fresh and take a step back and put the building blocks in place for this season. It was the first time out I’ve had in my career since 2010, and I welcomed it and feel better for it.
There was a lot of gloomy talk about the potential impact of Covid on women’s football. What do you feel needs to happen to maintain the momentum of recent years? I think in England we’ve done a brilliant job and shown what needs to be done. The FA have been great and the clubs have shown with the players we’ve brought in that this is the best destination to be. England has provided a beacon for women’s football around the world, and I’m really proud of that.
How excited have you been by that influx of star players into the WSL, and what do you make of suggestions that it's now the preeminent league in women’s football? It’s been brilliant. There’s so much quality right throughout the league, and it’s not just ourselves, Arsenal and [Manchester] City – it’s throughout the league. That’s another signpost that this is the league to play in because it’s not just about two or three strong teams. You’re looking at six to eight really formidable teams in this league now, and I love seeing that because I want to progress the women’s game – that’s my priority. More competitive teams makes my job tougher, but it also produces a better product and makes it more attractive to broadcasters and sponsors, so it’s something I warmly welcome.
Can I ask about Lyon and the UEFA Women’s Champions League. How do you assess what they’ve achieved there, and is this the season their stranglehold ends? Lyon deserve all the credit for what they’ve done for women’s football and for how much they’ve invested in the game. They’ve been the biggest spenders and their dominance reflects that. We've been building a team to compete with them, and year on year we’ve been improving. Now, along with the likes of PSG, Barcelona, Wolfsburg and Man City, we’re one of the top teams in Europe. I certainly have high hopes. But I also know that we’ll be going up against the very best teams in the world and, for us to achieve what we want to, the environment here needs to be more demanding than it’s ever been.
Finally, you and your Chelsea players donated your prize money from last season’s WSL title win to Refuge. Can you please tell us a bit about that. It's a charity that is very close to the hearts and minds of everyone at Chelsea, especially in the women’s team. We thought it was only fitting that during an extremely difficult time, when people could not escape their home environments, that we make some kind of contribution that will hopefully help provide some respite. For us, that donation was beyond money – it was a message that you’re never alone, that you never need to stay somewhere you’re not safe. There’s help there, and Refuge is a fantastic organisation that's ready to provide that help.