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Evan Davis | January 20, 2016

Emma Hayes won’t stop leading Chelsea Ladies to glory

Photo: Dan Mullan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Hayes Won’t Stop Leading Chelsea Ladies to Glory

by Evan Davis

You notice Emma Hayes when she walks into a room. The 39-year-old head coach of Chelsea Ladies F.C. carries herself with a confident swagger, a puckish gregariousness that tends to infect those with whom she comes into contact. It’s not hard to see why she’s become the most famous women’s football coach in England: Hayes is a winner, and will stop at nothing to make sure Chelsea keep doing it.

That’s not to say Hayes hasn’t tasted failure before. A knee injury cut her playing career short. She paid for her first coaching licenses out of pocket while studying at Liverpool Hope University. She scraped together meager funds to continue her coaching education in America. Her first professional head coaching job, with the Chicago Red Stars in the now-defunct WPS, was cut short in 2010 after a season-and-a-half of bad results ("It was all about winning immediately," she said, "because we never knew when they were gonna turn the lights off"). She didn’t get another opportunity until Chelsea came calling midway through the 2012 season.

Photo: Tom Dulat - The FA/The FA via Getty Images
"I’ve never seen a club fall in love with a women’s team like I have with Chelsea"

Hayes came on board after Chelsea finished a disappointing sixth out of eight teams in 2011, taking only 15 points from 14 matches. They were second-bottom when Hayes first stepped into the Wheatsheaf Park technical area at Staines-upon-Thames in late August 2012, and results wouldn’t improve for almost two years. Hayes would not be deterred.

"I wanted to change the pub conversation," she said. "I wanted men to sit in the pub, and when they were asked in a quiz, ‘Who’s the best team in the country,’ they no longer said Arsenal Ladies. That’s what [chairman] Bruce Buck and I wanted."

"Because there’s a newness to [women’s football], the club just took to it. They bought into what I wanted to bring to the club. I work directly with decision makers, and that helps a lot. They have patience. They know we have to build the club properly. They have the expertise and experience to say, ‘We can’t do that unless we’ve got that in place.’ I’ve never seen a club fall in love with a women’s team like I have with Chelsea."

Fortunes would turn when the team signed South Korean no. 10 Ji So-yun ahead of the 2014 season. Ji was named the FA WSL Player of the Year, helping the squad come within a hair’s breadth of grabbing their first top flight title, only to see it slip away from them on the final day of the season. "The failures of [2014] made the players more determined," Hayes believes. "It hardened them. I think you need that failure. You have to grow through that."

The team flipped the script in 2015. All of their players were now on full-time salaries with full-time training schedules. Sweden no. 1 Hedvig Lindahl was signed as the starting keeper. Occasional England midfielder Gemma Davison came over from defending champs Liverpool. 22-year-old wunkerkind Fran Kirby, fresh off a third-place finish at the Women’s World Cup, was signed midseason to join her fellow England teammates Eniola Aluko, Katie Chapman, and Claire Rafferty.  The team was a force, and Hayes had every confidence they could get over the finish line.

Chelsea squared off against Notts County in the FA Cup final in front of nearly 31,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Sure, Wembley can hold more than twice that, but consider that the 2014 final was watched by only 15,000 fans at Stadium mk in Milton Keynes; the year before that, only 5,000 at Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster. The 2015 final was historic, and the team got to taste victory on the back of a 39th-minute Ji So-yun strike. Chelsea won a nervy 1-0, and captured their first-ever major trophy. "I had three hours of interviews after we won the FA Cup final," Hayes said. "I’d never seen anything like it for a women’s game."

Photo: Dan Mullen - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Two months later, they would do it again. Hayes and the team may have let the league title slip through their fingers the year before, but they clinched on the final day of the season to finish two points atop Manchester City. They had done the double, and they did it in front of a record 2,700 fans at Wheatsheaf Park.  "When my players are doing lap-arounds [after they won the league title] and the fans are singing ‘Campeones [Champions],’ that’s unheard of," Hayes said. "They mean it. The club’s embraced it."

The FA WSL, an eight-team, March-to-October competition formed in 2011 as the new top flight in the English women’s football pyramid, has been rapidly growing in popularity and media attention over the last two seasons. Hayes recognized that Chelsea were perfectly positioned to take advantage of their league and cup double in 2015. Attendance spiked, and the media were all over them. "The strange thing is that for all of the twenty years of Arsenal’s success, it took only 12 months for Chelsea Ladies to become the most famous team in England," she said. "We’ve only won two trophies!"

Chelsea, in Hayes’s mind, are different on multiple levels. They exude the ethos of the true "Club," integrating every component of the sport under one banner. "We’re family, one club," says Hayes. "The men are two pitches away [at Cobham training facility]. We’ve got our space, then there’s the under-21s, and then the first team. They train at the same time we do. It’s like any office. You see your co-workers at work."

"The internal club communications have also been huge," Hayes adds. "The Chelsea magazines, the matchday programs, the hoardings around the club, banners everywhere—we’re included in all of it. You go to the annual lunch, you look at the museum walls, and there are photos of male players and female players. People know who you are."

That club spirit, Hayes is certain, extends to the supporters. "There are still plenty of Chelsea fans who can’t afford £57 ($80) a game. There are plenty of fans who don’t like the atmosphere for their children. There are plenty of fans who feel disaffected by the team at the moment. But they still love their club. That’s the point. You go watch the U-21s. You go watch the U-9s. You watch the women. You can’t underestimate that. You think you support the club for one team. No! You support the whole club! There are so many fans that say, ‘I can watch the men on the telly, but I’d rather come here and support the girls.’"

Chelsea may have been eliminated in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in November, but that had as much to do with the vagaries of the tournament as anything else. The FA WSL season concludes in early October, while the Champions League Round of 16 kicks off in mid-November. There was too much downtime for her team to stay sharp. The league is extending the season through November to help mitigate that problem, but the four-month layoff between the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals still puts English clubs at a disadvantage. "The league needs to change," Hayes says. "I think it will go back to the winter season. That’s what needs to happen."

"We’ve gone past [the worry that men’s teams will take fans away from the women’s games.] We collide with the men’s season for five months anyway! We had our biggest attendances in August and September, when the Premier League was on. We’re at the stage of getting our own stadiums in the next couple of years. The whole reason the FA WSL went to a summer season was the worry that we wouldn’t have available stadiums to play in. But now—I’m a proponent of thinking big about what we can do.

"There’s very much an acknowledgment that the women’s game is at the point where the conversation is about how we make it commercially viable. We know there’s a fanbase. We know there’s interest. We’ve got live TV coverage. We’ve got highlights packages. It’s about selling the game now, so that it makes money. The owners are now working toward making it a sustainable business model."

Hayes is good at thinking big. She knew that it would take time to build Chelsea into the powerhouse it is today. She wants to sustain it, and she knows the club will back her. "My whole goal is to put in place an infrastructure so that if I leave tomorrow, it keeps growing," she says. "This is the chance for me to have my legacy in my career. Chelsea is home for me. I treat it very much like it’s my home, and spend their money like it’s my home." More trophies, inevitably, will follow.

Photo: Tom Dulat - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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