WSL: Emma Hayes could deliver Chelsea parting gift in best possible way

WSL: Emma Hayes could deliver Chelsea parting gift in best possible way

On her final day in charge of Chelsea, Emma Hayes could sign off with her most dramatic Women’s Super League title yet. The tension will be higher than ever, but that is just how she likes it.

Speaking on Wednesday night, after Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Tottenham put them top of the table (ahead of Manchester City on goal difference), Hayes gave some insight into her team-talk style. “I said to them, proverbially speaking, it’s like going in with a gun in your mouth. How do you want to respond to that?”

It was a classic line from Hayes, painting a vivid picture of the pressure cooker Chelsea operate within. This is the fourth year in a row that the title race has gone down to the final day of the season and, in every single one, Chelsea have found a way to put themselves in the driving seat.

“That will be the thing I remember the most,” Hayes said of her squad. “It won’t be the wins, it will be the ability of human beings to keep finding a way.” The same could be said of how Hayes will be remembered in England, where the overflowing silverware — 15 trophies and a possible 16th — do little to fully measure her impact on women’s football in this country.

If her team beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, or simply better Manchester City’s result at Villa Park, they will land their fifth consecutive WSL title. Regardless of how it pans out, Hayes will be leaving a huge hole in the women’s game.

During her Chelsea reign, Hayes has become the unofficial spokesperson for the sport, coinciding with a pivotal moment of growth. She is easily the most high-profile female manager in the country, rivalled only by England manager Sarina Wiegman.

Unlike Wiegman, who is more understated, Hayes, 47, has never shied away from offering her opinions and has an ability to make people sit up and pay attention. The headlines have followed, hanging on her every word in the way certain football managers across the men’s game have shaped the narrative for decades.

That is partly because of how well she can deliver a brilliant line, a wacky Star Wars reference or even recite poetry in the press room. Give Hayes a microphone, and she can hold court among a group of journalists like few others can, offering serious opinions, insightful anecdotes or even a light-hearted joke as a deflection tactic. She has a knack for understanding that there is an advantage to be gained from her platform.

In 2020, her reputation helped sign Australia’s Sam Kerr, the best striker in the world, and in doing so elevated the WSL as the go-to destination for international talent. Her profile can arguably swing results, too, based on recent evidence. When she publicly conceded the title to City just over two weeks ago — despite having three games left to play — it planted the pressure on Gareth Taylor’s squad and put the focus on her words, rather than her ailing team’s performances. Some called it bizarre, others saw it as a masterstroke. Whatever it was, City duly bottled it against Arsenal, putting the title race in Chelsea’s hands.

Off the pitch, Hayes has championed issues affecting the wider game. From sharing her personal experience of endometriosis and women’s health complications, advocating for player welfare, pushing clubs to invest further in their women’s teams and shining a light on the challenge of juggling motherhood and football.

Emma Hayes could win the WSL title in her final game in charge of Chelsea (Getty Images)
Emma Hayes could win the WSL title in her final game in charge of Chelsea (Getty Images)

Where other managers regurgitate sanitised club lines, Hayes has never appeared bothered by fitting into any box. She often referred to her Camden roots as shaping her ‘what you see is what you get’ approach. It has granted her a rare sense of authenticity in the increasingly curated football landscape. Engaging personalities are always needed to grow a sport. That was true of men’s football, and it remains true of women’s. Hayes has those qualities in spades.

She has not been perfect, though, and has lacked self-awareness at certain key moments this season, including in criticising Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall for his “male aggression” mere minutes after she shoved him on the touchline. She misjudged the public sentiment in not apologising, and has suffered more scrutiny than at any other time in her career as Chelsea fell spectacularly short of the fairytale quadruple, after her injury-ravaged squad crashed out of the League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League.

But ruffling feathers has never been a concern of hers, and it will be interesting to see how the US market receives Hayes, when she moves to managing the women’s national team this summer. Her new job may be one of the most sought-after roles, but Hayes’s predecessors often took a backseat to the players. Navigating that will bring its own challenges, but Hayes will no doubt make the position her own.

It is a rare thing to see a woman guide any sporting narrative, but Hayes has been able to do that time and again at Chelsea. Her presence is unlike any other woman in football, and the WSL will be poorer without her.