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'I was leading my team out 10 days before I gave birth, thinking to myself, 'Please don't go into labour''

Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes has had some journey, breaking barrier after barrier en route to where she is today.

THERE ARE A few Irish girls over in the Women’s Super League…

“Yeah,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes smiles.

Arsenal Women v Chelsea Ladies - SSE Women's FA Cup Final - Wembley Stadium Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. Source: Adam Davy

Any of them really catch your eye?

“Katie McCabe’s had a good season,” the 2018 double-winning boss and MBE tells The42.

“She’s a stellar player with a wonderful left boot. I think she’s really matured over the last 12 months. Louise Quinn has certainly played a part in Arsenal’s success this year, and Leanne Kiernan, aside from injury, has shown she’s very capable. She’s got a bright future.”

Bigger and better to come, she agrees, adding that she suspects we’ll see more and more Irish players in the English top flight over the next few years.

Hayes is in Dublin for Liberty Insurance’s Women in Sport: The Coaching Effect event, sharing her story, experiences and expertise at the annual symposium. 

***

While much of the coverage this side of the water after last year’s FA Cup final surrounded Irish duo McCabe and Quinn’s loss with Arsenal, Hayes’ situation as her side eased to a 3-1 win in front of 45,000 at Wembley was perhaps a little different.

United Kingdom: Reading Women v Arsenal Women - FA Women's Super League Arsenal star and Ireland captain Katie McCabe. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“I was leading my team out ten days before I gave birth, thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t go into labour,’” she explained, addressing the audience this afternoon as she casted her mind back to the May showpiece.

Less than two weeks later, she gave birth to a baby boy. Hayes was expecting twins but sadly, was left heartbroken as only Harry survived past the third trimester.

While her doctor advised her not to attend the FA Cup final because of how close her due date was, Hayes was defiant.

“I said, ‘Well, how many days in your life do you get to lead your team out at Wembley?’ she tells this writer.

“I watched 90 minutes of a wonderful, wonderful performance from my team. They made it easy for me that day. I wasn’t too stressed, I felt in control.

“To win there, with a record audience, knowing that this was a team we had built from nothing; I don’t think you do get many better days than that to be honest with you. It lives with you for a while.”

Hayes started out at Chelsea six years ago, coming in off the back of an extremely difficult period for the club, as the only female head coach in the league. We’ll get to that shortly, but perhaps we’ll first revisit the years beforehand to understand what came later.

Arsenal Women v Chelsea Ladies - SSE Women's FA Cup Final - Wembley Stadium Hayes and her Chelsea team celebrate with the FA Cup last year. Source: EMPICS Sport

In university, she realised she wanted to coach elite athletes and was forced to go to America to follow her dream in the early 2000s. There, she got opportunities she never would have envisaged in England and they’ve shaped her into the manager — and person — she is today.

“I’ve had good experiences in the game,” she smiles. “I don’t feel that I’ve experienced some of the sexism and negative experiences I hear a lot of… for me, it was the opposite.

“It was knowing I’d be going for a job with a male equivalent and thinking, ‘Well, Title IX  (in brief: a law in the US noting that no person, on the basis of sex, be excluded from education) has put me in a position now. Between me and you getting the job, I’m getting the job. Brilliant.’ I developed.

“I had to go through a journey of working for very little, driving all over the country, failing, getting sacked, not getting visas, coaching winning teams, coaching terrible teams, coaching boys teams.

“I’ve done the whole journey and it’s one that I’d encourage. Without that, I don’t think it’d have given me the bank of knowledge I have.”

She can’t imagine doing anything else now. What she has done at Chelsea is pretty special. The turnaround has been something else, so much so that there have been serious calls made for her to take over from men’s manager Maurizio Sarri.


What was it like coming in when things were so different though?

“I had to start at the very beginning,” she recalls. “It was a place that never had a water bottle, let alone filing cabinet, let alone a desk.

“We’ve gone from that and built infrastructure-wise, then on the pitch, to the point now that very same building that we never had any of those things in, we’re the sole inhabitants of that building.

“It’s a women’s-only space for elite athletes, including a gym, a dining area, chill-out areas, classrooms, analysis rooms; everything that a high-performance athlete can prosper in.

“It’s all come from doing little by little, year in year out, and not growing too quickly. You make sure you can manage the growth. You can’t just go from part-time to full-time overnight, there’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be put in place.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve done because we know how hard we’ve had to work.”

And hand-in-hand with that comes success on the field.

“I’m fortunate enough to have led the team to five trophies and that’s not easy,” she continues. “Winning trophies at any level is hard.

Bristol City Women v Chelsea Ladies - FA Women's Super League - Stoke Gifford Stadium 'I had a responsibility to show that we can do the job at a high level.' Source: Simon Galloway

“We’ve got even bigger challenges ahead to try and add to that tally. I feel confident that because we have a great environment with the right people, we’re always going to have a chance of competing.

“That’s what we can control. I don’t know whether I’m going to win or lose from week to week, but I certainly know what I can do to improve the performance and make sure we’re at our best.”

As mentioned, Hayes was the only female head coach in the Women’s Super League when she started out. The former Chicago Red Stars boss was used to that at the time, but now, several more have joined her company.

“I think I had a responsibility to show that we can do the job at a high level and winning, I think, has encouraged other board owners to take a risk with other females,” she says. 

“There’s plenty of competent females that are able to lead but I think before I was there, there was a reluctance to hire. I’m proud to have played a part in that and know that my up-and-coming nemeses will no longer be just male, there’ll be females in the game. That’s all I can hope for: continued opportunities and importantly, the right support.”

A real team player, as she calls herself, she doesn’t see herself as a ground-breaker, a first, or a history-maker. She’s just doing her job, and blessed to be part of a movement.

It was alluded to in the panel discussion she partook in alongside England Netball Coach Tracey Neville MBE, and four-time All-Ireland camogie winner and Wexford hurling coach Mags D’Arcy: when will a female take over a men’s team in England?

United Kingdom: Arsenal Women v Chelsea Ladies - SSE Women's FA Cup Final More celebrations with the 2018 FA Cup. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“How long is a piece of string?” Hayes asked MC Joanne Cantwell. “It’s about a board somewhere being progressive and brave enough to do it, to have enough females that are qualified and open to do that.

“That pool is still very small and until that changes… When that time comes, it’ll be a profound moment in the UK for any woman that’s in that position. Prepare yourself.

“No matter where I am in my head or if I think I’m competent enough to do it, will that opportunity be there for me? I still think we’re a way yet from that happening in England.”

Would you like to?

Hayes responded immediately, tongue-in-cheek, keeping with the theme of the day of giving nothing away for headlines.

“I am looking forward to the Champions League campaign and going back to Wembley this time with my son outside my tummy!”

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Emma Duffy

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