In 2013 Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, had itchy feet. Watching Wolfsburg beat Lyon at Stamford Bridge in the Women’s Champions League final, she turned to the chairman, Bruce Buck, and said: “It’ll be us one day, Bruce, it will be us, so give me time.”
Eight years later Hayes was brandishing her heart-rate monitor on Sunday to show the rollercoaster journey her body had been on as her team battled to a first final by beating Bayern Munich. As Chelsea clung on, with 16 minutes to play, the tie poised at 3-2, knowing a goal conceded would leave them needing two (because of away goals), the line illustrating Hayes’ heart rate spiked dramatically.
“I wanted today so badly,” she said. “I had to do everything to keep my emotions in check. I almost can’t even let the tears go.”
When Hayes joined Chelsea in 2012 they had finished sixth in back-to-back seasons. In 2013 they were seventh but every year since, bar a third-place finish in 2019, they have ended in the top two.
Three years on from that promise to Buck, Hayes was back at Stamford Bridge, this time in the dugout, having guided Chelsea into Europe for a second time in her third season in charge. The preceding year they had lost twice to Wolfsburg, 2-1 at home and 2-0 away, in the last 16. In west London, three goals from Wolfsburg’s Zsanett Jakabfi delivered a defeat that reminded Hayes of how far her side were from competing with Europe’s elite.
Eni Aluko would help earn a draw in Germany but the tie was gone. A year later Wolfsburg again got the better of Hayes’ side, 5-1 on aggregate, this time in the semi-finals. Then, in 2019, the multiple champions Lyon denied Chelsea a spot in the final. Across four seasons the Lyon-Wolfsburg axis that has dominated the tournament, winning nine titles between them in the last 10 years, gave Hayes the benchmark.
“When we played Wolfsburg and lost at Stamford Bridge I remember both Bruce and [former director of football] Michael Emenalo came up to me and said: ‘We’re going to support you to get there’, and then I started that build,” said Hayes.
“In the modern-day era, people might think nine years is a long time, but it’s not. Bruce Buck has been immense for me, he really has; he’s backed me the whole way. Marina [Granovskaia, a director] has supported us with the players we have brought in and I think our club and our board deserve huge credit for why we’re in the position we’re in.”
Hayes had spoken of the reasons for the slow power shift before the victory in both legs against Wolfsburg in this year’s quarter-finals. “Teams like Lyon and Wolfsburg been professional for so much longer,” she had said.
“So that advantage was built up over a number of years and you can’t make that up quickly, even if you turn professional. They’re so used to being at that stage of the competition again and again and again; that experience counts. On top of that the English clubs had to build their teams. We’re investing but that investment hasn’t been the same level as Lyon or PSG or Wolfsburg. In the past, they have always spent significantly more.”
Chelsea and fellow finalists Barcelona are the first newer-money giants to significantly close the gap on the German and French teams. Barcelona’s defeat by Lyon in the 2019 final gives them an edge in experience but Chelsea have a manager who has been here, as assistant to Vic Akers in 2007 when Arsenal became the first and only English team to triumph in Europe.
Win or lose, Hayes will be given time. She waited nine years to reach a final and if she has to wait a little longer to mastermind the victory, there can be no doubt she will.