Farewell Emma Hayes and thanks for the trophies, honesty and empathy | Xaymaca Awoyungbo

Farewell Emma Hayes and thanks for the trophies, honesty and empathy | Xaymaca Awoyungbo

It was a rainy Saturday evening a few weeks ago and Chelsea were playing Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. I made the journey from east to west London and emerged out of Fulham Broadway station to join my friends outside the Kona Kai cocktail bar opposite a busy Stamford Bridge.

Once we had squeezed past some punters and climbed up to assume our position in the Matthew Harding Stand, it hit me: I was sitting in a sold-out stadium. All around me fans were chanting and waving blue flags in support of Emma Hayes and the Chelsea team she had built brick by brick. If ever there was a moment when I fully appreciated her impact, it was then.

In a dozen years, Hayes has converted Chelsea from also-rans to a domestic force that made an impact in Europe. While many will remember her mainly for the success on the pitch, leading Chelsea to 15 titles in 12 years, I will also remember her wider commitment to professionalising women’s football.

When Hayes first rode her moped from Camden to Cobham, the women’s setup was a far cry from the plush pitches, dedicated coaching staff and world-class players you can find at the training complex today. The game was still amateur with most of the players working part-time and none of the league games televised.

“We didn’t have a building, we didn’t have an office, we didn’t have a desk,” she once said. “In fact, we probably didn’t even have a bag of balls.” Most people would have been discouraged by the lack of investment in the women’s team but all Hayes could think was: “Oh my goodness, look at the potential here. It’s got everything. If I can put it all together, maybe I can create a world-class team.” That’s exactly what she did.

I was overjoyed by the run Chelsea went on from 2015 onwards, challenging Arsenal’s dominance and surpassing them at the top of the tree. These days, though, I’m more interested in reflecting on the journey to get there. Hayes drove the club forward by encouraging them to invest in the women’s setup. Slowly they got a general manager, better players and better equipment.

Chelsea fans wave banners at Stamford Bridge for the Women’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona.View image in fullscreen

Her efforts behind the scenes laid the foundation for the improvement we see in women’s football today. In a rare act of patience by Chelsea, they endured a difficult couple of seasons, almost facing relegation in Hayes’s first full season, for the sake of the bigger picture.

Hayes’s focus on the long term, throughout her success, is what has made me admire her not just as a coach but as a person. While winning with Chelsea has undoubtedly been her main aim, she has grown into a leader who wants to improve domestic women’s football as a whole, often using her voice to discuss the game’s problems.

Her approach to monitoring players’ menstrual cycles was particularly groundbreaking. In August 2019, Hayes and her backroom staff began tracking the squad’s menstrual and sleep schedules so that they could tailor training sessions. As periods can affect manual dexterity and cause cravings, understanding where each player is at can improve their performance levels but also their health. “We have to help them” she said in DAZN’s One Team, One Dream documentary.

Hayes, as always, acted from a place of empathy as a former player and an endometriosis sufferer. She is one of the most “human” managers I’ve ever come across and valued by Chelsea fans because of it.

When Hayes had an emergency hysterectomy in October 2022, linked to her chronic endometriosis, the way fans and players rallied around her was a testament to how loved she is by everyone at the club. Chelsea won all six of the games she missed and welcomed her back into the fold with a sold-out Stamford Bridge for their game against Tottenham.

Even after she went through such a tough time, she used her platform to again focus on the bigger picture. “What I realised during all of this period is that my privilege took my pain away,” she said before that Spurs game. “But my pain and suffering were no different to anybody else’s … there are half a million women sat on a waiting list for a prolonged period to see a gynaecologist.”

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I have not always agreed with her. Over the past few months, her comments about male aggression and relationships between players did not strike the right note, but she will be the first to admit she can get it wrong sometimes. “All leaders make poor decisions at some point in their careers because they are human,” she said in her book, Kill the Unicorn. “None of us have a crystal ball. Perhaps it’s best not to believe the hype.”

Chelsea’s Millie Bright embraces her manager Emma Hayes after the FA Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in November 2022.View image in fullscreen

Yet with Hayes I can’t help but believe the hype because I believe in her. She has the track record to back it up, but it’s the little things that tip the balance. From her mid-press conference poetry to her mic drops, she’s the epitome of authenticity. I gravitate towards her because of her honesty, idiosyncrasies and imperfections.

She has created a blueprint for the next generation of managers entering women’s football and she has opened the door for someone to take domestic women’s football to the next level. She once said: “I want this place [Stamford Bridge] to be full every game for a women’s game. That’s my goal. I’m not saying we’ll get there all at once but I’ll die trying.”

Well, Emma Hayes, thanks in no small part to your hard work, we’re well on our way to turning your dream into a reality.

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Source: theguardian.com