The History of Chelsea Women

Women’s football has grown significantly in the 21st Century, but it was also in a healthy state over 100 years earlier and Stamford Bridge played its part.

Chelsea’s direct involvement in the women’s game began a lot later with at first steady progress made before a rapid rise and we tell that story below, but let’s start at the beginning…
 


Women’s football during the First World War

There are reports of crowds of 10,000 turning out to watch women play the sport in north London in the 1890s but it was during the First World War, with many men away at the fighting front and the Football League suspended, that the women’s game really took off.

Sketch of a women's game in 1895

Suddenly many women, through the necessity of the conflict, were taking on jobs previously considered unsuitable for them – munitions factory work being a classic case – and as well as proving perfectly capable of taking the places of the men in that environment, they did so on the sporting field too.

The Football Association at that stage welcomed women in the sport. Their matches during the First World War raised money for injured soldiers and their dependents, and the on-pitch contests quickly became very popular spectator events.

A cup competition for teams representing specific munitions factories began and the most popular team of all came from what had been a railway engineering firm in peacetime – Dick, Kerr & co. from Preston in Lancashire. The football team were called the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC.
 

The Dick, Kerr Ladies team

After the end of the War, a Boxing Day match in 1920 involving that side drew 53,000 spectators to Everton’s Goodison Park with another 14,000 locked outside. True stars of the era, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were being booked to play two games a week on average and in May 1920, one of those fixtures was at Stamford Bridge. The opposition were to be the top side in France, Femina Sport of Paris. This was just under 100 years earlier than Chelsea Women’s first hosting of Paris St-Germain and Lyon at Kingsmeadow in the Women's Champions League.

The first ever women’s game at Stamford Bridge

By 1920, men’s league football had restarted but still the crowds turned up to watch what was a tour of games for the French side against Dick, Kerr, mostly in the English side’s north-west region with matches in Preston, Stockport and Manchester but a London venue was still being sought.

Chelsea had just made expensive stadium improvements in readiness for hosting the FA Cup final for the first time so the last match of a ground-breaking tour, which became a media sensation, was booked for Stamford Bridge.

Stamford Bridge in the year it hosted its first women's match

On the day it was the skilful French players who lit up the Bridge, winning 2-1, their only victory in what were England’s first four international women’s matches.

The Femina side sported ‘light blue jerseys with the red, white, and blue cockade on the left breast, and navy blue shorts’. Dick, Kerr were in stripes. Both teams wore tight, stylish bonnets. The two captains embraced at the end of the match.

Action from the match at the Bridge between Dick, Kerr and Femina from Paris (courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive)

‘Your crowds are so wonderful – so excitable, so demonstrative that it seems almost as heroic to lose as it is to win,’one of the French players said afterwards. ‘Your people cheer us very much and we have so enjoyed it. We think England is lovely – and London, it is fine!’

The 50-year FA ban

Yet despite the war effort from women everywhere and the enduring popularity of the women’s football matches that had followed, just around the momentous time in history when the first women were given the vote in the United Kingdom with more to soon be allowed that basic democratic right, the Football Association blew the whistle on the female game.

As incredible as it seems now in the way it appeared to go against the zeitgeist, they banned women from playing on the grounds of all their affiliated clubs, citing complaints that had been made to them about football played by women, and stating that the FA Council felt impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.

They also cast aspersions on how much of the money raised was actually going to charity. It would be a long time before women’s football was seen at Stamford Bridge again, and indeed in any of the nation’s major stadiums.

England’s World Cup win in 1966 is thought to have got the ball rolling again, inspiring women to challenge the ban and in 1971, after 50 years in place, it was rescinded.

In 1972 Harry Batt, secretary of Chiltern Valley women’s club, predicted, ‘Women’s football will prove so popular that in 10 years clubs such as Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United and Leeds will be running women’s teams,’ and indeed, one of the new pioneer clubs was a Chelsea Ladies side.

Chelsea Ladies FC ahead of their 1973/74 cup final win over Millwall Lionesses

One of the Chelsea men’s team stars of the time, John Hollins, was the president of the women’s team and he was present as they won the London Women’s Football Challenge Cup final by beating Millwall Lionesses 4-2. Debra Hollingshead scored the first and last of our four goals with Derese Meade netting the other two.

Chelsea Ladies with trophies won in a six-a-side tournament in 1976

Chelsea were also league champions so manager John Martin had steered his recently formed team to a league and cup double which was repeated the following season. However that success dwindled and it was not until Chelsea Ladies was reformed in 1992 that the rise towards the present-day success began again.

A new team in London as Chelsea Ladies begin in 1992

‘At last – the official Chelsea women’s football team.’

‘We will show that women can play football and just as well as the men.’

With those lines in the matchday programme for one of the Chelsea men’s games at the start of the 1990s, the manager of a new Chelsea Women’s team, Tony Farmer, announced the fresh project to the Blues fanbase.

However he did admit there was a lot of catching up to do with the likes of Arsenal, Wimbledon and Millwall who were leading the way in London with long-established women’s teams playing in a new national league.

The aim was to surpass those outfits but for Chelsea who started with around 50 players training twice a week with a view to fielding two senior teams and one Under-14 side, it was to be the local leagues. We were starting small and the players could be found at Stamford Bridge on men’s match days selling lottery tickets to raise funds for the side.

The first campaign for what came to be named Chelsea Ladies was 1992/93, coincidentally a sea-change season for the men’s game in general with the start of the Premier League and the Champions League. Our women finished third in the Greater London Women’s League Division Three, behind Barnet and Mill Hill.

The final league table for the first season - 1992/93

1993/94 however brought the first promotion, the team remaining unbeaten as they stormed to the championship. Often fielding seven players under the age of 16, they also beat four First Division sides in various competitions. Crowds ranged from a handful to 150. Promotion was directly from that Third Division into the Greater London First Division.

A second successive promotion elevated the team to the local Premier Division with striker Julie Newell prominent in these early seasons. Although the kit matched the one worn by the Chelsea men of the day, it was notable the shirt sponsor differed.

A striker in Chelsea Ladies' early years, Julie Newell, scored over 80 goals in her first 50 appearances

The National League was now the target but at the start of the first Premier League season, top players left for Arsenal. Chelsea were still a long way off being able to compete with the top sides but we did enter the Women’s FA Cup for the first time. That brought its own difficulties with the cost of travel to Newcastle for a replay sending the season’s costs up significantly.
 

Losing players but showcased at Chelsea’s Wembley FA Cup final

1996/97 was a year of consolidation but third place meant no promotion play-off spot. While the men were lifting their first FA Cup in a generation, the Ladies lost two local cup finals and failure to reach the National League meant losing the best players was a recurring theme. Every year the management had to half re-build the team. Frustration! Five years in existence, there was still plenty of catching up to do before Chelsea could offer the rewards, the platform and the amount of training other clubs were able to.

There had, however, been the chance to show our skills at that men’s 1997 FA Cup final when Chelsea beat Middlesbrough, with the two clubs’ women’s teams playing an exhibition match on the Wembley turf beforehand. A year earlier, in another exhibition game, this time at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Ladies had taken on Manchester United as part of the club’s Eurofest, an event organised by then chairman Ken Bates to run alongside the end of Euro ‘96, which was being hosted in England.

The match took place the day before the final between Germany and Czech Republic. The female Blues side had also played Arsenal at the Bridge in May 1995 as part of a charity day.

In action at Wembley before the 1997 FA Cup final

Back in the world of competitive football in the second half of the 1990s, restructuring of the league pyramid threatened to take Chelsea even further away from the top tier but we successfully made it into a new South East Counties League for 1998/99, although a second-place finish was still not enough to climb into the elusive National League structure (the Blues were beaten to that by Wembley Mill Hill).

Chelsea Ladies win leagues, cups and earn international caps

However and significantly, a first piece of silverware since the 1970s version of the women’s team was won. We beat National League side Reading Royals 2-1 to win the County Cup. Another indication of progress was the team’s first ever England recognition when Casey Stoney was selected for England Under-18s. The story remained the same however when she was soon taken by Arsenal. Fara Williams, who was staying a Blue, then made England U16s.

Casey Stoney, who started at Chelsea, would go on to play for and later captain England

After eight years of existence, Chelsea Ladies in 1999/00 left the local leagues and moved to a regional one, which now fed directly into the top national league. It was a season of unprecedented success as the team retained the County Cup, won their League Cup and their league title. The treble winners proudly showed off their trophies at half-time in a Stamford Bridge game. They had gained promotion to the Women’s Premier League (Southern).

From the main club came extra funding which paid for a physio, a fitness coach and a second main coach and in our first season in the south section we came close to promotion straight up into the big time as we finished runners up to Brighton, missing promotion by one point. We retained the County Cup for a third year in succession.

Winners of three trophies in 1999/00

Williams, by now an England Under-18 international, was top scorer but ominously Fulham, who were new to our division, turned fully professional.

In 2001/02 with Fulham training 25 hours a week and Chelsea still on that 1992 schedule of two evenings a week for 90 minutes each, our neighbours had no trouble leap-frogging us and into the league above. In fact we slipped to fourth. Young goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain broke into England U19s.

The following season it really felt like Chelsea Ladies were treading water and the squad was completely rebuilt under new boss George Michaelas who was previously the youth coach. Only one player was left from the treble-winning side but still we were competing against pro or semi-pro sides for promotion to the top division. We lost England goalkeeper Chamberlain to Fulham, having previously said goodbye to future England captain Stoney, Williams and highly rated Eartha Pond. But change was in the air.

Parading trophies at a men's game at Stamford Bridge

Becoming a financed part of Chelsea FC

Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea and 2003/04 was the final season as a self-financed team for our female players - and how welcome that end was! For an away game versus Middlesbrough, five players had not been able to afford the cost of overnight accommodation. We finished fourth in the southern division, won the Surrey Cup and reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, an all-time best in that competition, but there were bucket collections to raise money at the Bridge that April.

In 2004/05, promotion to the FA Women’s Premier League was finally won and a five-year strategy to make it into the top four was announced.

Now under the wing of Chelsea’s Football in the Community programme and playing at Imber Court, the home of non-league side the Met Police, the Blues rose from an initial bottom-place finish in the top division to eighth. We signed Eniola Aluko and Stoney returned. Those were statements. Both were full England internationals and youth international Clare Rafferty signed from Millwall. Then Chamberlain also re-joined a rising force in the women’s game as we moved up to fifth in the league.

England striker Eniola Aluko joined rising Chelsea Ladies in 2007

World Cup-winner Lorrie Fair was first announced as an ambassador but then became the first USA international to move to the Women’s League in England, although serious injury soon after becoming a Chelsea player meant her contribution became more an assistant manager to Steve Jones, who had taken over from Shaun Gore for 2008/09.

We signed England internationals Lianne Sanderson and Anita Asante and finished an all-time-best third behind Arsenal and Everton for two years running.

Stoney was briefly player-manager before Matt Beard became the last Chelsea Ladies manager prior to the Emma Hayes era. Young Drew Spence emerged and we made it as far as the semi-final of the FA Cup before losing to Arsenal.

Then the modern era of the game in England truly began. Chelsea were founder members of the Women’s Super League in March 2011.
 

Chelsea kick off the Women’s Super League

Welcome to a new era in women’s football. That was the message coming from the FA as an eight-team Women’s Super League prepared to kick off in 2011, setting a new benchmark for the game on these shores with a summer competition which would, sooner rather than later, become fully professional.

Chelsea Ladies, as we were known then, were among the founder members of the division and, indeed, participants in the first-ever fixture of the new competition on Wednesday 13 April, which was taking place the best part of 12 months after our previous competitive game.

The appetite for women’s football was clearly there, as more than 2,500 supporters were in attendance at our home ground Imperial Fields in Morden, but the product didn’t match the expectation; in a sloppy game we lost 1-0 to Arsenal – twas ever thus – with a scrappy goal by future Blue Gilly Flaherty.

Fans turned out for our historic WSL opener

The Gunners went on to claim the maiden WSL title, as the Blues finished sixth under the tutelage of Matt Beard and if one were to look at the league table a year on, it would appear little had changed – Chelsea once again three places off the bottom and Arsenal celebrating with the trophy.

What we didn’t know then is that the club had made a change which would set the wheels in motion for a transformation that would lead us to become a major force not just in the domestic game, but on the continent, too.
 

New home, new era and a Women’s FA Cup final

The 2012 campaign had started with Chelsea moving home, to Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park. While domestic results under Beard saw little improvement, we followed the men’s team in reaching the FA Cup final, which took place in Bristol a week after Roberto Di Matteo had led the Blues to Champions League glory on the greatest night in the club’s history.

Arsenal had been defeated in thrilling fashion in the semi-final and it looked as though we would get our hands on the famous trophy for the first time as we twice led Birmingham City through Helen Lander and Kate Longhurst, only for our fellow Blues to claw their way back into it. When the game was to be decided on penalties, there was a sense of inevitability about our fate.

Laura Coombs in action during the 2012 FA Cup final alongside Karen Carney, who scored Birmingham’s equaliser in extra-time

In truth, victory would have papered over the cracks. A matter of weeks later, Beard vacated the managerial hot seat to be replaced by Emma Hayes, a former player turned keen student of the game following coaching stints with Arsenal and several clubs in the USA, where she also managed, after her own playing career had ended prematurely through injury.

This was her first role at the helm of an English football side but she had the support of the club, which made the Ladies side fully professional and helped overhaul the playing squad to bring in some of the best players from the domestic game and abroad to complement the talented youngsters coming through our Centre of Excellence.

The rise was not immediate. Far from it, in fact. In Hayes’ first full season during the summer of 2013, during which former favourite Eniola Aluko returned to play alongside a number of overseas signings, we finished second from bottom. Yet during a year in which Stamford Bridge had also hosted the Women’s Champions League final – won by Wolfsburg who ended Lyon’s dominance in the process – it was clear she had the full backing of a club which was fully embracing women’s football.

A big moment for female football at Stamford Bridge as it hosts the Women's Champions League final

That winter, in a distinct change of recruitment policy, experienced English players with a winning pedigree were brought in. There was a palpable shift in momentum when two stalwarts of the all-dominant Arsenal side, Katie Chapman and Flaherty, traded the red half of London for blue. Ji So-Yun, who had been likened to Lionel Messi when we came up against her in the final of the 2013 International Women's Club Championship in Tokyo, was another big statement of intent.

Emma Hayes welcomes Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty to the club

Snatching Women’s Super League defeat from the jaws of victory

Everyone loves a good footballing fairy-tale. Who didn’t cheer when Leicester City overcame the odds to be crowned Premier League champions in 2016, just a year on from almost surrendering their place in the top flight?

With a steely spine in place and the attacking brilliance of Ji, Chelsea Ladies almost had our very own Hollywood ending as we went into the final day of the 2014 campaign in a three-way battle for the title, just 12 months after taking only 10 points from our 14 WSL fixtures.

Going into our final game at Manchester City, we knew a point would be enough to secure the WSL trophy and give the club a first major honour. Eleven minutes in, disaster struck – goalkeeper Marie Hourihan suffered a horrific injury to her collarbone. Without a recognised back-up, Clare Farrow from the Met Police women’s team had been taken on a few weeks earlier as a precaution. Now here she was between the sticks in what was arguably the biggest game in our history at that point. It remains her only WSL appearance.

With 20 minutes remaining, we trailed 2-0 and, crucially, Liverpool were ahead in their fixture, which put them top on goal difference. Despite a goal from Flaherty and the proverbial kitchen sink being thrown at City, we simply could not find a way through. Devastation. For Hayes and her players, it would take a gargantuan effort to pick themselves up from this.

Eniola Aluko and her team-mates were left distraught on the final day of the 2014 season

We're going to Wembley! Chelsea in the Women's FA Cup final

Ahead of the 2015 season, it was announced that the Women’s FA Cup final, for the first time in the competition’s 44-year history, would be played at Wembley Stadium.

Despite the previous season’s collapse at the final hurdle, we were among the favourites for the trophy, aided in no small part by another smart recruitment drive by Hayes and her trusted assistant, Paul Green, as they brought in top domestic stars Gemma Davison and Niamh Fahey, world-class Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl and bright young talent Millie Bright, who Green had worked with during his time with Doncaster Rovers Belles.

Having suffered heartache on the final day of the previous season’s FA Women’s Super League 1, some may say it was written in the stars that the Blues would make the illustrious walk up the most famous steps in football to collect the trophy.

By the time the final took place in August, we were already leading the title race and Ji was the top player in the country, recognised by her peers who voted her as the PFA Women’s Player of the Year.

On the morning of the final against Notts County, Hayes received a phone call from Chelsea skipper John Terry, wishing her and the girls luck for the final, and then a relaxed squad met up the stadium. The pre-match talk featured an improvised version of Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem If and a gift from their manager; each player was handed a rose grown in Hayes’ back garden, reflecting their own growth.

The moment when Ji So-Yun scored the first Women’s FA Cup final goal at Wembley Stadium

The result was a deserving 1-0 victory for the Blues and it came as no surprise that our South Korean superstar settled the game at the home of English football, scoring a scrappy goal to see off our Midlands opponents. The composed and mature display, in front of 30,710 supporters – more than double the crowd which saw the previous year’s final at Stadium:MK – and almost two million more on television marked the Blues out as the top team in the country.

Long-serving defender Claire Rafferty and captain Katie Chapman lift the FA Cup

The timing could not have been much better, coming off the back of the Lionesses run to third place at the Women’s World Cup in Canada and when one of the stars of that side, Fran Kirby, was chased by every one of the top clubs in the country, it was telling that she chose to make Chelsea her home. What a wise move that would prove to be…

Campeones, campeones, ole, ole, ole! Chelsea win the WSL

‘Winning the cup was so significant. It’s not just that it was historic, and it was the first trophy – it was the culmination of three years’ worth of work and a collective effort from everyone. We’ve made clear our intentions: it’s about winning, it’s about silverware. That was the first step towards doing that.’

Those were the words of Hayes in the aftermath of that glorious day at a sun-kissed Wembley Stadium; she knew their season’s work was only half complete, with the second half of the domestic Double still to be completed.

Once again, the fate of the title was still up in the air on the final day of the 2015 season. Chelsea held a two-point lead over Manchester City going into our game against Sunderland, who had inflicted one of our only two defeats of the campaign with a thumping 4-0 victory in the North-East.

John Terry delighted the fans ahead of the WSL title-clincher against Sunderland

Among the 2,710 supporters at Wheatsheaf Park for our date with destiny was men’s captain JT, who delighted fans by posing for photographs ahead of kick-off, and the party atmosphere continued throughout as we ran out 4-0 victors to clinch the WSL title for the first time.

Two goals for Kirby, either side of strikes from Ji and Davison, ensured a thumping we which exorcised the demons many of the players had carried with them for a year. No one could dispute we were deserved champions; as well as leading from virtually the first fixture, we scored more goals and conceded fewer than any other side. There was historical resonance too. The match against Sunderland had taken place exactly 23 years after the reformed women's team had played their first game back in 1992.

Highlights: Sunderland AFC Ladies (H) WSL 1 2015

‘We looked like champions tonight,’ said Hayes after her players had lifted the trophy in front of their own supporters. ‘After the FA Cup final, we have had the confidence of being a winning team. That front four is capable of beating any team in Europe.’

Soon we would have an opportunity to find out, and there was no time to party. Our maiden voyage in the Women’s Champions League, which had seemed a distant dream when Hayes had taken the reins, would begin just a few days later…

A new challenge

After clinching the domestic Double in 2015, securing the club’s first silverware in the process, Chelsea Women boss Emma Hayes knew the hard work was only just beginning. As she told her players: reaching the top is the easy part – staying there is the true test of one’s character.

Before the champagne corks had even settled on the Wheatsheaf Park turf following the Blues’ title-clinching victory over Sunderland, Hayes’ attention had already turned to the club’s first foray into the Women’s Champions League, which would begin just a few days later with a mouth-watering ‘Battle of Britain’ against Glasgow City.

A spectacular strike from Fran Kirby – who, let us not forget, had been playing in the second tier of English football just six months earlier – set us on our way to victory, but our journey came to a halt in the last 16 at the hands of a Wolfsburg side who would become regular sparring partners over the next few years. Another clear indication of the progress being made at the club.

Against Glasgow City, Fran Kirby scored the club’s first-ever Champions League goal

A Bridge too far

There would, however, be a few hiccups along the way, most notably in our defence of the FA Cup and WSL title during the 2016 campaign, despite the pre-season arrival of Karen Carney, one of the most decorated players in the women’s game on these shores.

Despite reaching the FA Cup final for a second successive season, the Blues succumbed to a 1-0 defeat against Arsenal to relinquish our grip on the trophy. When our title bid slipped up, too, our only hope of ending the year on a high came in the form of the Champions League, when once more we were drawn with Wolfsburg.

The first leg of this last-32 tie would be a historic occasion, a maiden competitive fixture at Stamford Bridge – the same turf on which the German side had lifted the trophy three years earlier after beating Lyon, during which an important conversation was taking place in the stands.

Claire Rafferty in action for the Blues against Wolfsburg at Stamford Bridge

‘Emma explained what she wanted to build here and how one day she hoped that the team would be playing on this pitch against the likes of Wolfsburg,’ revealed Chairman Bruce Buck in his column for the matchday programme. ‘In one sense, that mission has been accomplished, but I know Emma will not want the journey to end here.’

Alas, it was a forgettable night for those of a Blues persuasion, as 3,783 supporters saw us fall to a 3-0 defeat which as good as eliminated us, despite a spirited fightback in the return leg. The gulf in class was clear, but our cause was not aided by the scheduling of the domestic season in England, which meant the Champions League began after our league campaign had ended.
 

Spring in our step – Chelsea win another league title

The early mission of the WSL was to increase crowds, which had been achieved, and to make a fully professional league. The latter was still to happen but it moved a step closer with a switch back to a winter schedule, beginning with the 2017/18 season, that in turn would give English sides a better crack at Europe’s premier club competition. By September 2018, every player in the league would become full-time, which would be a historic milestone in European football.

In the interim, a Spring Series was announced to prevent another 12-month spell without competitive football, as had happened before the first WSL season. The nine teams – Notts County folded on the eve of the campaign – would play each other once.

Ramona Bachmann was one of several world-class signings ahead of the Spring Series

Anyone expecting this to be a mere stop-gap was sorely mistaken. Chelsea recruited three of the top players in world football in the form of Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann, Norway captain Maren Mjelde and USA livewire Crystal Dunn, along with exciting young talents Erin Cuthbert and Deanna Cooper. The results, it’s fair to say, were spectacular.

Across eight matches we scored 32 times and conceded only three, which meant we took the title on goal difference – a whopping 18 clear – ahead of Manchester City after finishing level on points. The trophy was clinched at Birmingham City thanks to a nerveless penalty from Carney, against her home-town club, and Kirby’s opportunistic effort, earning her the Spring Series Golden Boot with six goals at a rate of one every 40 minutes following her return from a long-term injury.

HIGHLIGHTS: Birmingham City Ladies (A) WSL 2017

New era marked with more silverware

It was the perfect way to ready ourselves for the new schedule and, indeed, a new home: Kingsmeadow, in nearby Kingston-upon-Thames. The stadium, shared with League One side AFC Wimbledon before becoming exclusively a home venue for our Women's and Academy sides, offered enhanced facilities, the best playing surface in the WSL and, crucially, a level of support never before seen at the football club.

The Blues immediately looked at home, thumping Bristol City 6-0 in our season-opener, and we never looked back. European giants Bayern Munich and Rosenborg were brushed aside en route to reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time and we were once again a cut above the rest domestically.

It didn’t take long for Kingsmeadow to feel like home for the Blues

We reached the FA Cup final for the third time in the four years it had been played at Wembley, avenging our 2016 defeat to Arsenal with a thrilling 3-1 win in front of a record 45,000 supporters. Bachmann’s stunning brace, plus a fine effort from Kirby, turned the home of English football Blue for the second time.

Just look at her face! Ramona Bachmann’s FA Cup final joy is clear for all to see

We finished the WSL campaign unbeaten to make it another Double, edging out Manchester City in a thrilling title race which went down to the penultimate match of the season, when we beat Bristol to take the title once again.

A second Double in four years was captured at Bristol with the WSL trophy secured

The collective glory was matched personally by Kirby, who claimed the inaugural Football Writers’ Association Women’s Player of the Year trophy on her way to making it a clean sweep of major individual honours.

New look followed by near misses

There were big changes that summer, as we said goodbye to captain Kate Chapman, long-serving Claire Rafferty and all-time leading scorer Eni Aluko. The club made an even bigger statement by changing name from Chelsea Ladies to Chelsea Women, with the new identity representative of a modern view on language and equality, in keeping with the way of our governing bodies, supporters, squad and management regard the women’s game.

Although the 2018/19 campaign ended without the addition of silverware to our swelling cabinet, there was scarcely a dull moment along the way as we reached the semi-finals of three cup competitions, including the Champions League for a second year in succession.

In the spring of 2018 we had been eliminated by Wolfsburg for the third time, once again failing to fully test the German side despite taking an early lead in the first leg, but the true success could be measured by the 3,329 supporters in attendance at Kingsmeadow while the men’s team were taking part in an FA Cup semi-final. A genuine fanbase had been established.

The following year, however, it was all about what happened on the pitch. Lyon, winners of the competition three times in succession, were between us and a trip to Budapest for the final and few gave us any hope.

LYON (A) UWCL 18/19

Highlights from Chelsea FC Women's UEFA Women's Champions League Semi-Final match v Lyon.

After a narrow 2-1 defeat in France, when Cuthbert pulled us back into the tie with a goal later chosen as the best in the competition that season, we pushed OL all the way at Kingsmeadow, a game which featured a stunning free-kick from Ji So-Yun. Many observers felt we had done enough to secure a place in the final, but ultimately missed opportunities were in keeping with the story of our season.

Pride of London Worldwide

There was little time for 11 of our players to dwell on that, as they were part of a record number of Chelsea Women players at a World Cup for a tournament in France which captured the imagination of the British public like never before. The Pride of London was going worldwide.

Ji-So Yun, Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir were among the 11 Blues in World Cup action

While fans flocked to stadia across France to see the finest in women’s football in action, record viewing figures were set time and time again in the UK as Phil Neville’s Lionesses heroically bowed out at the semi-final stage for the third competition running.

A season like no other

Once again, women’s football had taken another leap forward, and there were further steps to come throughout a campaign in which history was written throughout – initially for all the right reasons but later, as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, for the wrong reasons too.

Having closed out the previous season in front of 4,670 fans for our game against Lyon, setting a record for a Chelsea Women’s home fixture, the Blues began 2019/20 by dwarfing that number on the opening day.

A crowd of almost 25,000 was in attendance for our meeting with Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge and they were treated to a goal of the season contender, as Bethany England thundered in a left-footed screamer less than five minutes into the game, setting the tone for both player and club. The fixture was also some way for Magdalena Eriksson to begin her tenure as club captain – on her 26th birthday, no less!

Last time out v Tottenham Women... Beth England's rocket at Stamford Bridge

Re-live Beth England's wonder-strike from Chelsea FC Women's last match against Tottenham Hotspur Women. More of the same tonight please Beth!

The Blues topped the league going into the new year, having recorded a first WSL victory over Manchester City since 2014 as part of a 10-match winning run, before strengthening the squad further with a signing that sent shockwaves through the world of women’s football.

Sam Kerr, selected by the Guardian newspaper as the best women’s player of the planet in 2019, was added to an already star-studded squad, and she scored her first goal in a thumping 4-1 win over Arsenal that included a Puskas-nominated wonder strike from Sophie Ingle.

When we travelled to Man City at the end of February, many were billing it as a title decider between the top two. Little did we know this would be both sides’ final league game of the season – and what a match it was, as we shared the spoils in a six-goal thriller. That point would prove to be even more crucial in a few months’ time.

Our first silverware since 2018 was then secured soon after. For the first time in our history we won the Continental League Cup, as two goals from England – the second in injury time, following a barnstorming run by Mjelde – saw off Arsenal at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground.

A missing trophy added to the cabinet

Little did we know that would be the last competitive action for Chelsea Women until August, as the coronavirus pandemic meant no fixtures took place after the Conti Cup final. For the first time ever, the WSL standings were decided on a points-per-game basis – and we edged out Manchester City and Arsenal, our nearest rivals against whom we took 10 points out of 12, to secure the title.

Celebrating a championship during a team meeting on Zoom was perhaps not what anyone had envisaged, but the achievement of another unbeaten campaign and, indeed, yet another trophy in the Hayes era was fully deserved.
 

Raising the bar again

Six months passed between matches, as the 2020/21 campaign got underway at the end of August, with the return of the Community Shield for the first time in the women’s game since 2008. Manchester City, the last side to win the FA Cup after the previous season’s edition was postponed, were our opponents at Wembley Stadium, but unlike our last visits to the ground, when the attendance increased each time, there were no supporters there to see the two top teams in the country.

They missed out on a Chelsea masterclass, as we dominated our rivals to win 2-0, courtesy of a long-range belter from Millie Bright and Erin Cuthbert’s smart finish. An eighth trophy had been won, shortly after the eighth anniversary of Hayes’s appointment as manager.

Again, there was no resting on laurels – just as in the last transfer window, when Kerr had been signed, the Blues landed another of the world’s best players. Pernille Harder joined us from Wolfsburg for a record transfer fee, continuing the huge investment made in Chelsea Women by Mr Abramovich.

Media spotlight on Pernille Harder on her arrival at Chelsea

The Danish superstar immediately settled into the team and played a key part in helping us set a Women’s Super League record unbeaten run of 33 matches, which spanned more than two years. We also set a record of 14 consecutive WSL victories at Kingsmeadow, although both runs came to an end following a shock defeat to Brighton.

Still, the Blues bounced back with another fine run that took us to Continental League Cup glory for the second successive year, following a 6-0 win over Bristol City at Vicarage Road, and into the semi-finals of the Champions League for the third time.

Chelsea Women went through to the Champions League semi-finals by beating Wolfsburg 5-1 on aggregate!

That we reached the last four of Europe’s premier club competition with a resounding win over Wolfsburg was just another indication of the progress that has been made by the club in recent times. After falling to the German side three times, we recorded a 5-1 aggregate victory in the quarter-finals that Hayes declared ‘the biggest win in the history of the football club’.

She would soon have to revise that statement, however, as Bayern Munich were beaten in a thrilling semi-final, which went right down to the wire at Kingsmeadow. We had gone ahead for the first time in the tie late on in the second leg, before Bayern threw the kitchen sink at us. Somehow, we held on, and as Kirby went racing clear in the final seconds to slot into an empty net, the outpouring of emotion on both the pitch and from the touchline showed exactly what this meant. Chelsea Women were in the Champions League final for the first time.

Before that test in Gothenburg, there was a WSL title to secure, and a nail-biting 2-2 draw with Manchester City in the closing weeks left it in our hands – and it was never in doubt on the final day, as we brushed aside Reading to become the most successful side in the competition’s history, with this the fourth time we had been crowned champions. We also had the best player in the land within our ranks, as Kirby secured a clean sweep of the end-of-season awards.

Player of the season Fran Kirby scoring on WSL title-winning day in 2021

Confidence was at an all-time high going into the Champions League final against Barcelona a week later, but just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. An own-goal after 30 seconds set the tone for a chastening night, and we were 4-0 down after 36 minutes. As brilliant as the Spanish side were, however, had our usually so clinical forward line had their shooting boots on, we may well have run them a little closer. As it was, this was an evening to reflect on the improvements that are still to be made if we are to reach the top of the European club game. As Hayes entered her 10th year at the helm, she knew there was still plenty of work to be done, but the Blues boss loves nothing more than a challenge.