Emma Hayes: Self-preservation, poetry and a manager under the microscope like never before

This is the way Emma Hayes’ FA Cup record ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

How else to begin, after all that has happened over the past two months, but with poetry? March started with dreams of a quadruple and will end with that halved to a double. Portentously, April brings a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. T.S. Eliot did warn that it was the cruellest month.

Manchester United’s first ever win over Chelsea has ended Hayes’ hopes of a fourth FA Cup in a row and a sixth overall. A quarter-final defeat by Everton in 2020 was the last time Chelsea lost in this competition, since which Hayes’ reputation has found itself burnished at almost every turn. There have been seven trophies since then, and an OBE, and commentary gigs with ITV that have sent Hayes to the mainstream, and the job with the USWNT, and Sam Kerr, and Lauren James, and Hall of Fame inductions and FIFA Best coach awards.

Those who have attended a decent chunk of Hayes’ press conferences over the past few years have almost seen it all from the league’s self-styled Renaissance woman. We have had meowing. We have had Emma Hayes: Attenborough Edition, via monologues on geese. We have had Hayes’ childlike excitement, ahead of the League Cup final in 2020, at playing at the City Ground and managing her team at “Cloughie’s home”: she was all set to wear a green shirt in homage to Brian Clough’s signature green jumper and yellow shorts until her mother contested that “green doesn’t go with blue”.

We have had moments of vulnerability, with Hayes apologising for her form after returning from the birth of her son, Harry. We have had Star Wars, and Toy Story, and advocacy, and promises to be passed out on a park bench somewhere with a bottle of gin to toast a fourth successive league title.

Then there have been the past few weeks.

First Hayes apologised for her comments on player-player relationships. Then there was the shove. The accusation of “male aggression” levelled at Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall. And the divisive choice to recite a poem — the final four lines of Robert Frost’s Choose Something Like a Star — when asked about it all two weeks later.

Some likened her to Eric Cantona. Others chose Mike Bassett. The BBC’s Ellen White and Rachel Brown-Finnis were among those wondering where Hayes’ apology was. Those who saw in Hayes a manager eager to distract from the fact she had escaped an FA charge felt this was a job well done.

The wider reaction, though, was less admiring. It felt like a rare misstep for a manager so adept at dealing with the media.

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Hayes strides away after clashing with Eidevall (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

A difficult Friday, then, became a bruising Sunday. It took 41 seconds for Manchester United to score the opener. For United’s second, Ella Toone’s turn literally left Melanie Leupolz on her backside. The sight of Erin Cuthbert and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd tracking Hannah Blundell and/or Leah Galton invoked images of a beleaguered security guard trying to corner an escapee or cat burglar. “OK, you got me,” Lisa Naalsund seemed to say, before disappearing through the trapdoor and materialising beyond the Chelsea defence.

United have never before made Chelsea look so unbalanced. By the end, Hayes’ body language betrayed a manager who knew the game was up: she met Fran Kirby’s poor touch at close-range with a resigned smile, and gave no real reaction to Ashley Lawrence winning a corner right at the death. She has been in the game long enough to know that, sometimes, the ball just does not go in.

The post-match press conference initially gave us a more guarded Hayes. She could not be persuaded to criticise the officiating. “It was our turn to be on the receiving end of the big referee calls today in the box. That happens.”

Should Chelsea have had a couple of penalties? “Yes, of course. But I can’t change that. I can’t alter it.” Is she not frustrated, having exited the cup as a result? “Of course — but you can’t do anything about those.”

On it continued, her answers clipped, to the point. Was April shaping up to finish with a big drop-off in results? In summary: “I’ll see at the end.” How did Lauren James do? In full: “I haven’t analysed it yet.” Will it be hard to rally the players after two disappointments so close together? In full: “Yeah. Everyone’s a competitor. Of course there’ll be disappointments.”

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Hayes’ frustration is clear on the touchline (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Later, she opened up: why does the women’s game have VAR for some games and not for others? The officials need more help. Niamh Charles had been baffled by some of the calls. When players can hear their own fans chanting about those decisions with the same bemusement they feel, it becomes more frustrating still.  That was more like Hayes’ usual script.

To say that Hayes’ star has risen over the past few years feels a little off: it is far too solitary a way of describing what Hayes’ trajectory has meant. She has become along the way, wittingly or otherwise, the face and spokesperson for the entire sport. Her platform is the biggest. Her words are the weightiest. Her thoughts travel furthest. “To help our officials, we have to have technology in the our game,” went her anguish over the penalties that never were. The decision to read the poem, however inadvisable, was as carefully chosen, as carefully weighted.

It is not uncharacteristic by that measure; the difference is how it landed.

This is Hayes’ reality, as the WSL’s most famous manager. Over the last few years, Hayes has criticised the widespread mythologising of her and her methods: the title of the leadership manual she co-authored, the audiobook Kill The Unicorn, means to debunk the myth that any leader is the chosen one who has all the answers to everything all the time. That is the role the world has mistakenly ascribed to Hayes as a manager who will speak publicly on battling endometriosis and life as a working mother and the myriad ways the women’s game is failing its players.

With the USWNT, given its long history of player activism, perhaps that burden might be shared a little more evenly.

On Sunday, Hayes chose to stop giving all the answers. This year will be the first time since 2005 that the FA Cup is won by a team other than Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City. Asked what this means for the wider health of the women’s game, Hayes replied that she didn’t really have an opinion.

Her fans, after all, sometimes have enough for everyone. They did not take kindly to her pointing out that, despite the defeat, “no one died” and that success this year would look like everyone “getting out alive”. Hayes has checked out, they said on social media; she is too focused on the U.S. to care about winning everything she’s won before.

It felt more, to me, like a shot at self-preservation by a manager working two jobs.

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Hayes consoles James after Chelsea’s loss to Manchester United (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Hayes has always alluded to the psychological drain of being a serial winner. Many admire Hayes’ ability to reinvent her side each season, but more impressive is tolerating the mental load of it all year after year after year.

Managers know there will be days like this. They should feel the pain as much as everyone else but not too deeply, and yearn for the thing they have won five times already with the desperation of the player experiencing it for the first time but the wisdom of the ones to whom it is old news, and weep and commiserate and cheer and toast when it can only hurt so much after all this time and all this life lived.

They have, in short, to be all things to all people at all times.

It makes sense for Hayes to highlight the lines “So when at times the mob is swayed / To carry praise or blame too far”. That does not mean that she deployed them at the right time on Friday.

This is not the most testing period of Hayes’ career by a long shot, but it is the most scrutinised. There are more eyes on her than ever, on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the past few weeks, she has become a more polarising figure than many would have anticipated.

She left the press conference to United fans, who spotted her through the glass doors, chanting ‘Hayes is packing up’. Those words won’t seriously wound a manager who has enjoyed enough days in the sun, as gruelling as this month has been for her team, but most of the WSL is intrigued by how Hayes will handle the balancing act.

Perhaps the lesson in all this — and the one Hayes wants everyone to take — is that she is human after all, as fallible and flawed as the rest of us.

(Top photo: Chelsea Football Club/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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