Emma Hayes on how she led Chelsea to WSL domination over 10 years

By Ben MillerBBC Sport
Hayes on her love for Chelsea, job pressures and growth of the women’s game

In August 2012, Emma Hayes stepped off a train and arrived at a club who were about to finish third-bottom of the Women's Super League.

Two of Chelsea's three wins that season had come against the teams below them, Doncaster and Liverpool. Hayes' initial challenges included finding offices to work from and footballs to work with.

"When there's nothing there, you have to put everything there," Hayes, 45, tells BBC Sport.

"Having nothing to start from made things really, really hard, because it meant very few people had to do a lot of jobs at the beginning. That was tough."

Chelsea reached the FA Cup final the season before she joined - and were ahead in normal time, extra time and the penalty shootout before eventually losing to Birmingham.

But Hayes felt their place in the bottom two at the end of her first full season in charge, four points clear of relegation, reflected the talent within the part-time squad.

"We did really well, considering how behind we were," she says.

"I don't want to remember it. All my focus was off the pitch, getting the infrastructure in place. That was all I was interested in."

Hayes also had a job in financial services at the time, building on the polymathy and breadth of vision she had developed during her first 11 years in the game.

She acted as assistant, first-team coach and academy director at Arsenal, forming part of the team who won the 2006-07 Women's Champions League - known then as the Women's Uefa Cup - under revered Gunners manager Vic Akers.

Emma Hayes
As a 31-year-old, Hayes turned down the chance to succeed Vic Akers as Arsenal manager because she did not feel it would challenge her enough, instead moving to the United States

Prior to joining Chelsea, she had built a team for Western New York Flash, based in the US, in her capacity as technical director.

"I'd come from America, where I'd coached at a higher level, so it was a step backward for me," she says. "I had to change my thinking to realise that there was just so much work to be done.

"It takes at least two seasons to get a team that represents anything like what you want it to."

Consistency - a word Hayes repeatedly returns to - as well as making Chelsea hard to score against and changing the team's long-ball style were among her priorities during the slow burn of her initial seasons.

Emma Hayes
A 2-0 defeat at Sincil Bank contributed to Chelsea finishing below third-bottom Lincoln in the 2013 WSL season

In contrast to those clubs chasing instant success through heavy investment, Hayes targeted free agents and focused on a sustainable approach that would last.

Hayes describes then-Bundesliga top scorer Yuki Ogimi, signed in 2013, and legendary Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, as "pivotal" in helping to transform the professionalism of the club and its global image.

Only a final-day defeat denied Chelsea the title in 2014. They had the considerable consolation of reaching the Champions League for the first time, and Hayes' shrewd signings inspired them to the league title and FA Cup glory the following year.

Ji So-yun and Emma Hayes
Ji So-yun was one of Hayes' key Chelsea signings, scoring 68 goals in 208 appearances between 2014 and 2022

England internationals and serial WSL champions Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty, who Hayes knew from her Arsenal days, were also hugely important, paving the way for the likes of playmaker Ji So-yun and Fran Kirby, the club's all-time top scorer and assist provider, to choose Chelsea.

"People don't realise that when we won the double in 2015, I was part-time," says Hayes. "Lots of the players were part-time, lots of the staff were part-time. We didn't have much more resources than we did two or three years prior to that."

Chelsea have repeated the league and FA Cup double three times since then, adding the League Cup for a memorable treble in 2021.

Sam Kerr and Emma Hayes
Sam Kerr has been the WSL top-scorer in each of her two campaigns with Chelsea and was the top-flight player of the season for 2021-22

After watching the profiles of her star players bloom in tandem with the sport, Hayes is as interested in the business side of football as she is with her coaching sessions.

"I'm one of probably a handful of people who were doing it when no-one was there, so I have as much enjoyment in the growth of the game as I do in winning," she says, pointing out that the costs of opening Stamford Bridge would necessitate near-full houses. Her team's home is currently Kingsmeadow, which has a capacity of around 4,000.

"I've been in women's football for a long time. I loved watching England winning the Euros, any sold-out stadium, turning on the telly and watching Manchester United versus Manchester City. It looks good when it's at Old Trafford."

A banner of Emma Hayes
Chelsea are chasing a fourth successive WSL title in 2022-23 and remain contenders to win the Champions League for the first time

But 10 years on from being appointed as manager of Chelsea Ladies - as the team were known then - Hayes is in no mood to dwell on the past.

"It's 10 years ago — what were you doing 10 years ago and can you remember that?" she asks.

"My preoccupation is how I get to a place, not what it feels like when I'm there, let alone when we've won.

"I'll be honest with you — whenever we win, I just feel relief and I'm happy that it's over. I love my job but it takes its toll.

"I always knew we were going to be successful. I know who I am and I'm confident about that.

"I always felt like I'm here for a reason. And that reason, beyond building a club, was to win trophies."