Hayes is closest English football has come to another Sir Alex Ferguson

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Midway through a chat with her men’s counterpart at Chelsea, Emma Hayes awkwardly had to explain to Mauricio Pochettino that someone more important was ringing her.

It was Sir Alex Ferguson, who had heard about her decision to leave Chelsea and become the new U.S. women’s national team manager. Pochettino understood his place in the hierarchy, and Hayes picked up.

“He calls me from time to time, so I wasn’t surprised,” explained Hayes, whose first games in charge of USWNT will come in friendlies against South Korea on June 1 and June 4. “Anything he says to me I always take with such pride. He is a legend of the game and someone whose opinion I value and he has a love of America. We talked a little bit about that, a little bit about legacy, a little bit about leaving at the top. So there were wise words from him. I’m sure it won’t be the last phone call I get from him this season.”

Hayes’ managerial influences are widespread. Given the lack of investment in sports science focused on women’s football, she’s often had to look to other sports for inspiration to understand how to evolve and improve the women’s game. But perhaps her chief influence is Ferguson. This, in itself, shouldn’t come as a great surprise, considering Ferguson is the most successful manager in the history of English football and dominated from the period when Hayes’ teenage hopes of a playing career were ruined by injury, in the early 1990s, to the point where she became Chelsea manager in 2012.

But the curious thing is that, as a Ferguson disciple — and, more to the point, a very successful one — Hayes is pretty much unique. Ferguson’s former players who have gone into management have been only mildly successful. The next generation of young British managers tend to cite foreign coaches as their role models. It’s difficult to look at men’s English football and see many direct Ferguson influences.

In the women’s game, though, Hayes has continued his legacy, and when she became the first woman to receive the Football Writers’ Association tribute award earlier this year, Ferguson gladly appeared on screen to offer a glowing tribute.

The last half-decade in the English women’s can easily be likened to mid-1990s Premier League football: a European Championship on home soil, big improvements in television coverage, the move to modern stadiums and that golden period when suddenly the best players from across the world arrive. Amid those developments, Hayes has effectively been the Ferguson figure — adjusting better than others, staying one step ahead, and enjoying unparalleled success.

go-deeper

Football management essentially has two very different components. There is, to put it bluntly, the football and the management. There are those who understand the game on a deep level, but struggle to assert their authority and build a winning culture. On the other hand, there are also popular figures who get players onside but struggle with the technical side of the game.

To enjoy careers as successful as Ferguson and Hayes, you must tick both boxes, but they’re probably similar in that they’re naturally outstanding managers of individuals, knowing when to use the carrot and when to use the stick, but have often been questioned in terms of the footballing side of things.

Ferguson, for example, was often considered naive tactically when United initially struggled to make progress in Europe, and his habit of making strange selection decisions led to some supporters calling him ‘Tinkerbell’ for his constant tinkering, which was considered to do more harm than good. But gradually Ferguson became more comfortable tactically; in big games, he increasingly set up to stop opponents rather than to play an open game, with great success.

Similarly, Hayes generally gets glowing reports for her ability to lead individuals and cultivate a winning mentality, but was sometimes considered a bit of a back-to-basics, old-school manager, and was criticised for her tendency to leave out key players with little explanation. But that has always been a little unfair, and at times her tactical approach has worked excellently.

Take the way her sides have shuffled between a back three and a back four smoothly at times — specifically the 2021 FA Cup final, when it felt like her defenders were all playing in ‘false’ positions, prompting her opposition number Jonas Eidevall to hold up red and blue cards to his players at certain times, which referred to Chelsea’s shape. (Incidentally, it’s arguable that her stock has raised as much because of her spells as an ITV co-commentator as her managerial success. In an era when co-commentators are so rarely ex-managers, as was once the default, her ability to explain tactical concepts and coaching decisions has been a refreshing change.)

A more accurate observation is that neither Ferguson nor Hayes have been particularly concerned with a footballing philosophy, or on playing entertaining football for the sake of it. They are simply focused on winning, on doing what it takes from game to game.

There has been an extraordinary rewriting of Ferguson’s legacy; his United were rarely famed for their attractive football compared to their title rivals, and the entertainment came from the dramatic manner of their victories, which were often barely believable, rather than the finesse of their play. Part of United’s problem in replacing him has been the idea there was a grand stylistic tradition to replicate. But Ferguson changed his approach so often that he must have contradicted his own philosophy, if one ever existed, very regularly.

Similarly, while a specific style of play is easy to identify at other WSL clubs — Arsenal have always been more technical, Manchester City unashamedly want to play like their men’s side, Tottenham are focused on playing out from the back — Chelsea are more flexible. Often they’re more dangerous on the break than with patient possession play; City and Arsenal have the best pass-completion rates in the league, whereas Chelsea play the most long passes.

Hayes’ approach is less of a philosophy, and more based around getting the best from her side’s in-form attacker and using functional players to stop opponents. In the last five seasons, at various times it’s felt like her Chelsea style has been based around the driving runs of Fran Kirby, then the goals of Bethany England, briefly the guile of Pernille Harder, then the runs in behind of Sam Kerr, then the wing play of Guro Reiten, and more recently it’s often been the flair of Lauren James.

It’s more difficult to nail down what Hayes’ classic XI would be or a default style of play.


Hayes’ set-up has often focused on getting the best from her forwards, such as Kirby (Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Equally, in big matches, Hayes has been able to count upon reliable, versatile, hard-working players with several years of experience at the club. In major title showdowns involving Ferguson’s Manchester United, it was striking how often his key player would be Darren Fletcher, or John O’Shea, or Phil Neville. Not the most glamorous players, but always effective.

Similarly, at times it would have been difficult to say (until recently, perhaps) that any of Jess Carter, Niamh Charles, or Erin Cuthbert were undroppable, or had a clearly defined role in the side. They were ‘do-a-job’ players. But Hayes has improved them as individuals, year on year, and knows how to use them, game to game.

Both Ferguson and Hayes understood the need for clubs to dramatically expand their backroom staff, and not be solely based around the manager. Ferguson relied heavily on his assistants and did little coaching himself, while Hayes is regularly seen consulting with her coaching staff. Her emphasis upon ‘the team behind the team’ is clear, to the extent that her audiobook, Kill The Unicorn, is based on the need to move away from the concept of one person having all the answers.

The slight contradiction, though, is that because Ferguson and Hayes were the ones to build these wider teams from positions as old-school manager rather than first-team coach, replacing them becomes difficult.

In terms of legacy, both have encountered one frustrating final boss: Barcelona. Ferguson won two European Cups and desperately wanted to add a third, but was foiled in both the 2009 and 2011 finals by Pep Guardiola’s side. Hayes has never won the European Cup, reaching the final in 2021, when her side were thrashed by Barca, who also eliminated her side in the past two seasons. Barca are the ultimate example of a club with an obvious philosophy, which has been transferred from the men’s to the women’s side.

Hayes was left fuming after the second leg of Chelsea’s semi-final defeat this season, calling the sending-off of Kadeisha Buchanan the “worst decision in Women’s Champions League history”, which was probably unwise. This week, it was announced UEFA would not charge her for those comments. It rather brought to mind Ferguson’s final Champions League game as manager, when United lost at home to Real Madrid after Nani had been controversially dismissed. Ferguson didn’t fulfil his post-match media commitments, with his assistant Mike Phelan explaining that he was “too distraught”. UEFA fined him £8,500. In that sense, Hayes probably took the right decision to attend the press conference.

Snatching victories from the jaws of defeat was the main theme of Ferguson’s time at Manchester United. But it’s arguable his side never won a title in circumstances as unusual as Hayes’ Chelsea might this weekend.

After a 4-3 defeat at Liverpool earlier this month, Hayes had essentially given up on the title — or at least, that’s what she told the media. But the following weekend, Stina Blackstenius’ two late goals for Arsenal defeated Manchester City and let Chelsea back in, and led to the remarkable spectacle of Chelsea demolishing Bristol City 8-0 to give themselves a goal-difference advantage over City, having started the day with a seven-goal deficit. Hayes sent a paper message onto the pitch, reminding her players of the task.

So this weekend is a goal-difference shootout. City travel to Aston Villa, knowing they probably not only need to win but make up a two-goal disadvantage on Chelsea, who travel to FA Cup winners Manchester United.

If Hayes clinches yet another league title, it will be a fitting place to bow out, for the closest thing English football has seen to another Ferguson.

(Top photos: Ian Kington/AFP via Getty Images; Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)



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