Emma Hayes: The working-class heroine who has become the First Lady of Soccer

Sunday’s Women’s Champions League final in Sweden will be broadcast worldwide with the potential to move the women’s game into a different league with big money funding coming on tap next season. Allan Prosser looks at the working-class heroine who has become the First Lady of Soccer
Emma Hayes: The working-class heroine who has become the First Lady of Soccer

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes celebrates with the FA Women's Super League trophy after clinching the title. Picture: John Walton

Emma Hayes knows exactly where she will be if things don’t work out in the Women’s Champions League Final.

After driving over her mobile phone, she’ll be alone on a park bench with a can of lager. Or so she said when asked how she coped with defeat a rare enough occurrence in the past 12 months.

Hayes, 44, stands on the threshold of a great achievement. The first female coach to lead a team to a major UEFA final for a dozen years; two trophies in the cabinet already; the chance of besting Barcelona, always a popular sport along the Fulham Road, and with a delayed FA Cup competition holding out the prospect of a quadruple.

And her timing couldn’t be better. The women’s game has accelerated in popularity since lockdown. A new TV deal with Sky and the BBC, the first time such rights have been negotiated separately, will bring in €10m per year.

UEFA are expanding next season’s WCL to 52 teams with each team reaching the group stage receiving a minimum of €400,000 which is good news for perennial Irish challengers such as Peamount United and Wexford Youths. In total €24m, more than four times the current figure, will be distributed to competing clubs or as “solidarity payments” to non-competing clubs.

The summer Olympics in Tokyo will provide another platform for the women’s game in July and August while the Euro 2022 tournament takes place in the UK next summer with 16 national teams. Kick-off is at Old Trafford and the final at Wembley.

While cynics might point to the disparity between the €5.8bn rollover deal for Premier League TV rights and the sums commanded by the WSL, business people take the long view that money follows audience. When Wimbledon went open in 1968 the men’s prize purse, pocketed by Rod Laver, was four times as large as the women’s champion, Billie Jean King. It took until 2008, 40 years, to reach parity with Roger Federer and Venus Williams in their pomp.

Roman Abramovich doesn’t do interviews. But if he did, it would be for Forbes Magazine. And that was exactly what happened in March when he gave his first one-to-one for 15 years over Zoom.

Among the Abramovich themes are diversity and inclusion and he told Forbes that the women’s team is “a critical part of Chelsea and shapes who we are as a club.” He added: “I see no reason why clubs wouldn’t want to support women’s football and provide the best possible opportunity for them to succeed.

“For me, this is both about the principle, but, also, women’s football has huge potential. If women’s football received the same level of support as men’s football, the sport would obviously be equally successful on the business side.”

It wasn’t always so. Casey Stoney, who stood down this week as manager of Manchester United women, partly because of lack of investment in training facilities for her team, played for the West Londoners more than a decade ago.

She remembers: “You couldn’t get anything, not even a tracksuit from the club back then.”

During a cut in funding in 2009, shortfalls were made up by the Chelsea and England captain John Terry and other members of the men’s first team squad. Terry, currently a coach at Aston Villa, remains president of Chelsea women.

Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes has been described as ‘the most intriguing coach in football’ and compared with Pep Guardiola. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire
Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes has been described as ‘the most intriguing coach in football’ and compared with Pep Guardiola. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire

Chelsea Women’s manager, Emma Hayes, emanates from a similar working class background to Terry, brought up on the Curnock Estate in Camden Town, North London. Her hopes of a playing career were wrecked by weaknesses in her right ankle.

“I had some good youth workers, good PE teachers who made me get my nut down and got enough to get into university and I think that then set me on a different path.

“I never felt bright enough. I never felt confident. I felt that kid coming out of the council estate, like I was never good enough,” she says of her time at Liverpool Hope University.

Hayes majored in European Studies, Spanish and Sociology in 1999 and also coached the college football team after friends persuaded her to take up the role. It was a transformative decision.

She went on to manage the Long Island Lady Riders (as they were then known) for two years, earning her first plaudits as they went unbeaten in 2002 and she was named the W-League Coach of the Year.

Three years followed at Iona College, the private Catholic campus founded by the Christian Brothers in New Rochelle. Further personal and team awards were achieved before she returned as assistant coach to Arsenal Ladies in 2006 under the guidance of the legendary Vic Akers who founded the team in 1987 and oversaw a haul of 32 trophies including the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2007.

Hayes’s role at Arsenal and US experience led to her appointment as manager and technical director for the Chicago Red Stars in the inaugural 2009 season of the ill-fated Women’s Professional Soccer League with a team roster that included World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, England’s Karen Carney, who would later join her at Chelsea and Ireland’s international Mary Therese McDonnell.

The stint in the Windy City was not a success. Chicago were beaten 10 times and Hayes was sacked over a coffee in Starbucks inspiring the headline in the Bleacher Report: “Na-Na-Na, Hey Hayes, Good-Bye.” Failure doesn’t sit well with her and she said in a later interview with the Game Changers podcast: “I cried for a couple of weeks, partied for a couple of weeks, lost my confidence completely.”

Confidence returned in spades after Chelsea came looking for her in 2012 and the woman who journalist Mike Calvin has described as “the most intriguing coach in football” and Clare Balding likens to Pep Guardiola has the world at her feet.

She says the five pillars of professionalism are commitment, altruism, ethics, theoretical and emotional intelligence and this has helped her to build a team which has five international captains, including the most expensive female player in the world, Pernille Harder.

At its core is the prolific striking partnership of Sam Kerr and Francesca “SuperFran” Kirby which Hayes likens to the Dwight Yorke/Andrew Cole combination. Kerr has been this season’s Golden Boot with 21 strikes and has finished top scorer across three different international leagues Australia, the United States and England over five seasons. The Australian is the highest paid player in the women’s game.

Kirby has 16 in the WSL and is joint top scorer in the WCL with six. Of all Chelsea’s players she has a special bond with Emma Hayes because of the serious illness which nearly cost her career. Kirby missed most of last season with pericarditis, which inflames the sac surrounding the heart and causes exhaustion. An inspirational video released by the club details her recovery and includes the chilling moments when a 999 call was made following her collapse.

Hayes suffered tragedy when she lost one of the twin boys she was carrying in her third trimester. She gave birth to a baby boy, Harry, in May 2018. He will be three two days after Sunday’s final but Hayes has spoken openly about losing her other son, whom she named Albie.

She told Sky Sports that summer: “I knew I had an unhealthy child, mainly after about the 20th week, so I knew I was battling against it. I did that privately because I think it’s important that the team don’t deal with that burden that’s my responsibility.

“I’ve always been like that but, even more so now, I value life as a result of it, and losing a child maybe five weeks from giving birth will live with me forever.”

On Sunday night the professional career of Emma Hayes may reach its greatest moment yet in a match which could provide a symbolic watershed for the women’s game. Like her hero, Brian Clough, she is a born winner and a sore loser.

As Cloughie once remarked about himself: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.”

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox