Chelsea’s fifth successive league title proves the perfect end to Emma Hayes’ twelve-year tenure

On Saturday, Emma Hayes entered her post-match press conference with a beer in hand, donning a celebratory shirt and appearing on the verge of tears at times. After twelve years of constant graft to accelerate the development of the women’s game, forging one of the strongest sides in footballing history, the 41-year-old bows out on the high of her fifth successive league title.

A six-goal victory at Old Trafford to confirm that record-breaking feat perhaps serves to mask what was a challenging campaign for Chelsea, with Hayes herself admitting less than three weeks ago that she thought her side had conceded victory to Manchester City after a 4-3 loss to Liverpool.

Had Chelsea slipped up, her farewell celebrations on Saturday may well have been comparatively muted. The very fact that her side pulled through in face of immense adversity is testament to her character; her ability to rouse her players is truly second-to-none.

This is the story of how Emma Hayes masterminded one of her greatest triumphs yet.

Shaping up for success

Emotions were running high twelve months ago when Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson announced that they’d be swapping London for Munich. Tributes were paid when Chelsea faced Arsenal in their last home fixture of the season; a match in which Eriksson scored to ensure they’d take the title fight to the very last day.

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Their exit undoubtedly came as a huge blow for Emma Hayes’ side at both ends of the pitch, but with no other major outgoings throughout the remainder of the summer window, the Blues could turn their attention to rebuilding for another season at the top of the table.

Amidst a plethora of acquisitions, including many that were immediately sent back out on loan, Hayes snapped up five world-class talents to bolster an already-strong squad in SW6. Eintracht Frankfurt’s Sjoeke Nüsken, Tigres’ Mia Fishel and Paris Saint-Germain’s Ashley Lawrence were remarkable signings in their own right, and bringing Hannah Hampton to the capital from Aston Villa was a shrewd piece of business too.

Each and every one of Hayes’ summer signings would prove their worth, but Catarina Macário was the true statement signing; prised away from Olympique Lyonnais, the most successful side in UEFA Women’s Champions League history.

All good things must end

It took no time at all for Chelsea to be shrouded in controversy when the 2023/24 season rolled around. Tottenham posed a tough challenge on the opening day at Stamford Bridge, but it was the Blues trip to Manchester the following weekend that would steal the headlines – and with the power of hindsight, it would perhaps be fair to say it stole the title too.

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Manchester City seized an early lead through Chloe Kelly, but when referee Emily Heaslip lost control of the match after showing Alex Greenwood a second yellow for perceived timewasting, proceedings spiralled into bedlam.

Lauren Hemp would too be dismissed by Heaslip before the afternoon was through, and Chelsea’s numerical advantage on the pitch allowed Guro Reiten to force an equaliser in the sixth minute of stoppage time and secure a share of the spoils.

A routine win against West Ham was followed by Sjoeke Nüsken’s breakthrough appearance against Brighton. The Seagulls had snatched the lead after ten minutes through Pauline Bremer, but a remarkable Nüsken hat-trick put Hayes’ side on course for victory at Kingsmeadow as she announced her arrival in the best possible fashion.

Nobody could have prepared for what was coming next though. On November 4, after a six-goal win over Aston Villa, news unexpectedly broke that Hayes would depart Chelsea at the end of the season. An era was coming to an end; the emotional implications this would have on the title race were simply too complex to bear thinking about.

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Cracks in the surface

Chelsea’s continued graft in the WSL put them on course for a historic quadruple, and while the UEFA Women’s Champions League has been a stumbling block historically for Hayes, it seemed that this year could be the year that changed.

The Blues had strengthened in the January transfer window too, fully aware that the end-of-season run-in would be testing. Everton’s Nathalie Björn arrived to shore up the defences, while Chelsea paid a then-world record transfer fee to secure the services of Levante’s Mayra Ramírez – and what a signing she’d turn out to be.

Put simply, the Blues were nothing short of a formidable outfit, but as the end of the season neared, the pressure started to build in SW6 and cracks began to show. Manchester United fans on Saturday found time to taunt Hayes about Chelsea’s Conti Cup final loss, which was followed by the Blues first-ever loss to the Red Devils in the semifinals of the Adobe Women’s FA Cup a fortnight later.

But still, the two most prized trophies remained for Hayes: the UWCL and the WSL. The Blues had cruised past Ajax to reach the semifinals, earning a second semifinal encounter with Barcelona in just two seasons.

Unlike last year’s defeat, Chelsea stunned the Blaugrana in Barcelona. Jonatan Giráldez’s side were forced to suffer their first home defeat in five years, with Erin Cuthbert’s strike giving the Londoners a real sense of belief that perhaps the stars would align and Hayes could bow out as Chelsea boss having added the UWCL to her cabinet.

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Those dreams were short-lived though. At Stamford Bridge a week later, goals from Aitana Bonmatí and Fridolina Rolfö, either side of a Kadeisha Buchanan red card branded as one of the worst decisions in UWCL history, allowed the Catalan visitors to progress and face Lyon in Bilbao on May 25.

It ain’t over til it’s over

It would, in the face of three cup defeats, have been understandable if the wheels fell off of Chelsea’s charge for the WSL title. Four days after that defeat in front of a sellout crowd in SW6, Hayes’ worst nightmare was realised.

A thrilling match for the neutral, a 4-3 defeat at Prenton Park left Hayes admitting that perhaps her Chelsea side simply weren’t destined for silverware this season. The Blues were left needing favours elsewhere, with no control of their own destiny and a seemingly unstoppable Manchester City side storming towards their first title since 2016.

Another four days on, the narrative flipped again. Manchester City had been on course to edge one step nearer to the trophy after Lauren Hemp handed the Cityzens the lead after 17 minutes at Joie Stadium in their contest with Arsenal. It was a result that would have all but confirmed Chelsea’s failure to lay their hands on silverware this season.

Stina Blackstenius had other ideas though. First securing a draw in the 89th minute, and then finding the winner three minutes later, the Swedish forward sent the away end into raptures and sparked scenes of chaos in the press box as journalists rushed to update and publish their match reports before the final whistle sounded.

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It was far from the perfect way for the retiring Steph Houghton to bow out, but for Chelsea, it was the perfect result. Hayes’ side would face already-relegated Bristol City later that evening, and now armed with the knowledge that the title race could be decided on goal difference, the Blues sniffed an opportunity.

Guro Reiten bagged four by herself. Aggie Beever-Jones found a further two, with Sjoeke Nüsken and Niamh Charles rounding out an eight-goal rout that put Chelsea on provisional pole, if they could win their game in hand against Tottenham Hotspur. They did so – an uninspiring one-goal win over Spurs keeping them in contention.

And so, the odds were stacked in Chelsea’s favour when they made the trip north to face Manchester United on the final day. Level on points, their superior goal difference kept them above the Cityzens – and unless Gareth Taylor’s side could better Chelsea’s result by three goals, Hayes would lift a fifth successive league title.

Mayra Ramírez needed just two minutes to open the scoring. Johanna Rytting Kaneryd had doubled it by the eight-minute mark, and two goals in quick succession before the break from Nüsken and Ramírez again left the outcome of this enthralling title fight in no doubt. Still, the Blues weren’t done.

Second-half strikes from Melanie Leupolz and the departing Fran Kirby left Hayes jubilant on the touchline, engaging with chants from the vocal away end as her destiny was confirmed. Chelsea were champions.

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Hayes’ refreshing honesty will be missed

Amidst the summer of uncertainty that lies ahead for Chelsea, one thing is for certain: Hayes will be missed. Be it her refreshing honesty, her sense of humour or simply her tactical nous, the 41-year-old leaves behind a gap that will be missed for quite some time.

Hayes entered her final press conference as Blues boss swigging a beer. She left, after a photo with members of the assembled press, heralded as a hero – a longstanding contributor to the development of women’s football in this country and beyond, a manager who for many has been a constant throughout the entirety of their careers in the industry.

But it is not just those working in women’s football who will miss Hayes. Her players have praised her on countless occasions for her approachability and unwavering desire to improve the conditions in which they play, both on the pitch and off it, with a strong emphasis placed on mental wellbeing.

Olympique Lyonnais’ Sonia Bompastor is the name widely expected to be announced as Hayes’ successor. That won’t be announced until after les Olympiennes have disputed their UWCL final this Saturday, but when the Frenchwoman comes in, there will be plenty on her plate.

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