‘I’m well again’: Emma Hayes on hidden trauma, ADHD and Chelsea upheaval

Emma Hayes is serene in a small bungalow in Cobham as, amid the uncertainty, one era sweeps into another at Chelsea’s heavily monitored training ground. Two weeks ago, a short walk from here, Thomas Tuchel was sacked by Chelsea’s owners the morning after his 100th game at the club. Hayes had just passed 10 years in charge of Chelsea Women, in a reign made remarkable by five Women’s Super League titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups.

The second half of her career at Chelsea coincided with the arrival of her son, Harry, born only half an hour before Hayes gave birth to his twin brother, Albie, who had died inside her after 28 weeks. Now it feels as if she has been released from four years of hidden trauma.

Hayes, an engagingly open woman, has reflected on her grief and loss while also expressing sympathy for Tuchel. The 45-year-old has spoken about her belief that she has ADHD and remembered the days when her dad told her to “change the face of women’s football”. Hayes has suggested how best to capitalise on England’s Euro 2022 triumph before switching to fluent Spanish when revealing her “dream job” in football.

These fascinating insights are offered on an afternoon when, glowing with energy, Hayes says: “I had an off-season taking in life and enjoying anything from a walk to a drink. It’s no surprise this is the freshest I’ve felt. I always find a way to read, to study, to be interested. But this summer my study was life. I’ve also reached a point in my career where I’m really enjoying it. I’ve had years where I didn’t but, now, I love the work. There’s a coming together of a football model I’ve been working on my whole career. All the jigsaw pieces are in sync and there’s a lovely energy to the team where it’s a given that we’ll keep competing.”

Hayes is the best manager in the WSL and as the new season begins, she hopes to steer Chelsea to a fourth successive title. “I’m well again,” she says. “I feel the best I’ve felt since before I gave birth because the last four years I haven’t been right. When I knew I was only going to deliver one live baby, I hadn’t actually contemplated I still had to deliver two. I just needed to get Harry into this world healthy. But I realise now why women take a year off work after child-birth because I didn’t prepare for the significant hormonal, physical, emotional challenge.

“My biggest regret was coming back to work after eight weeks. It’s nothing to do with the club because how do you step away from your job as a football manager for a year? What if they bring in an interim coach and after eight months they say: ‘We’ll stick with him or her.’ The club would have given me maximum support but it felt an impossible position.”

Hayes looks wounded as she remembers the desolation of losing Albie. “That moment will never leave me and I feel sad for Harry, who doesn’t have a brother. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt now but I accept it. I will still have a cry about it every birthday and Christmas. That’s normal. But for those first four years I was just trying to survive. I felt exhausted. But I woke up when Harry turned four this May. That was the first time I thought: ‘I’m back. I’m back!’”

She is back, too, in the madness of football which is so evident in the men’s team at Chelsea. Since 2012, when Hayes joined and brought stability and structure, there have been 10 male managers, including caretakers. The managerial churn took its latest twist when Tuchel was sacked after 20 months in which Chelsea won the Champions League.

Thomas Tuchel and Emma Hayes with their trophies during the 2021 Ballon d’Or awards.
Thomas Tuchel and Emma Hayes with their trophies during the 2021 Ballon d’Or awards. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

“I’m gutted,” Hayes tells me before Graham Potter replaced Tuchel. “I love Thomas. He’s a great man, a great coach with a brilliant history, albeit short here, who’s had to go through lots of change. It’s disappointing and I’m super sad for him but Thomas will thrive anywhere.” Did she and Tuchel talk deeply about football? “Yes, we made time but it’s fleeting when you can grab an hour to do that. We had a really good relationship.”

Hayes stresses how much she has missed working with the previous regime and, especially, the former chairman Bruce Buck. “Bruce has been humongous for me. I miss him already. He’s an amazing Chelsea guy because, as an American, he really understood the women’s game and pushed me to keep pushing the club. I always felt really trusted by him and Marina Granovskaia [the former director who handled contracts and transfers] so I was devastated when they left.

“Whenever there’s change, there’s apprehension. But during the takeover [when Roman Abramovich sold Chelsea to a consortium led by the American billionaire Todd Boehly], Bruce said: ‘It’s going to be different but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be worse.’ I say to my players all the time: ‘I want you to be open to change.’ I had to do that myself.”

Has she spoken much to Boehly? “Yes, I speak to Todd quite regularly. The interactions I’ve had with our current ownership group make me think they are going to be champions for women’s football. I am super excited because they can drive women’s football in this country to a new level.”

Hayes has been such a revelation as a coach that some Chelsea fans and pundits, including Pat Nevin, suggested Boehly should have considered her as a replacement for Tuchel. Hayes is committed to Chelsea Women, and she usually hates being asked about managing a men’s team, but it is striking how she answers when I ask what has frustrated her most.

“The Sky Sports headline which suggested I said it was an insult to coach AFC Wimbledon. That pissed me off the most. I’ve since told Sky how fucking dangerous it is to put out such a statement. I did not say it was an insult to coach AFC Wimbledon. I referred to my own players and said: ‘It’s not an insult to coach these women.’ I was honouring the women I represented, and no amount of money was going to take me away from that.

“The AFC Wimbledon chairman wrote to [Chelsea Women] criticising me. That was a terrible misjudgment by him because we share their stadium. I deal with that question all the time about the men’s game but it was particularly upsetting Sky Sports ran a headline which would cause lots of damage subsequently for any woman in that situation. Sky have shifted since they’ve taken on coverage of the women’s game but I understand that anything I say is clickbait.”

Hayes shrugs and says: “Simon Jordan said the reason women can’t coach male players is because they’re not used to coaching in front of large audiences. I thought it was the most ridiculous comment I’d ever heard.”

The summer’s European Championships, often played in front of vast and packed stadiums, shredded Jordan’s claim as female coaches and players displayed skill and courage, tactical acumen and technical brilliance. But, to grow women’s football after the Euro boom, Hayes believes the game needs to cut ties with the Football Association. She hopes the Premier League will have seen the potential in running an equivalent competition for women.

“I would be shocked if there isn’t serious interest from them or another independent body. My preference is the Premier League because of their expertise of running a league with a global impact. Everyone’s looking at England and we have to seize the opportunity. The longer we stay in the hands of the FA, the longer it will take for us to achieve our aims.”

Emma Hayes with her son Harry at the presentation of the 2022 WSL trophy.
Emma Hayes with her son Harry at the presentation of the 2022 WSL trophy. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Hayes has felt compelled to speak out ever since her dad instructed her to lead the transformation in women’s football. “In the mid-1990s, as a father of three in the middle of Camden Town, he told one of his daughters she’s going to change the face of women’s football and it’s up to me to do that. I was only 20 and had been on a coaching course where I’d done my B licence and had a really stuffy time. He said: ‘You need to go to America. You’ve got to get out of here. Come back when you’re ready to change the narrative.’

“He was adamant it was my job to blow it up: ‘You’re the one who’s got to speak about the officials and administrators. You have to set the professional standards and expectations.’ But if you speak up as a woman you’re ‘outspoken, difficult, prickly’. I had to take some abuse.”

Hayes smiles. “I’ve always been grateful for the trust and the freedom my parents gave me. They knew I don’t do very well when I’m stifled and I’ve always thought that would have been my biggest challenge if I’d worked for the FA. I wouldn’t have coped with that whereas working for Chelsea there was freedom and pressure. I’ve always enjoyed pressure.”

She pauses thoughtfully. “There is definitely another side of me and football has allowed me to stay on top of my ADHD. I think being a football manager and having to manage so many different things keeps my brain in a great place.”

Does she have ADHD? “Our performance coach at Chelsea is sure that I do. I’ve never been diagnosed, but it makes complete sense to me. But I’ve surrounded myself throughout my career with people who can help where I fall short. I’m a major introvert. When I leave [the training ground] I just want to go home and be quiet, in peace. I’ve always been like that. And because of the extrovert behaviour required in my job, because I expend so much energy here, the minute I leave it I just need peace.”

Has becoming a mother changed her as a manager? “One hundred per cent. My son has unbelievable emotional intelligence and he’s extremely sensitive. I’ve got so much better at managing players by learning about my son and vice versa. By learning about him and how to manage him, I’ve got better at dealing with certain players. How do you manage people who are not like you? Or people that you don’t really understand? This is a fascinating area that is a key focus of mine.”

Would Hayes enjoy coaching England one day? “I’ve enjoyed watching England as a fan and as a club manager and the older I get I think it’s best to never say never about any of these jobs. But my dream in life has been to coach Spain.”

She slips into Spanish for the next 15 seconds. “I speak fluent Spanish and have a degree in Spanish. So my dream job has always been to coach Spain. Coaching England? Never say never …”

Hayes is full of such surprises and revelations and she smiles again. “Did I think I’d have 10 years at Chelsea? No. I might have another 10 years here and I wouldn’t be surprised. I genuinely love my job. I just feel so grateful. I feel lucky. I’m like: ‘How have I managed to forge a career in the world I love most?’”

source: theguardian.com