News Wheaton

My Salute to Emma Hayes, a Gem on and off the Pitch

Similar to your time at Wheaton, all good times do, eventually, in some way or another come to an end. Whether you like it or not. Serena Williams’ dominance in the sport of tennis did. The USWNT’s run at the pinnacle of international women’s football did. The list goes on. In this fifth month of 2024, we are watching the end of an era in women’s club football.

After 12 years of building an undeniable world powerhouse, this is it for Emma Hayes at Chelsea Women. Despite it not being the swan song many, including me, craved, a fifth consecutive league title is still remarkably in the cards after an eventual weekend of football. Even Hayes thought before Sunday that a trophy may not be a possibility.

“I have amazing memories of this football club and we won a lot of things and I’d love to win titles again for Chelsea. But that’s not going to be this year I’m afraid,” stated Hayes in a time of reflection following the defeat to Liverpool.

She may have spoken too soon as Chelsea thumped Bristol City 8-0 at Kingsmeadow on Sunday evening following a thrilling contest in Manchester where Stina Blackstenius stunned Gareth Taylor’s team with two in the waning minutes of the second half.

Amazing memories for sure though. I remember exactly where I was on May 2, 2021, when Fran Kirby sealed the club’s first Champions League final berth. Interestingly enough, I was on Zoom in Intro Microeconomics (a class I’m sure left an impression on everyone who took it, and not in a good way). With the game on in the background in the common room, I had to turn off my camera for a good 30 seconds in order to give the moment a proper celebration. Then, I was back drawing more supply and demand curves.

I remember all the Sam Kerr backflips. The Guro Reiten roars. The Ji So-yun pinpoint passes. The Ann-Katrin Berger saves when the team needed them the most. And I’ll especially never forget that memorable first-leg defensive masterclass on the coast of Spain. The joy I’ve been able to experience because of Hayes’ exceptional leadership is something I’m forever grateful for. 

To someone who isn’t attached to women’s football or Chelsea, it’s difficult to understand the significance of it all. The achievements she has attained make her incomparable to almost anyone in sport. Maybe Geno Auriemma at UConn or John Wooden back with UCLA. Sustained brilliance. It’s the trait these three embodied and in Geno’s case continues to represent on the sidelines. Off the pitch, Hayes is as vocal as ever. Not once is the ex-Chicago Red Stars’ leader afraid of the tough conversation. She spoke for the betterment of the game, not only demanding more of federations but walking the walk as well. In Hayes’ eyes, women are not so-called “small men”. She led the way in crafting individual player plans around the phases of their menstrual cycle, believing that it would help control weight and limit common soft tissue injuries.

Hayes built an empire. She began at pretty much ground zero, clearing water off the pitch at Wheatsheaf Park in Staines with rollers to eventually fill a case with 15 trophies, all of which have their own unique story. You can’t make it up. To put this into perspective, not even the great Sir Alex Ferguson reached 15 domestic and European titles in his first 12 years at the helm of Manchester United. She has stood at the top of the English top flight in half of the years since the league began.

It took three years into her time in West London for the club to go fully professional. Imagine that. Few took CFCW seriously at all. They were an afterthought to the men’s side which won the UEFA Champions League just a few months prior to Hayes’ arrival. The English manager made the world care. A few hundred fans showed up to see her first match against Birmingham City in 2012. 12 years later, 39,398 came out to witness Hayes’ crew encounter the Spanish juggernaut, Barcelona.

In an interview a while back, the now retired Lioness, Jill Scott had nothing but respect for Hayes, stating, “Every single player that I talk to who has played under Emma just says that her emotional intelligence and how she gets the best out of the players is on another level.”

Hayes was always that consistent light amid frequent chaos on the other side of the club. Players came and went, but we never saw a hiatus in her success. Whenever I needed a pick-me-up, there her team was, showing English football who the real queens were.

To sit at the top just once in such an unforgiving sport is impressive in itself. To maintain that hunger for more than a decade is quite astounding. It’s a credit to the culture she built since day one at the football club. Nobody demands excellence in all areas of the sport like Hayes. That’s just what she does. She doesn’t know the definition of the word satisfied. It just isn’t in her regular, everyday dictionary.

Bar her mother, Hayes didn’t really have any female role models during her childhood, so she made it her mission to show the world what was truly possible. Now, in June she’ll have the chance to lead the nation that provided the first true women’s player role models in football. Upon her departure from CFCW, Hayes took over the four-time Women’s World Cup champions, the USWNT just months prior to the long-awaited major tournament in The City of Light.

The pressure is on the successor. Even with another individual at the wheel next fall, Chelsea and the English game can thank Hayes for constantly raising the bar. “In Emma, We Trust” will surely forever grace the ground in Norbiton.

I know Emma won’t be reading this, but a simple thank you doesn’t do what you have given this game at the club level justice. Salute to a pioneer. A visionary. Someone who saw what was possible before it was a reality. Someone who didn’t wait for change, but instead insisted on manufacturing it. You lifted up people like me, blazing a trail all with a smile, and a ruthlessness that carried CFCW to what we know now as a women’s football giant.