From playing for Chelsea Women, to now winning trophies as the head coach of the Women’s Under-16s and assistant coach to the Under-18s, we take a look at Leanne Champ’s pathway journey here at Chelsea...
Leanne Champ initially started her playing career with Millwall Lionesses from the age of eight. She played for the Lionesses for nine seasons, before joining Arsenal Ladies, where she enjoyed plenty of success between 2001 and 2008. She returned to Millwall for one season before rounding off her playing career in England at Chelsea Women, where she spent two years. Leanne also represented her country at both youth and senior level.
Whilst at Chelsea she gained her UEFA B Licence and in her late 20s, she went over to America to continue to play while also working as a soccer coach in New Jersey, and then onto four years in Boston MA, coaching youth and Academy teams. On her return to England, Champ completed her UEFA A Licence.
Champ returned to Cobham training ground in the summer of 2017 and has not looked back since, having been here for five seasons. The academy coach commented on her journey: ‘While coaching in the US, I came back on a holiday for a couple of weeks at Christmas and my visa got denied, so I had to uproot and return back to England.
‘The job then came up at Chelsea in the summer and I started off as the head coach of the U16s and assistant coach with the Under-18s for two seasons. Then I moved up with the first team, coaching for a season. The following season, my role was opposition analysis and then last season I returned back to the Under-16s and Under-18s. I’ve done a full circle!
‘I enjoy working with the kids, I think that’s where my strength is, developing younger players.’
Champ developed her relationship with Emma Hayes through her time playing at Arsenal where Hayes was the assistant coach. It was Hayes that went on to give her the opportunity to come back to Chelsea.
‘I’m really grateful for that,' says Champ.
The Blues coach explains just how much the Women’s academy has developed over recent years with the growth of the women’s game on an upwards trajectory.
‘I think what Dean Steninger, the technical director of the academy, has done in a short space of time has seen the programme grow to where it is today.
‘I think if you look at all the teams we have coming through, there are some really talented players from our foundation phase at Under-11 to Under-14s, and our development phase from Under-16s to Under-18s. I think he’s done a great job with that. For our Under-18s Academy team, we have a day release programme which enables them to train alongside the first team, and for some get the opportunity to play with the first team. We’re trying to bridge that gap, it’s still a big gap but I see a positive change so far.’
Champ went on to explain how rewarding it is for her to see the Academy girls get playing time with the Women’s first team. ‘I think if you look at this season, Emma Thompson from the Under-18s has made her first team debut, Aimee Claypole from the Under-16’s who is still only 16 has too.
‘We have had Under-16s step up and play for the Under-18s Academy team. If you look at last year, the players that the first team signed have gone on loan like Aggie Beever-Jones, Charlotte Wardlaw, Jorja Fox and Emily Orman.
‘That is definitely the ultimate goal, that’s what you want to see. Even if they don’t make it at Chelsea, if you can help them on their pathway to another WSL club or Championship club then that’s still really rewarding.’
With the Women’s football landscape changing and technology evolving, the support the club provides for the girls is continuing to change as they look for more way to support and guide the young players through the earlier stages of their careers. On the support provided Champ added: ‘Dean and the team provide workshops and get different experts in whether that’s nutrition, menstrual cycle, welfare to help give them the guidance needed.
‘Lots of players have social media accounts, some even have agents now, so it’s just about trying to give them the right guidance and trying to help them with their decisions, to make the right choices.’
When reflecting on the development opportunities the pathway has also provided herself, Champ commented: ‘Being at Chelsea, working in different various roles, I think it’s given me that experience to help develop younger players.
‘I think even doing the opposition side of it has certainly helped with my coaching. Having been in the first team environment, working on the grass, working with some of the top players and seeing Emma Hayes and the wider coaches at work, can only help my development.’
The 2021/22 season ended on a high for Champ and the Under-16s, with the team defeating Manchester City 3-0 in the FA Girls Youth Cup final. Reflecting on the afternoon, Champ enthused: ‘For any player to get the opportunity to reach and play in an FA Cup final is a great achievement. It’s a great day and occasion. For them to do it at such a young age, is an invaluable experience. I was delighted for them, and they thoroughly deserved to win that.
‘I think our journey to get to the final, the big one was the semi-final against Arsenal, a London derby. We found ourselves 2-0 down after 10 minutes but the team showed great character and resilience to come back and go on to win the game 3-2. That in itself gave us the confidence going into the final.'
‘We played Man City in the final, got an early goal and in the end came out comfortable winners winning 3-0. It was a great day for the girls and it’s just given them that experience going into their careers. To have that is fantastic.’
Looking to the future and what she wants to see next for the Women’s game, Champ added: ‘I think it’s going from strength to strength and I want it to keep on growing. If you look back about five or six years ago, it’s come so far with more young girls playing the game, we’re attracting more supporters, getting record crowds, there’s top players playing in the league and there’s now more investment going into the women’s game. I think we should just keep pushing for more of that!
‘And on a personal side, I’m still really passionate about working with youth players and I want to keep helping these players and see them continue to come through the pathway.’