Chelsea hand Hayes the perfect send-off with rout to seal WSL title

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MANCHESTER — Every fairytale needs a happy ending and Emma Hayes got hers at Chelsea. A 6-0 thrashing of Manchester United at Old Trafford marked the perfect send-off for the stalwart manager with a fifth-consecutive Women’s Super League (WSL) title as she prepares to ride into the sunset and take charge of the USWNT this summer.

After 12 years of success, it looked like her story would end in the worst way possible: trophyless. Having lost the Conti Cup final to Arsenal, crashed out of the FA Cup against United in the semifinals, and failed to hold a first-leg lead to fall 2-1 to Barcelona on aggregate in the Champions League semifinals, the WSL title also looked set to slip through Hayes’ clutches after a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool two weeks ago.

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But there is always a late plot twist and in what has arguably been the Blues’ most tumultuous season — plagued by injuries, poor performances, and losses — an 8-0 win over Bristol City, coupled with a 2-1 defeat for rivals Manchester City at Arsenal the same day, put top spot back in their hands on goal difference.

Ahead of the final matchday, Hayes bade a glassy-eyed farewell in her final prematch news conference. It was not how she would have hoped the season would go, yet she stated that she would not change a thing and told her players to play with freedom and under no pressure. She also said she would not be watching what City were doing. In the end, there was simply no need to.

City needed to beat Aston Villa by three goals and hope Chelsea would not win at United. But it didn’t take long for Chelsea to take control as they made a statement of intent from the get-go, scoring through Mayra Ramírez inside the opening two minutes and again six minutes later as Johanna Rytting Kaneryd skipped away to slot past Mary Earps. Hayes’ celebrations for each goal were emphatic, with elation etched across her face.

Chelsea striker Sam Kerr, who was ruled out for the season following an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in January, was up on her feet in the dugout cheering and celebrating as well. But it felt more than just celebrating goals; it felt as if the Australia international was revelling in the fact that her manager would get the send-off she so richly deserved.

Ironically it was the player signed as Kerr’s replacement who helped Chelsea get over the line. Hayes brought in Ramirez in the January window for a then-world record fee of €500,000, but the Colombia international initially struggled following a run of injuries (missing the key UWCL semifinal second leg) and had only managed one league goal in her six games to date.

But here she was nearly unstoppable. After scoring a powerful header for the opener, Ramirez outpaced Millie Turner with a sensational run down the right and drew Earps to her at the near post before cutting the ball across the box for an unmarked Sjoeke Nüsken to slot home the third on 44 minutes. Then, just before half-time, Ramirez bagged the fourth as she ran through a static defence to fire into the net.

If United thought they could get back into the game in the second half, that was erased inside two minutes as Melanie Leupolz capitalised on a comedy of errors in their defence to make it 5-0 and the die was cast.

At the 70-minute mark, chants of “Emma, what’s the score?” were met with Hayes grinning and sticking her hand with five fingers up into the air, a moment that encapsulated the joy and celebration of the day. The Blues still had time to add a sixth via all-time top scorer Fran Kirby, on as a substitute in her last game after a nine-year career at the club, to score her final goal (No. 116). And all that was left was to celebrate.

City’s 2-1 win over Villa meant nothing as Chelsea lifted the title for the seventh time due to their superior goal difference (+7). It was a ruthless, clinical, and dominant display from a side who set a record for the most goals in a WSL season (71). United were poor, no doubt fatigued after their exertions in the FA Cup final win last weekend, but there was no stopping Hayes’ team.

“It’s pretty special,” Chelsea captain Millie Bright told Sky Sports. “When half the country write you off, we always had a monster mentality. We got given a second chance but you have to take it. I think the atmosphere is incredible, we had to have 10 out of 10 performances. The players were impressive.”

It takes a special mentality and a special coach to face adversity like Chelsea have this season and turn it into a driving force. With all eyes on them once Hayes’ exit was announced in November, it has been a whirlwind of emotions.

“It’s been an emotional week, probably a rollercoaster seven months,” Hayes told the BBC afterwards. “Staying on top of your own emotion is really tricky. I’m just relieved it’s over.”

At times, many questioned whether the team had lost faith in the manager; some even wondered if this would be the end of the domination she had unleashed over the past five seasons. But she has taught this Chelsea team well and they knew how to win when it mattered most. Once the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, the ground was filled with chants of “We love you, Emma” — a testament to the impact and legacy of the beloved manager.

“I picked a team of leaders from the beginning,” she told Sky Sports. “It was essential we had the emotional maturity for a stadium as fitting as this. I can’t say it is my most enjoyable, but it has been the toughest, for that reason probably the sweetest. I am so relieved it is over.

“I have great memories, listening to the fans, the connection with the players. I haven’t got any more to give, I know that much. The hardest thing to do is five in a row as people take their eye off the ball. My legacy is winning while building a team for the future.” Hayes leaves Chelsea as one of the best managers in the world. She has shaped women’s football in England, has spoken up when others did not, and has taken the club to new heights, forcing her rivals to evolve to keep pace.

It was not the fairytale season she would have imagined when fighting for four trophies, but a ruthless 6-0 win to seal yet another WSL title was the perfect way to sum up her tenure. She will be missed.

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