Emma Hayes has credited Chelsea’s inclusive “one club” policy for helping transport her team to within touching distance of the Women’s Super League title and Champions League trophy.
Some WSL teams are still treated as second-, or even third-class citizens in comparison to their sibling men’s sides but Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s owner, has always had time for Hayes, and her squad’s achievements represent much more than a footnote in Stamford Bridge history.
“This is the most special club in the world because of both its diversity and its togetherness as a whole,” says Hayes as she prepared for Sunday’s final WSL game of the season at home to Reading with her league leaders two points clear of second-placed Manchester City.
“It’s not a surprise to me that both the men’s and women’s teams are in the Champions League final. Not given the progress that’s been made over the years and, importantly, the family-run feel here.
“I’ve been here 10 years and I know how valued the whole club had made us feel. My phone last Sunday [after Chelsea secured a Champions League final date with Barcelona] was inundated with messages from across the club.
“These messages aren’t from people I don’t know. I know the CEO [Guy Laurence] very well. I know the chairman [Bruce Buck] very well. I know Neil Bath [the academy director], I know Petr Cech [the goalkeeper turned technical and performance adviser]. I know Marina [Granovskaia, the influential director] very well.
“It’s one club. That’s just the DNA of this place – and it breeds winning. The pressure to win here is immense. I’ve always said about this [Hayes points to the club badge on her tracksuit top] that some can wear it and some can’t but, those that shine in it, know this is the world’s most special club.”
Hayes and her players have become accustomed to using their formidable array of talents to dazzle WSL opponents into submission but Gareth Taylor’s Manchester City – who visit West Ham on Sunday – have mounted a powerful title challenge.
“Throughout the whole season I’ve always felt it was in our hands,” says Hayes. “But Manchester City have demonstrated that they won’t let up so we have to win Sunday’s game. At the moment I’m just focusing on getting us over the line. Beating Reading’s not a shoo-in. They’re a good team.”
From Chelsea’s viewpoint there is the added complication of the visitors wanting to give their retiring England midfielder Fara Williams a victorious send-off. “Every single Reading player is going to run around that pitch for Fara,” said Hayes. “We’ve had some tough games against them over the years so we know we have to be at our best.”
If Hayes has taught her players not to underestimate opponents she is also big on reminding them not to undersell themselves. “Emma’s really cool and inspiring because she’s not shy to say what her ambitions are,” says Chelsea’s captain and key defender, Magda Eriksson.
“She’s not afraid to talk about her goals; she’s very clear about them and that teaches us to deal with pressure. She makes us used to pressure. So whenever big moments come in a tense game, it’s not a big deal for us because we cope with pressure in training every day.
“Our collective mentality is one of our greatest attributes. We’ve been through highs and lows this season, tough moments in game but we’ve managed to find positive results. Someone always steps up and is the gamechanger for us. The mentality within this squad is definitely a huge strength.”
City’s Taylor is pleased to be ending his first season in charge by leaving Chelsea needing to flex their muscles. “It’s out of our hands,” he said, after confirming his England winger Chloe Kelly will shortly undergo surgery to repair a ruptured cruciate knee ligament. “But I’ve enjoyed every minute and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. Taking the title to the final game is a real positive.
“We’re going into Sunday ready to really give it our very best, get the result we need and see what happens.”