During the days when Casey Stoney played for Chelsea, little luxuries were not so much thin on the ground as nonexistent. “You couldn’t get anything, not even a tracksuit from the club back then,” recalls Manchester United’s manager. “But everything’s changed and that’s thanks to Emma Hayes.”
Stoney left Chelsea in 2011, the year before Hayes took transformative charge. At that time considerable scepticism still surrounded female coaches, yet nine years on her enviable trophy haul has helped reshape the topography of the now professional elite women’s game. Not to mention serving as a rebuke to its once almost default misogyny. This season an unprecedented eight of the 12 Women’s Super League managers are female.
As Manchester United prepare to travel to Kingsmeadow on Sunday seeking to double their three-point lead over Chelsea at the top of the WSL, Stoney is keen to highlight her title rival’s role in ensuring women coaches are no longer rarities. “I was briefly caretaker player-manager of Chelsea in 2009 and it was very different then,” says the former England captain. “I think you have to put all the credit for the changes on Emma’s shoulders. She led the way. By proving she could do the job, she role-modelled the message to other clubs that women can manage football teams.”
Hayes has numerous reasons for contentment – her defending champions are, after all, unbeaten in 30 WSL fixtures – but the bigger picture is possibly her greatest source of satisfaction. “I’m proud of the achievements of all our female coaches in our country,” she says. “So many countries won’t hire female managers, so this is something for us to celebrate. I also think it’s important for our players to be exposed to female leaders because we offer different things and we haven’t necessarily been presented with the same opportunities as male coaches.”
No one can accuse Hayes of failing to seize her own chance and, much as she admires Stoney, Chelsea’s manager is keen to see off the latest pretender to her crown. “My team’s got another gear in it and it’s my job to bring it out,” she says. “We’re scratching the surface of our potential.”
A December Covid outbreak within the camp, which left Hayes spending Christmas convalescing from a mild case of the virus, failed to prevent her team thrashing Reading 5-0 last week, with England’s Fran Kirby scoring four goals while combining superbly with Australia’s Sam Kerr.
Hayes is too honest to take the credit. “Telepathy and chemistry like theirs is never coachable,” she says. “It’s about the relationship and dynamic between them. If Sam moves into one space, Fran moves into the other almost simultaneously. They haven’t played a lot together centrally but, at Reading, we moved them a bit close together and it was brilliant to watch. They were marvellous. My job’s just to keep guiding them. With top players it’s just pointing out little things. They’re a joy to coach.”
Like Stoney, Hayes is unafraid to confront contentious, politically freighted, issues. While her Manchester United counterpart apologised for permitting some of her players to make an ill-starred Christmas trip to Dubai, Chelsea’s manager has criticised certain rivals for failing to fulfil fixtures. She warns that a repeat of last weekend – when five of the six scheduled WSL games were postponed – cannot be permitted and proposes expanding first-team bubbles to include promising youth players.
“Our responsibility is to get the league completed,” says Hayes. “All of us have players and staff who are terrified to come to work. That’s a fact. But we take pride in giving people something to look forward for a few hours each week. It’s crucial we keep going and keep our elite status.”
Hayes is not remotely surprised that a Manchester United side only formed in 2018 have joined Arsenal and Manchester City in endeavouring to claim Chelsea’s crown: “They’ve signed really good players like [the USA World Cup winners] Christen Press and Tobin Heath,” says the 44-year-old. “Casey’s doing a brilliant squad building job.”
Stoney’s side are also unbeaten in the league this season and the 38-year-old believes “fine margins” will determine Sunday’s outcome. Hayes does not demur. “There’s real quality on both sides,” says Chelsea’s manager. “So it’s about the big moments, about taking your chances. But we’re hitting our stride, we were clinical and ruthless at Reading. It will be a fascinating contest but we’re confident.”