Cheers! Blues manager Emma Hayes toasted Chelsea Women’s remarkable four-in-a-row title-winning achievement on the pitch at Reading’s Madejski stadium, and admitted to being overwhelmed by the conflicting emotions of relief, joy and sadness. The club now embark on a busy summer of squad rebuilding ahead of an all-out assault on the Champions League… the one
Cheers! Blues manager Emma Hayes toasted Chelsea Women’s remarkable four-in-a-row title-winning achievement on the pitch at Reading’s Madejski stadium, and admitted to being overwhelmed by the conflicting emotions of relief, joy and sadness.
The club now embark on a busy summer of squad rebuilding ahead of an all-out assault on the Champions League… the one piece of silverware that still eludes her.
“It’s definitely been the hardest year for me and I feel relieved it’s over,” said Hayes after her team’s 3-0 title-clinching win at Reading, despite being pushed to the wire by Manchester United.
She said she also felt sad for her chum, relegated Reading manager Kelly Chambers, who is just four weeks away from producing her second child. “It doesn’t feel good in my soul,” added Hayes, whose final-day victory was enough to push the struggling Royals down to the second tier.
But the gaffer’s main feeling was one of sheer joy that the title was won in front of “a wall of fans” at the Madejski stadium as captain Magda Eriksson, wearing the armband for the last time, and her soulmate striker Pernille Harder, pack their bags and head to Munich as their contracts expire.
It means Chelsea have already lined up several replacements, in defence, midfield, attack – and between the sticks, to bring in for the start of the 2023-24 season as they try to add experience and quality for their next shot at European glory.
A club insider told me that he was certain Chelsea would have won the Women’s Champions League this season if their semi-final draw had been Wolfsburg and not Barcelona, but the Spanish giants only just squeaked past the Blues this spring, and three more key acquisitions in the right positions should pave the way to success on the continent in June 2024.
As assistant manager of Arsenal Ladies, an amateur team as they then were, Hayes has already sipped bubbly from a European cup with victory in the then UEFA Women’s Cup in 2007 by a one-goal margin against the Swedish side Umea… back in the day when success in the women’s game barely rated a mention in the British press, and when a stadium ‘crowd’ of 150 was considered good.
Although Hayes always insists victories are team efforts, she did admit after the triumph at Reading, that gifted winger Guro Reiten was her personal player of the season. “She’s unreal; she’s exceptional; she’s really grown up and become a leader in this team. She has an unbelievable mind – very wise as a young person – funny, witty, but most importantly she’s got an eye for a pass that is second to none,” she said. “She needs to be recognised as one of the best players in the world – because she is.”
Chelsea were in the driving seat from the moment Harder kicked off. Man United’s only hope of winning was if the Blues faltered, but with Chelsea supporters answering Hayes’ pleas to turn up in force to make the atmosphere feel like a Kingsmeadow home game, that never looked likely.
Reiten came up trumps on 18 minutes with a perfect cross to Sam Kerr, who headed home for the opener. Three minutes before half-time Reiten herself scored, taking advantage of the Royals’ scrappy play to nutmeg goalie Grace Moloney.
The dominance continued in the second half with Kerr putting the cherry on top of the cake in the 88th minute, converting after her initial shot had bounced back off the post from a Jelena Cankovic assist.
Bizarrely, the WSL title was declared by the Reading stadium announcer with a minute of normal time remaining… which must have been disheartening for the home players on the pitch.
At the final whistle, Chelsea’s players sprinted off to the dressing room to change into their familiar blue strip for the presentation, fireworks, streamers and photos.
Eriksson and Harder (known affectionately as “Mags and P” to Hayes) carried their beige match kits in plastic bags as they returned to the team coach to join the evening farewell party with their team-mates.
Which one will be missed most? Undoubtedly Harder, whose return from a long injury spell for the final couple of months of the season was crucial to a dazzling run of late form for the Blues, overhauling United and giving Chelsea the added cushion of a bumper goal difference.
Eriksson’s leadership has been second to none, but watching her being easily outpaced by Royals teenaged striker Madison Perry in a chase on the hour mark at Reading suggested it’s the right time for her to part company with a club she has now represented for six years.
Perry only made her home debut for the senior side last month. Eriksson turns 30 in September. Who will be Chelsea club captain next season, now that Eriksson has departed? The favourite is fellow Scandinavian defender Maren Mjelde, the Norwegian captain.
But first, there’s a well-earned breather before the Women’s World Cup starts in Australia and New Zealand on July 20. Hayes will be going away on holiday with five-year-old son Harry, although she’s not a great one for sizzling on beaches, and she hates ice cream! “It doesn’t agree with me,” she laughed.
Hayes predicts that Manchester United will find next season tough as they wrestle with the unfamiliar juggling act of seeing star players disappear away on international duties, and often having just a few hours from their return to assemble a team for a Sunday domestic match.
United now arguably pose the biggest challenge to Chelsea’s dominance. Remarkably, it was only in 2018 that United established a professional women’s team, after controversial owners the Glazer family disbanded the then Manchester United Ladies FC in 2005 on the grounds that it was a distraction from the core business, and wasn’t turning a profit!