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Emma Hayes: The manager who transformed Chelsea into WSL’s dominant force

Chelsea boss Emma Hayes with the Women’s Super League trophy in 2023 (Nigel French/PA)
Chelsea boss Emma Hayes with the Women’s Super League trophy in 2023 (Nigel French/PA)

Emma Hayes bows out as Chelsea manager having built a winning machine from a team that were second bottom of the Women’s Super League at the end of her first full season in charge.

That was the 2013 campaign, in which the Blues finished seventh of eight sides, having lost 10 of the final 11 of their 14 fixtures.

With the remarkable transformation that followed, the final season of Hayes’ tenure concludes with the 47-year-old Londoner, who this summer starts work as United States head coach, firmly established as one of the game’s managerial greats.

Hayes with her players (Adam Davy/PA)
Hayes has been in charge at Chelsea since 2012 (Adam Davy/PA)

The 13 major trophies she has overseen Chelsea winning from 2015 include six WSL titles and, if they secure one more on Saturday when they play Manchester United at Old Trafford in her farewell game, it will be five in a row.

Hayes arrived at Chelsea with experience of dominant success. From 2006 to 2008 she was at Arsenal – where she had previously been as a young player before injury brought her career to a premature end – serving as academy director and assistant to first-team boss Vic Akers.

The Gunners were English women’s football’s major power and, among a glut of silverware they claimed while Hayes was there, they became European champions in 2007 as part of a quadruple.

Her CV also featured time in the US. Prior to the Arsenal stint, Hayes had managed Long Island Lady Riders and New York college side Iona Gaels and in 2008 she returned to the States to become head coach and director of operations at the Chicago Red Stars as the new Women’s Professional Soccer league was launched.

After her Red Stars spell ended with her dismissal early in the second season, Hayes was a coaching consultant for the Washington Freedom and a technical director for a Western New York Flash side who were WPS champions in 2011, before succeeding Matt Beard as Chelsea boss in August 2012.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes (Zac Goodwin/PA)
Hayes was assistant to first-team head coach Vic Akers at Arsenal prior to arriving at Chelsea (Zac Goodwin/PA)

While the team had made their first FA Cup final appearance earlier in the season, losing on penalties to Birmingham at Ashton Gate, they had had a mixed time of it in the WSL, which was in its second year and would not go fully professional until 2018.

A late Laura Coombs goal earned Chelsea a 1-0 victory at Doncaster Rovers Belles in Hayes’ first game in charge, a 1-0 home loss to Birmingham at Imperial Fields followed, and there were two more defeats and another win as they finished sixth in the table.

A year later the final position was one lower – but a process of change had started, the beginnings of a journey in which improvements on and off the field would see Chelsea become a truly potent force in the evolving women’s football landscape.

Hayes’ side were pipped by Beard’s Liverpool to the WSL title on a dramatic 2014 final day before bouncing back in 2015 by beating Notts County 1-0 in the first Women’s FA Cup final held at Wembley, going on to complete the double as they were crowned league champions.

Chelsea subsequently repeated the double in 2017-18 and two years later they won the league and League Cup, while in 2020-21, with the attacking trio of Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder in lethal form, the domestic clean sweep was achieved for a treble. Further WSL and FA Cup doubles followed in each of the next two seasons.

Hayes celebrates with the FA Cup (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Hayes’ first trophy as Chelsea boss came in the 2015 FA Cup final (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Hayes came close to once more tasting quadruple glory in the 2020-21 campaign, with Chelsea reaching their first Champions League final, only to be beaten 4-0 by Barcelona.

This term defeat to Barca saw them make a semi-final exit for the fourth time and they also fell short in the other cups.

But a thrilling WSL title race heads into its final day with Chelsea in contention to retain their crown again – top on goal difference, by two, ahead of a Manchester City side who face Aston Villa away – and send Hayes off in style, six months on from the announcement that she would be departing at the end of the season.

In Chelsea’s statement at that time, Hayes – MBE, OBE and FIFA’s 2021 women’s coach of the year – was described by chairman Todd Boehly and co-owner Behdad Eghbali as “a pioneer”.

Co-sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley said she had “been one of the biggest drivers of change in women’s football”, adding: “Her achievements at Chelsea are unrivalled and will live in the club’s history forever.”