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Emma Hayes' spectacular career at Chelsea was always on the cards - literally, as it happens.
It was 2008 and Hayes, then 31, was agonising over where to pursue her fledgling coaching career. After a mentor recommended a trip to a card-reading clairvoyant, a sceptical Hayes was told that she was going to have a “massive future” at Chelsea. Four years later, she duly landed the job and embarked on a journey to coaching superstardom which has seen her scoop four league titles and earn a first crack at the Champions League against Barcelona on Sunday.
In truth, those who knew Hayes did not need a trip to a mystic to predict she was destined for greatness. Growing up on the Curnock Street council estate in Camden, and a pupil at Parliament Hill school, her former PE teacher, Debbie Ramm-Harpley, recalls a student whom staff “always knew was going to be a leader”.
Hayes threw herself into all aspects of school life, from plays to swimming to linguistics. But it was in moments such as school ski trips when Hayes’ instinctive captaincy shone through. On a steep slope in the French Alps, as teachers and older students were falling over, Hayes - aged just 16 - was hiking back up the mountain to help staff put back on their skis.
“She would lead teachers and students down very tricky mountains, and double back and pick up the people who were lagging behind, making sure everyone was OK," Ramm-Harpley told Telegraph Sport. "She’s a very confident skier. Her leadership showed then, when she’s able to take control of a situation, with adults as well, and make decisions about safe routes down a mountain, that was pretty powerful. She was one of a kind as a student.
“But it takes hard work too and she’s never been afraid of that. She was quite a maverick, she wasn’t a nice cosy student who followed a nice cosy path, she pushed the boundaries, and she used to get into little bit of trouble. It was never serious, but she pushed the boundaries. People see her as quite tough, and obviously she has to be tough in her role and make decisions, but there’s a very compassionate side to Emma too.
"She didn’t ever fit into a standard box, she wasn’t a standard kid. She had something about her that meant you just knew she would go places, whether she would end up as a football coach or a politician or a linguist, all of those were potential avenues for her. We always knew she was going to lead."
Hayes' time at Parliament Hill was instructive, not least in its socially diverse background. The school might nestle close to some of the most affluent housing in London and the twee charm of Hampstead, but it also had children from some of the capital's most deprived areas.
"What she could do, which not all students have been able to do, is communicate with students from affluent homes and from the same homes as her, and from different cultures," Ramm-Harpley said. "She didn’t have any problems communicating and that allowed her also to be very popular.
“She was also a very curious learner. She wants to find out more, she wants to understand more, gather knowledge. She’s never happy just to sit on what she already knows. That’s a quality that drives people forward.”
As well as being football-obsessed, Hayes - in her own words - is also fascinated by politics, "in understanding how big-state society works" and loves strategy. That thirst for knowledge is something another of Hayes' mentors has seen too. Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen, formerly on the staff at Manchester City and whose Football Coach Evolution courses welcome many other top coaches, including Brighton men’s manager Graham Potter, has been working with Hayes at his annual summer camps for 10 years.
“If everybody would approach the profession of coaching the way she has done and still does, I think the football world would be in a much better place today and players all over the world would get much better coaching today,” Verheijen said.
“With how hard she has worked in the last 10 years, how much she has improved as a coach and how impressively she has improved Chelsea, she is a role model for everyone in the football world, not only in the women’s game but in the men’s and women’s game. What she has done should be the benchmark for anybody. People tend to look at her achievements for the women’s game - it should be the benchmark of the game in general, both men and women."
In June 2016, Verheijen’s five-day course was held at Rotterdam’s De Kuip stadium, the venue that staged the men’s Euro 2000 final, and Hayes was coaching Feyenoord’s Under-19s. And in that setting, Verheijen saw a star.
“On the pitch, in an impressive 50,000-seater stadium and intimidating environment, I split the 30 coaches into six groups of five, each with a head coach. Emma was the head coach of her group. Emma made the best impression. That was the first moment that I thought, ‘ok, this could be something special’. She was in command, she was owning the pitch, as if it was somewhere in a park. It was very impressive.
“She was very clear in her communication to the players. It’s not easy to make progress within one session. You have a group of players who don’t know you, and you don’t know them. Even when you are working with your own team on a daily basis it’s a challenge to make progress within one session. Emma made significant progress with players she wasn’t familiar with.”
Making progress has become the norm for Hayes, whose side have become the first British women’s team to reach a European final in 14 years. They face Barcelona on Sunday in Gothenburg and remain on course for a potential quadruple of major honours this term. That is a feat last achieved by Arsenal in 2007, when Hayes was the north Londoners’ assistant coach, working under Vic Akers.
A friend of Hayes’ family, whose parents lived nearby to her in Camden, Akers has known Hayes nearly all her life. He said: “As a player Emma had a good left foot, but in the back of her mind was always the coaching side, that was noticeable early on, it was what she was aiming for. And she’s taken that above and beyond because she is arguably the best coach in the country at the moment.
“All the staff made great contributions [to that quadruple in 2007] and Emma was no different. Similar to what Emma has built up now at Chelsea, we had such a wonderful team spirit around the place. Everybody pulled together, it was a fabulous group and Emma was part of that. She has always wanted to push herself on and push standards.
“As well as coaching, you’ve also got to manage people, and I think she does that really well. I always said to her, ‘it’s not the players on the pitch you’ve got to worry about, Emma, it’s the ones on the bench who are behind the scenes - you’ve got to try and make sure you include them all the time.' Obviously her group are all right behind her. I’m so pleased Emma’s the first one to make it.”
It was shortly after that 2007 European triumph that Ramm-Harpley recommended Hayes should go and see the clairvoyant, as she came to a crossroads in her career. But perhaps even the world’s most psychic forecaster would be amazed by quite how spectacular her ascent has been since.
Analysis: Where Barca can hurt Chelsea
By Molly McElwee
A formidable strikeforce
Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby may be English football's most prolific strike partnership this season, but Barcelona are hands down Europe’s best attacking team this season - at least based on the numbers. Since August, Barcelona have scored 166 competitive goals - averaging almost six per match on their way to the Spanish domestic title, compared to Chelsea’s 3.14 in the Women’s Super League. Their strength in depth is enviable, with Spanish pair Alexia Putellas and top-scorer Jenni Hermoso, Dutch forward Lieke Martens - who has five goals in her last five Champions League starts.
Caroline Graham Hansen has been Barcelona's not-so-secret weapon this season, delivering 15 assists in the domestic league. She and Hermoso were the key signings made since that 2019 Champions League final loss to Lyon, and as the competition has ramped up this season, the Norwegian has been doing the hard work under pressure down the wing to sneak passes into dangerous positions. Chelsea left-back Jonna Andersson was targeted against Bayern Munich in the semi-final, and struggled enough to be replaced by Niamh Charles for the second leg, so Hayes has a tactical decision to make.
A stern defence
For all their goalscoring, Barcelona have conceded only 13 goals in all competitions this season. The threat of Chelsea's front three will be a level above that which they face domestically, but the way they controlled Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-final - as well as Manchester City in the quarters - was a measure of their match management.
This is a team with the winning habit. Since their loss to Wolfsburg in last August's Champions League semi-final, Barcelona have won 35, drawn two and lost one. With a previous Champions League final already under their belts, they may just meet the occasion better.