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Chelsea on the brink of history in Emma Hayes' final game

Emma Hayes celebrating with a WSL title

As Chelsea Women began the 2012/13 season away to Doncaster Belles, the club was a world away from the side which hopes to make English football history this afternoon.


Unlike the men’s side, fresh from winning an unlikely first Champions League, Chelsea Women were part-time, lacking the storied history of their male equivalents and gaining a reputation as also rans, bridesmaids but never quite the bride.


Yet as Emma Hayes stepped into the Chelsea dugout for the first time, few could have predicted the ride the club were to embark on with the appointment of the former Arsenal assistant.


Ahead of her final game before taking up the role of US Women’s National Team, the Chelsea boss reflected: “The journey we have been on is incredible, to think of where we were and to where we have got to.


“People forget that yes, we were Chelsea, but we were part-time and had to build it from the ground up.”


Six WSL titles and five FA Cups later, Hayes has established herself as one of the most well-known and well-respected figures in football.


Not women’s football; football.


It is fitting then, that the most successful manager in the history of the WSL should end her tenure at Old Trafford, the home of the most successful manager in the Premier League.


As Chelsea take to the field this afternoon, hoping to secure Hayes and Chelsea, a mind-boggling fifth consecutive league title, there will be reminders of that first game in South Yorkshire to remind Hayes of the journey she is close to finishing.


In her way that day as she will today be England’s number 1 Mary Earps, who lined up on that day as a young 19-year-old hoping to make her way in the game.


Most fittingly, Hayes will name the Doncaster number 9 from that day as her captain, as Mille Bright, who has grown to be one of the most-respected defenders in the modern game, will look to drive her side over the line following one of the closest title races in years.


Chelsea go into the game top of the league on goal difference, with a two-goal advantage over rivals Manchester City.


It is a position Chelsea could not have envisioned two weeks ago as a shock defeat away to Liverpool, on the back of a brutal two months of fixture congestion, looked to have gifted City their second WSL crown.


A crestfallen Hayes conceded defeat in the post-match interview only for City throw away a 1-0 lead against Arsenal a week later with two late goals, to bring Chelsea back from the brink.


Was the concession an ingenious use of mind-games? Not according to Hayes: “It genuinely wasn’t.


“I thought from that point on, having been in that position, City would get the job done.


“If you had looked at the odds of Chelsea being in this position at 88 minutes in that Arsenal game, they would have been long.”


But City didn’t and Chelsea rarely need a second invite. They responded later that night, thumping Bristol City 8-0, a scoreline crucial in their current goal difference advantage.


Hayes has answered questions for much of the season regarding her impending departure, as the season has resembled something more akin to a popular band’s farewell tour, stopping in every city for one last hurrah.


Hayes said: “The pressure it has put on the players has been huge.


“They have had to carry around this boulder on their shoulders of not just winning but winning to give me the perfect send off and it is a lot for them to carry.


“But the players have been superb, I cannot credit them enough.”


The farewell tour has allowed fans across the country to see Hayes’ team in the flesh for one last time.


Unlike in the men’s game, allegiances in the WSL don’t tend to descend from tribalism to outright hatred, allowing followers of other clubs to recognise and thank Hayes for her role in delivering the game to where it is today.


Their penultimate game away to Tottenham Hotspur, saw chants of “Emma Hayes, you’ll miss PG Tips”, with the wit and ingenuity of supporters earning a laugh from the dugout.


“Listen, I’ve lived in America before, I know how to get good teabags don’t you worry, you just have to find the English store in whatever city you’re in.


“Those fans were out to make me giggle and they earned it.”


And so, all roads lead to Manchester. Chelsea know that a win should be enough, providing that any City win doesn’t see a swing in goal difference of three or more.


The season has been a rollercoaster, where a potential quadruple fell apart in the space of a fortnight with varying degrees of controversy. It has tested her player-management, her trust in youth and leadership in adversity yet her young side have fought through and not been found wanting.


Hayes says that she loves this time of the season, the time where everything matters, and nothing can be left on the table. If Chelsea do get over the line, that table will be bare, save for a trophy won after the hardest fought of hard-fought wins, but then, isn’t that Hayes’ way?


Whilst their fight on four fronts might have left them dreaming of more, a fifth successive league title, will take its place in English football history as a feat not only of managerial prowess but underlined with a relentless desire to succeed and an ability to connect with and care for a squad of athletes with varying needs and challenges.


Her legacy will not be defined at Old Trafford, a silver medal will not sour her spell in charge, but victory, will place her undeniably in the pantheon of modern greats.


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