“If you don’t improve I’m selling you.”
A young Jess Carter is sat in the middle of a white-walled room at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, a tactics board behind her, a fleet of analysts and fitness staff, all armed with laptops, positioned on the outside, quietly looking in. Carter is chewing gum and looks bored, frustrated to have been hauled aside to hear the same old message. Facing her is Emma Hayes.
“I want you to show every f***ing day that you give a f*** about yourself,” Hayes says. “It’s up to you to decide your future.”
Four years later, it is clear what future Carter decided to choose.
Now 26, the Chelsea defender is an established England international, having just played a key role in the Lionesses reaching the World Cup final this summer. When Carter first arrived at Chelsea, Hayes found a player who struggled to keep herself fit or follow a regimented diet. Chelsea’s fitness staff were exasperated and Carter’s confidence was on the floor: she did not think she was good enough to play for her country, but Hayes saw and believed in her potential and, crucially, how it could be brought out.
What followed won’t be included on Hayes’s list of honours or medals when the manager leaves Chelsea at the end of the season. “Highly decorated” does not even begin to cover what Hayes has achieved at Chelsea, or the legacy she will leave behind following Saturday’s shock news that this season will be her last at Stamford Bridge and Kingsmeadow.
Under Hayes, the days of triumph and glory Chelsea have celebrated since her appointment in 2012 have been unrivalled, stretched across an unprecedented decade of dominance. Yet if the dynasty Hayes built can be measured in titles, its foundations are in success stories like Carter’s – and the manager who set the environment where she could become the player she is today.
“If you sleepwalk your way through life, you won’t survive,” Hayes goes on to say in the DAZN documentary One Team, One Dream. Certainly, it reveals some insights into the ruthless trophy-winning machine that has dominated women’s football in England over the last decade, claiming six Women’s Super Leagues, five Women’s FA Cups and two League Cups, and which in recent years has barely given anyone else a sniff.
That could change now Hayes will be leaving the WSL, heading towards a position that is outside club football altogether. The 47-year-old is expected to take up the vacancy at the United States women’s national team, with the four-time World Cup winners yet to appoint a permanent successor to Vlatko Andonovski after their disastrous last-16 exit from this year’s tournament. Hayes is said to be US Soccer’s first choice for the job and reports in the US suggest she is set to be offered an equal salary to the men’s head coach Gregg Berhalter, at £1.3m per year.
Given Hayes’s record in women’s football, such an offer from US Soccer should only be considered the minimum. The English manager is the outstanding club coach in the women’s game and the only area that Chelsea have fallen short in has been in their pursuit of a first Champions League title, after reaching the final in 2021 and the semi-finals last season.
It would be fair to include this as a criticism, given how Hayes has been backed by Chelsea and the resources available to the club. After all, it was that support that led to Chelsea signing Sam Kerr, the striker who took Hayes’s side to another level and whose taste for the big moments came to mirror their own sense of inevitability.
But in dominating the domestic scene, Hayes created a culture where the values of graft and grind were placed on a pedestal. Over the years, much of their trophy procession felt self-fulfilling.
It came from the top, where Hayes reinforced the message and stamped out complacency at the start of every season, sustaining Chelsea’s superiority in a league that was so often decided by fine margins. If the history of team sports shows there are often natural, unavoidable drop-offs in performance and motivation following periods of success, there has been little hint of that at Chelsea in recent years.
Which is what makes Hayes’s potential move to the USA so fascinating. “Arrogance” and “complacency” were the very words used to describe how the USA ceded their position as the dominant force in international women’s football, as illustrated by their disastrous defence of their World Cup title in Australia and New Zealand. Their performances up to and including that last-16 defeat to Sweden highlighted a squad that was long past its best, and a system where players had the power and were picked based on their reputations.
Naturally, many of the issues that Hayes may inherit will lie below the surface and could take years to resolve, primarily in how the US has fallen behind Europe in the production of young talent. Hayes’s previous experience before arriving at Chelsea is set to be beneficial, given she started her coaching career in the US college system in the early 2000s and landed her first professional managerial position with the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League.
As Hayes will remain with Chelsea until the end of the season, which would surely be too late to be considered available to lead the US at the Paris Olympics next summer, there will be time to assess what is required ahead of what would be her primary goal of recapturing the World Cup in 2027. But it is in the dressing room where Hayes’s immediate targets and her strictest standards will be made clear – just like she told Carter all those years ago.
“Get better or I’ll get someone else.” Perhaps the USA have not heard enough of that in recent years. Now a team in need of a reset will be charged with the ultimate cultural makeover. Before then, though, there are more trophies with Chelsea to win.