Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes reflects on seminal moments in women’s football and what can be achieved in the future in the build-up to the opening weekend of the 2019/20 WSL season.
The stage is set. The FA Women’s Super League returns this weekend and there could not be a bigger opener for Chelsea Women as we host Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
A bumper crowd is expected on a weekend where women’s league matches up and down the country are expected to attract record audiences, with tickets all gone for the London derby. For those lucky enough to be in attendance, there will be matchday activities in and around the stadium from 10am.
Emma Hayes has pretty much seen it all over the past two decades. She spent seven years in America either side of a spell as assistant coach at Arsenal Ladies during a period in which the Gunners enjoyed unprecedented success in the domestic game.
Yet it has been the seven years since, while at the helm at Chelsea, that have propelled Hayes to one of the most respected people in the women’s game. She has guided us to two FA Cups and two WSL triumphs in that time, while her services to football were acknowledged in 2016 when she was awarded an MBE.
Hayes’s experience is almost unrivalled and she reflects candidly on the rise of the women’s game in England as we prepare for a seminal weekend, citing the 2012 London Olympics as a key catalyst for change.
‘I’ve been working in women’s football all over the world, from an amateur level to this level, but 2012 was the big moment in this country,’ said Hayes.
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‘That was the first time I felt the appetite from Bruce Buck and everybody inside the club to really be a driving force in the game. Alongside Arsenal and Manchester City in particular, the three of us have continued to push the domestic game to the standards we see today.
‘The relaunch of the league and the change to a summer schedule in 2017 was completely the right transition. Subsequent events like the Euros and World Cup have really just demonstrated what you can do when the investment is there, and that’s not just financial investment but things like giving out the right amount of broadcasting space or commercial space or marketing space.
‘The realities are that women haven’t received equal access to those things. We’ve been deprived for more than 50 years and because of that it’s been suppressed.’
The World Cup in France this summer has given women’s football in England an enhanced profile and reputation. The WSL acted quickly on the back of the hype by promoting this opening weekend of the season, which also sees the Manchester clubs meet at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Hayes believes the current prominence is a perfect opportunity to attract new fans and praised the initiative to offer free tickets to all supporters at the Bridge this weekend.
‘You have to pick the right moments to do these type of games,’ she explained. ‘We see this as an opportunity to capture a whole new audience that may not have been exposed to women’s football before. We want to fill the stadium and then make sure the strategy beyond this game is in place so that those people return.
‘These are not just Chelsea fans, not even necessarily women’s football fans, so we have a day of activities and outreach to be able to entertain them. It was a collective decision we made that I think was the right one. It took us three days to get rid of 42,000 tickets so that shows you the impact of the World Cup.’
‘Walking into dreamland’ was how Hayes described the prospect of playing in front of a full house at Stamford Bridge, though emotions will swiftly be checked as the challenge of starting the season with three points is taken on.
Once the day is over and the season bursts into action, Hayes hopes continued success can be achieved throughout the women’s game and she explained just what that should look like on and off the field over the coming years.
‘What’s successful other than winning trophies?,’ she pondered. ‘Sell-out crowds week-in, week-out. More professional teams paying players more money. More back pages in the national press around women’s football. More highlights shows at 7pm on a Sunday and not midnight.
‘Even more streaming of games at a regular time every week so everybody in this country can watch. Big commercial deals for every club. A sell-out for the FA Cup final this year at Wembley Stadium and a gold medal at the Olympics next summer. That’s success.
‘There’s even more growth to be had so we don’t want to be satisfied with what we have right now. More things are aligned now than ever and I think you’ll see the game driven to even greater heights in the next couple of years.’
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