Emma Hayes knew something was wrong. The Chelsea manager had learned to cope, but she could no longer hide her pain. Her body had stopped fighting.
Standing in the tunnel at Prenton Park ahead of her team’s first match of last season against Liverpool, Hayes confessed to opposite number Matt Beard: ‘I don’t want to go there.’
Beard arranged for a bed to be placed in a private room so Hayes could rest. Somehow she found the strength to get her team through that match.
In her own words, Hayes, 46, knew throughout the second half that Chelsea needed a goal but did nothing about it. “All I could think was, ‘I’m going to lose more than this game if I’m not careful.’
Two days later, Hayes told her players that she needed a hysterectomy and needed time off.
Chelsea boss Emma Hayes did not want to take charge against Liverpool last season due to pain
Somehow she found the strength to get her team through that match before undergoing emergency surgery two days later
Hayes had a five-and-a-half-hour operation and missed six Chelsea games that season
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After the five-and-a-half-hour operation, Hayes was told she would likely have had a stress-induced heart attack within five years if she had continued to struggle in “survival mode.”
Hayes missed six games. General manager Paul Green and assistant Denise Reddy took control and won every match. In 11 years as Chelsea boss, Hayes has built a machine that keeps running no matter who is behind the wheel.
The story of her emergency hysterectomy – complicated by chronic endometriosis – is one of many details in Hayes’ audiobook, Kill the Unicorn, which provides a fascinating insight into her management and leadership style.
The title is derived from the concept of a head coach or leader who is seen as a “magical being who can solve any problem.”
Hayes says, “We have to kill the unicorn. All leaders make bad decisions at some point in their careers because they are human. None of us have a crystal ball. Maybe it’s best not to believe the hype.’
There is hype surrounding Hayes because of her success: a total of fourteen trophies since 2012 have drawn comparisons with serial winner Pep Guardiola, manager of Manchester City. On Sunday, Hayes’ team will begin the defense of their Women’s Super League title for the fifth season in a row. She is one of the best managers this country has ever produced.
There is a lot of hype surrounding the 46-year-old due to her success at Chelsea
Chelsea showed their dominance last season when they won their third WSL title in a row
With a total of fourteen trophies won, Hayes is compared to serial winner Pep Guardiola
What drives Hayes? Family is one part. In 2017, Hayes became mother to Harry, who she credits with making her a better coach. But her early management skills were developed during childhood. Her upbringing was built around hard work.
When Hayes completed her A-levels, she worked for her father, Sid, getting up at 5am every day to make 500 baguettes and sausage rolls for his company in Covent Garden. She has learned never to take anything for granted. Hayes’ father died earlier this month. He played a big role in her football career and it will be an emotional moment when she steps out at Stamford Bridge for her first match without him on Sunday.
When Hayes arrived at Chelsea in 2012, the players were part-time and Carly Telford was captain. They were only allowed to enter the men’s training grounds before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.
“She came in with all these great ideas and big plans,” Telford told Mail Sport. “She said, ‘We’re going to release a lot of players. Change, wake up.” I thought, “This is going to be cool to be a part of”… except I was one of the players who released them (in December 2013). That was my first encounter with Emma’s brutality.’
Telford, 36, now the club’s commercial player and relations manager, returned to Chelsea four years later and won nine trophies with Hayes.
‘We always remained on good terms. She took me under her wing and developed me as a player and as a person.’ But Hayes sees her players as people first and foremost. “She knew I had lost my mother during the time I was with her, she took care of me,” Telford says. “It’s a winning environment, but it’s very human. The girls have a lot of respect for her.’
Former goalkeeper Carly Telford got a taste of Hayes’ ferocity when she was moved in 2013
Hayes’ mission was to eradicate the inferiority complex after Arsenal won their ninth consecutive title in 2012
Hayes shows her team motivational videos and gives them books to read. There are also psychological methods. Hayes remembers making her players wear Arsenal shirts during training. She had to do something ‘grim’ to eradicate the inferiority complex after the Gunners won their ninth consecutive title in 2012.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a source of inspiration and has become a sounding board for advice. Still, there are some things she can’t think about. “As a woman, I have different challenges,” Hayes says. ‘I can’t call Sir Alex and ask how he deals with his players’ periods.’
Hayes’ passion for developing expertise in women’s bodies saw Chelsea become the first club to use a specialist tracking app to tailor training to players’ menstrual cycles while exploring the links between hormonal changes and injuries in the to keep an eye on.
It’s no coincidence that none of their players have suffered an ACL injury since 2017. Speaking at a FIFA convention this summer, Hayes explained that staffers who come from men’s sports don’t have any interaction with her players for at least six weeks. until they have ‘removed their own prejudices’. “They need to learn about women’s bodies, they need to learn about the differences in the women’s game. As women we are not small men.’
Hayes surrounds herself with people she can trust. Reddy and Green have been crucial to her success. Hayes says she and Green are “wired differently.” “I’ll tell him I want to go to the moon, he’ll tell me the rocket hasn’t been built yet.”
Denise Reddy (right) and Paul Green (left) have been crucial to Hayes’ success at Chelsea
Reddy has been with Chelsea since 2020, but her relationship with Hayes dates back to their days at Chicago Red Stars in 2010. In Kill the Unicorn, Hayes reveals that she was fired from a Starbucks. She called Reddy, her assistant, to break the news and told her to take the manager’s job if it was offered to her. A few hours later, Reddy picked up Hayes, her car full of belongings. She had resigned on the spot and cleared her desk in what Hayes describes as “an act of deep loyalty.”
If Hayes is looking for you, it’s hard to say no. “You immediately fall in love with her and her mentality,” new signing Catarina Macario tells Mail Sport.
“She is a very passionate individual. She has a tough love for her players, something that brings out the best in you. But she will also give you compliments, the little things when necessary.’
There have been challenges. In March last year, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the British government as part of the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Hayes’ team were due to play West Ham live on Sky Sports later that day.
Her book explains: ‘The reaction from the players as they gathered for that evening’s match was understandably immediate: “What the hell is going on?”
‘My message to the team was: ‘I know this is a terrible situation. Stand up straight. Don’t be ashamed. You have a fan base, families, a badge to play for.”’ Chelsea won 4-1.
Chelsea had to play live against West Ham on Sky a day after Roman Abramovich was punished
Hayes has backed herself to succeed in men’s football as she waits for the right opportunity
When Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly visited Hayes at her home, she was impressed with his vision, but it wasn’t going to come easy. Boehly stayed for three hours and left with four separate presentations on his laptop.
The question Hayes has grown tired of answering is whether she will work in the men’s game. ‘Could I do it? Without a doubt,” Hayes said. ‘Would I do it? That depends on the nature of the opportunity.’
She has had offers, a championship club and a lower league team. Neither was right.
The day will come when Hayes moves on, whether it be to a new role in the women’s game, the men’s game or retirement – but that is hard to imagine. Chelsea is Emma Hayes, just like Emma Hayes is Chelsea.
“You’ll find me tomorrow in North London on a park bench with a bottle of gin,” Hayes said after her side won the WSL title last season.
She understands why people find her recognizable. “I’ve never tried to be anything or anyone that I’m not,” Hayes says. ‘In my heart I’m still the girl from the Curnock Street estate in Camden.’