Emma Hayes, the coaching mind behind the Chelsea women’s dynasty, sat down for her postmatch news conference on Sunday, enjoying the feeling of a win like few others. The first question asked what was going through her head. “I’m very f—ing happy,” she said, a phrase she would repeat twice more. You could understand why: Chelsea had just clinched the Women’s FA Cup with a thrilling extra-time victory over Manchester City, and that win came just a week after they twice came from behind to beat Manchester United, which saw them secure the Women’s Super League title for the third straight season.
The questions kept coming, her news conference equal parts joyous and emotional. She described the side as the best she had ever coached, and that she’d never had more fun than watching the team grind to Sunday’s win.
It was also revealing and unfiltered, as it’s an interesting time to take stock at Chelsea. The men’s side are in limbo, waiting for the club’s sale to a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly. Meanwhile, the women’s team has achieved astounding success, but they will need to maintain their investment to stay ahead of an increasingly competitive field in the WSL, all while keeping the core squad together.
Amid all Hayes’ answers came the crux of it all: What comes next?
What impact will the new owners have on Chelsea women?
As the final whistle sounded on Sunday, Hayes pounded the Chelsea badge on her suit jacket. It was a subconscious message of thanks to the club’s hierarchy, director Marina Granovskaia and chairman Bruce Buck.
“It’s a huge win for Marina and Bruce,” Hayes said. “I want to put that on record for the work they’ve done, not just for me but the team over a period of time. They’ve epitomised everything Chelsea is about.”
The pair, under the investment of former owner Roman Abramovich, have seen Chelsea assemble a WSL-winning squad like no other. The side were still in their infancy in 2014 when midfielder Ji So-Yun joined, with her arrival ushering in several more stars. The club consistently spent money to bolster the team: in 2015, Chelsea paid a then-British-record transfer fee for Fran Kirby, who went on to become the club’s all-time top scorer and a crucial constant in their success. More recently, they spent even more: they hold the world-record transfer fee for a women’s player (Pernille Harder, £250,000), as well as reportedly holding the record for the highest transfer fee paid between WSL clubs (Lauren James from Man United, approximately £200,000).
The investment has been smart and effective, resulting in squad depth no other WSL side can yet match. Coupled with Hayes’ coaching methods and forward-thinking training methods, Chelsea have ensured that depth is one of their biggest assets. Yet there were questions whether that would continue after Abramovich put the club up for sale, having been sanctioned by the British government following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking in March, days after the Chelsea news broke, Hayes said she had “no doubts” over the importance of the women’s side at Chelsea. The limbo caused tangible issues for the men’s side, with Thomas Tuchel admitting it impacted the club’s ability to keep hold of defenders Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger — both are leaving at the end of their contracts in June.
Boehly met the men’s and women’s players separately at their Cobham training base on Friday and introduced himself. The players were excited to meet the club’s new owner, but the attention was on the present challenge of winning last weekend’s FA Cup finals.
Who will leave Kingsmeadow?
When City boss Gareth Taylor described losing players on a free transfer as “surgery,” he was not being dramatic. With transfers and contracts more short-term and more volatile in the women’s game, Chelsea’s ability to retain is one of their biggest assets. This summer is a prime example.
City face the prospect of losing stars Lucy Bronze and Caroline Weir, whose contracts are set to expire. Midfielder Georgia Stanway, meanwhile, has joined Bayern Munich. Even Arsenal, the other title-chasing team in London, must focus on re-signing club-record scorer Vivianne Miedema after she was linked with a move to Barcelona.
Chelsea are not in the same boat.
Ji stands to be Chelsea’s biggest loss this summer as she departs the club after eight years, returning to her native South Korea. Defender Jonna Andersson and midfielder Drew Spence have also been confirmed to leave. Their departures will be felt, but it will be manageable.
“We lost [captain] Magda Eriksson for three months, Pernille Harder for large chunks, the girls at the Asia Cup for large chunks, Melanie Leupolz (pregnancy), Maren Mjelde,” Hayes said in the build-up to the WSL title decider earlier this month, listing her team’s notable absences over the course of the season. “My question is how many top teams would have coped with that and still be there?
“We’re in a healthy place. I think we had an ageing squad — we’ve had to try and address that balance and to compete while you’re transitioning, that’s really tough. As a coach, it’s why I’m pleased we’re in the position to compete because that’s the hardest thing to do, trust me, when you’re transitioning, squads age.”
Is Hayes staying? Is she still hungry for success?
Hayes fielded a question on Sunday regarding her motivation and her drive, and what could possibly keep her going. The answer was counterintuitive: Ask a coach about their job and they’ll point you to their successes, yet just minutes after lifting the FA Cup, Hayes was talking about losing.
“I can’t bear the thought of it, I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “The minute I feel any of [the other teams] coming close I just want to get better.”
Chelsea have rarely lost over the past few seasons. Instead, their form has been inevitable and confident. Hayes answered questions regarding her future with a similar energy. “I feel like [the media] ask me this question every time we win,” she said. “It’s not like I’m coming in here, disrespecting the question, but I think it needs to be about the three players that are departing, rather than my future.”
It is, in truth, a non-story. Hayes is staying, not yet ready to leave west London no matter how many times she is linked with a job in the men’s game or with a national side.
“Everyone knows I’ve got a contract at Chelsea, so what’s the speculation about?” Hayes asked. “Is there a job that you guys are telling me I’m going for that I don’t know about?
“As far as I’m concerned I don’t have to kill any speculation. I’m under contract at Chelsea and there’s nothing to talk about.”
What is left to win?
What Hayes has built at Chelsea is a dynasty, there can be no doubt about that, but they remain an unfinished project. They have won seven of the past nine domestic trophies on offer, and at a time when City and Arsenal have been nipping at their heels, but they cannot yet be considered the dominant team of their generation. That title belonged to Lyon and now to Barcelona, a side that just completed a perfect 30-win season in Spain and will defend their Champions League crown on Saturday. Barca head into that against Lyon — a side seeking to return to former glories — as clear favourites.
Barca won that first European title last season against Chelsea in a crushing 4-0 win, a game in which Hayes’ side were barely competitive. Arsenal, in 2007, remain the only English side to have won a European title, although the competition was in a different format then. Chelsea intended to prove they could finish the job this season, but Hayes’ side finished third in Group A — behind Wolfsburg and Juventus — which sent them crashing out. Their final match saw the squad battling a COVID-19 outbreak and several players struggling with fatigue. A campaign that promised much ebbed away from them.
The task ahead, then, seems clear. To take this club to the next level, and establish a continent-wide dominance, they need to win the Champions League. That would send a message to the rest of Europe: they are here to stay and to evolve, with the same squad, no matter their owners, and with Hayes at the helm.
“We have a group of people that will not be on the losing team,” Hayes said. “They’ll find a way.”