Emma Hayes remains true to the end: honest, transformative, a champion

Emma Hayes celebrates a fifth WSL title in a row on the Old Trafford pitch   (The FA via Getty Images)
Emma Hayes celebrates a fifth WSL title in a row on the Old Trafford pitch (The FA via Getty Images)

At the end, there was only relief that the journey was over. Emma Hayes and Chelsea were champions for the final time; the “best title” of all, the toughest and the sweetest, sealed with the fairytale finish at Old Trafford. There was only one regret: missing her glass of wine with Sir Alex Ferguson, who had waited for Hayes while she celebrated a fifth Women’s Super League title in a row. A phone call had to do, from one managerial great to another.

After all, there are only a handful of figures who could relate to the emotions Hayes was experiencing. The 47-year-old had also spoken to Jurgen Klopp in the week in which two eras were ending, her 12 years at Chelsea and his nine at Liverpool. Between Hayes, Klopp, Ferguson and Pep Guardiola, who revealed his own fatigue after leading City to a sixth Premier League title in eight seasons, there are very few who can understand the toll management takes.

And Hayes was done, truly. “I don’t have another drop to give it,” she said, drained and exhausted in her final press conference in English football, which brought a certain relief of its own. It is often at the end of the campaign that Hayes is at her most open and honest. At the last, with a “champions” cap covering her eyes, a cracking voice revealing tears had been shed, a bottle of Singha beer in front of her, Hayes was fascinating in discussing the demands of her job and the legacy one of the most successful managers in English football history leaves behind.

"I just wanted to create role models I never had, to create a profession that wasn’t possible,” she began. "We’ve all been told ‘no’. We’ve all been told ‘it can’t be done’, ‘the boys come first’, ‘it’s a men’s game’. But to think, there’s a final game at Old Trafford, there’s a sellout at Wembley, there’s England winning the Euros, there’s Arsenal selling out game after game. I think women’s football will explode. It’s already exploding but it’s going to really explode in the next few years and that was all that I wanted.

"I just always go back to [former Chelsea chair] Bruce Buck, the first time I’d asked him for money. He said ‘Emma, I want to change the conversation. I’d like to change it from it always being about Arsenal.’ I was like ‘yes, this is brilliant – but you’re going to have to invest in it.’ And it takes Bruce Bucks, it really does, or whomever they are in each club, to believe in someone or something. Then what happens is competition, then we have to create an infrastructure that brings the rest up. And all I’ve ever set out to do was just drive it.

"I hate naysayers... ‘Oh, it’s unrealistic’; ‘it’s going to collapse’; ‘[you] can’t sustain it’; ‘you can’t invest this money.’ And I always think the same thing – why are we so negative about investing in women? I’ve always felt really strongly about women ... giving opportunity, and leaving it in the place that I dreamed about seeing. But I’m done."

And the time was right, Hayes concluded. She reflected that it had become impossible to maintain the standards she demands of herself, revealed that the job was changing, getting tougher each year as women’s football continues to grow and players are increasingly exposed to the pitfalls of fame and the toxicity of social media. “I hope the club really support the new manager to get player care and a little bit more performance psychology,” Hayes said. “Because I really believe in the wellbeing. I made my suggestions to the sporting directors and I know they’ll take it on.”

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

Managing the players became the hardest part, Hayes said, telling members of her squad that they wouldn’t be playing was the toughest aspect of her role and one she won’t miss. But for 12 years, Hayes was the best at it. She built Chelsea Women from the ground up, pushed for investment, and didn’t settle for less. She fostered a culture of leadership that became self-fulfilling. Chelsea spent large parts of this season without captain Millie Bright or Sam Kerr; big injuries, but others stepped up. Even in a difficult year, Chelsea finished as champions. “That’s why, for me, this is the best title,’ Hayes said. “We’re not stupid, we know we weren’t at our best.”

And now a new challenge, a dream job with the United States. After one night off, it starts on Monday, with a flight to New York. The demands continue, but it’s “different, different energy”, Hayes said, assuring herself. “I’ll feel reinvigorated and re-energised with something else. Sometimes people think you need a rest, sometimes you just need a change.” After a life given to Chelsea and the game, another begins now.