Emma Hayes saves the best until last as Chelsea legend bows out of club management

  • Emma Hayes wins seventh WSL title and fifth in a row to cap Chelsea tenure
  • Legendary manager leaves to become new USWNT head coach this summer
  • 47-year-old won't miss club management and is unlikely ever to return to it
Emma Hayes signed off from the WSL in spectacular fashion
Emma Hayes signed off from the WSL in spectacular fashion / Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

‘Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back’ was what adorned the t-shirts Chelsea players and staff wore to receive the WSL trophy on Saturday evening.

The scene was a sun-drenched Old Trafford, where the Blues had just dished out a 6-0 pumelling of Manchester United. But this one, Chelsea's fifth consecutive league title and the seventh of Emma Hayes' 12-year reign, nearly didn't happen at all.

At the start of May, Hayes herself declared the title race to be "done" in favour of Manchester City when Chelsea were stunned by Liverpool. If it was ever "done", it only was for a matter of days. Then came City's sudden late collapse against Arsenal, followed by Chelsea putting eight goals past Bristol City to swing the goal difference their way, and winning a game in hand victory against Tottenham Hotspur to move level with City on points going into the final day.

Although they were in the driving seat by then, there was still some work to do. But Saturday's handsome win against Manchester United was never in doubt from the earliest stages when two quickfire goals in the first few minutes immediately had them up and cruising.

For Chelsea, this season hasn't been plain sailing. The squad has been rocked by the losses of Sam Kerr and Mia Fishel to season-ending ACL injuries, as well as Millie Bright missing five months with her own knee problem. Catarina Macario had to wait until March for her debut, while Lauren James saw her season curtailed during the run-in. The Blues needed to go big in January just to plug gaps with Mayra Ramirez, the difference against United, and Nathalie Bjorn.

Then there was the added pressure of Hayes' long goodbye, announcing in November her planned departure to become new head coach of the United States Women's National Team. Great Manchester United and Liverpool men's sides of 2002 and 2024 respectively have struggled in such circumstances, but Chelsea still managed to grind it out and get over the line.

"I almost can't believe we won the title," Hayes, also confessing herself to be "exhausted" as 12 years at the club ends, reflected in the Old Trafford press conference room.

"Losing the volume of leadership we have at the back and up top, I think did take its toll. Plus, transitioning of new players, young players and diminishing role of the some of the senior players. That's why think this was the best title. We're not stupid, we know we weren't at our best, but for us to win the title…wow."

The day to day challenges of club management, which she is not expecting to ever return to in the future, are things Hayes will not miss now that international football is her new focus.

"If I wasn't a football manager where I have to do a press conference every three days, I'm that person in the social group who sits in the corner," she explained.

"I'm not someone who is front and centre in my life, I don't live like that. I find some of this job really hard because I just want a quiet life and that's what I’m most looking forward to [in America] - being out of the British media, having a different life and being in a situation where I only have to do [press conferences] and games every six or eight weeks.

"I categorically cannot carry on. I am absolutely leaving at the right time, don't have another drop to give it. I had to leave three people out of the squad [at Old Trafford], imagine what that was like, telling them they’re not in the squad, let alone not in the team. Every three days, that is the hardest part of the job."

Emma Hayes
Emma Hayes enjoyed an emotional end as Chelsea manager / Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

Hayes arrived at Chelsea at time when the club had never won a major trophy. They had been close, losing the 2012 FA Cup final on penalties a matter of months before she replaced Matt Beard, who had gone on to bigger things at Liverpool and subsequently won two WSL titles.

It wasn't a quick tranformation. Chelsea finished seventh out of eight in her first full season in 2013, only four points above the WSL's relegation place. But, with former chairman Bruce Buck determined to wrestle dominance in the women's game away from Arsenal, the Blues went from second last to second in 2014, only missing out on the title to Beard's Liverpool on an utterly crazy final day.

Chelsea landed the FA Cup in the first ever Wembley final in August 2015 and, two months, later were WSL champions for the first time as well. The latter is a trophy they have had close to a monopoly on ever since, lifting it again in 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and now 2024, on top of 2017's shortened Spring Series. The FA Cup had hardly been out of their grip too, with four of those WSL-winning campaigns becoming domestic doubles with repeated glory at Wembley.

The Champions League, which she helped Arsenal win as an assistant coach in its UEFA Women's Cup guise back in 2007, was the only trophy that has eluded her at Chelsea. But their impact was still repeatedly felt at Europe's highest level, finalists in 2021 and semi-finalists on four other occasions.

Hayes has been awarded an MBE and OBE for her services to football, is a member of the WSL Hall of Fame and in 2024 became the first woman to win the FWA Tribute Award in its 42-year history. FIFA also named her the Best Women's Coach of 2021 and she now leaves to take on one of the few jobs in global women's football that is bigger than the one she has created at Chelsea.

When Hayes started out, there was nobody like her. Now, she is the role model she never had herself.

"I don't work to do something for anything other than the right reasons and I just wanted to create role models that I never had. I wanted to create a profession that wasn't possible," she said.