In our history of Chelsea Women series, we are telling the tale of female football at Chelsea, from a high profile exhibition match a century ago to 1970s and 1990s Blues women’s teams to the modern era at the pinnacle of the sport when major trophies began to be won.
It has all led up to a sell-out crowd for our Women’s Super League opener at Stamford Bridge this coming Sunday and in part five of the History of Chelsea Women today, silverware continues to be collected by Emma Hayes side who also begin to build a reputation in Europe as the women’s game overall begins to flourish…
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, was 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.
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 the 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.
‘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.
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 times, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
BIG CHANGES 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.
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 last 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.
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.Now, it’s time to start a new era. Our last home match, the aforementioned game against Lyon, was played in front of 4,670 fans, which is a record for a Chelsea Women’s home fixture. This Sunday, we expect that figure to be dwarfed at Stamford Bridge. It’s been an incredible journey so far – but it’s only just beginning…
The season opener on Sunday promises to be a great day out for all the family. Entertainment kicks off at 10am at Eel Brook Common where the Chelsea Foundation Fan Zone plays host to free football coaching sessions, kicking challenges and skills zones for kids of all abilities. Meanwhile, outside the stadium, we have stilt walkers, face painters, football freestylers and a visit from the London Fire Brigade for photos. And in the run up to the 12.30pm kick off, enjoy an exclusive pitch-side DJ set from Capital FM’s Marvin Humes.