In our history of Chelsea Women series, we started at the beginning of the story that has led up to a sell-out crowd for our Women’s Super League opener at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 8 September.
The Stage is set for that match and having told the tale of 1970s and 1990s women’s teams at Chelsea, in part three of the History of Chelsea Women today, the modern era truly begins with the advent of the Women’s Super League, the arrival of Emma Hayes and star signings made…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 its 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.
- The History of Chelsea Women series will continue next week
Tickets for the London derby against Tottenham Women sold out in record time but a few returned standard tickets are back available to claim free of charge, plus some restricted view tickets. There is also a Brunch + Ticket package offer.