By Tony Leighton
He’s an Arsenal supporter, but in 2012 superstar athlete Mo Farah unwittingly played a part in what has become the booming women’s football success of London rivals Chelsea under former Gunners assistant manager Emma Hayes.
In the context of the Blues’ Super League and FA Cup double this season it seems incredible that, before she became the club’s manager three years ago, Hayes had walked away from football after 17 years of coaching in England and the USA.
“I was burnt out and I wanted to get out of the game,” said Hayes, as she reflected on the rise and rise of her team. “I came back from America to run my father’s business, and I also set up an on-line business in foreign exchange.
“But then I got a text from Laura Coombs, one of my old Arsenal players who’d moved to Chelsea, asking me if I was back in England. And then shortly after I’d replied to Laura I got a call from Peter Steward, who was the Chelsea women’s team chairman at the time.
“I’ll never forget the moment he rang me because it was in the middle of Mo Farah’s 5,000m run at the 2012 Olympics.
“I was sat at home watching the race on TV. I had a glass of champagne in my hand and I was so caught up in the excitement of the race that when Peter asked if I’d like to become the Chelsea manager I just shouted ‘yes – I’ll do it!’
“I didn’t ask about salary, budget, none of of the things I’d need to know, I just arranged to meet him at the training ground the next day.
“The women’s side of the club didn’t have much back then – they didn’t even have any water bottles – but we talked about building the infrastructure as well as developing the team and that’s the way we went about it.
“In my first season (2013) we finished bottom but one in the WSL, but I didn’t care because I knew we were heading in the right direction.
“I got a bigger budget last year. We spent the money wisely and I felt we’d put together a team that was good enough to win the league.
“Unfortunately it all went wrong for us on the last day of the season – a horrible day for us because we got pipped to the title on goal difference.
“As I’ve said all along this season though, that horrible day has been the driving force for us in what’s been a fantastic year for the club.”
Chelsea’s fantastic year, which still goes on as they are currently involved in a Champions League Round of 32 tie against Glasgow City, reached its zenith as they lifted the WSL trophy last Sunday.
Fittingly in front of their biggest ever home crowd, 2,710, the moment of triumph arrived 23 years to the day since the club’s very first outing – in the Greater London League’s third division.
Amongst Sunday’s spectators at Wheatsheaf Park were some players from the original women’s team, plus the founder of the club, Tony Farmer, and its current president John Terry – captain of Chelsea’s Premier League side and proud dad of U9 Chelsea girls team player Summer.
Hayes said: “It seemed so right that we won the title on a big anniversary for the club. I loved meeting Tony Farmer and a couple of the players from that first team. They had tears in their eyes and rightly felt they’d played their part in what we were all celebrating on Sunday night.
“John Terry texted me, saying it had given him goose-bumps watching history in the making. He didn’t want to get in the way and take any of the limelight, but he truly is a big supporter of the women’s team and I can’t thank him enough.”
Terry has in the past helped to fund the women’s team when money was too tight to mention, but the days of shoe-string budgets have gone as Hayes now gets full financial backing from the parent club. With that backing comes big ambition and, as she begins what is the club’s first ever foray into the Women’s Champions League, Hayes is happy to embrace whatever pressure may be on her as she looks to build success upon success.
“The budget we’ve had this year means we’ve been fully professional for the first time and that’s been a massive help,” said Hayes, who is hoping to celebrate her 39th birthday on Sunday with the Blues in the last 16 of the Champions League.
“With the infrastructure we’ve built and the team that we’ve developed, I feel that we are more than capable of competing in Europe,” she added.
“We won’t be expected to win it this season, but the fact that we’ve qualified for the Champions League again next season is a real bonus, because I believe you need at least a year’s experience to find your feet in the competition.
“When I was assistant to (manager) Vic Akers at Arsenal and we were European champions in 2007, the club had already had four or five seasons playing against the best teams on the continent.
“We’ve got to build up that bank of experience, starting with this tie against Glasgow. I’m pleased enough with the 1-0 lead we’re taking up there for the second leg on Wednesday, but we’ll definitely be taking nothing for granted.
“We want to get through this round and go as far as we can, then the future aim will be to consistently get into the Champions League and ultimately to win it.”
Powerful words, but they come from a manager who has been around the block and knows her stuff.
Having gone into coaching after her playing career was ended through injury as a youngster, Hayes has enjoyed plenty of success both at home and abroad – apart from an ill-fated spell in America with Chicago Red Stars, who sacked her in 2010.
“Working at Chicago was quite a learning curve, but I definitely became a better coach because of it,” said Hayes, whose disappointing spell in Chicago was followed by more successful stints with Washington Freedom and Western New York Flash before returning home.
Now she is where she was “destined” to be.
“Before I went to Chicago I was told by a clairvoyant that I would one day leave a legacy at Chelsea,” she said.
“I’d never thought about working for Chelsea before, but then I got that phone call in the middle of Mo Farah’s race and I thought later, ‘this is no co-incidence – this is my destiny’.”