FOX Sports Insider
You’d think Emma Hayes has been around soccer long enough that her leadership philosophy couldn’t be neatly summed up with one single phrase. You’d be wrong.
“No one wants to work for an assh—,” the incoming United States women’s national team coach said earlier this month – and that – plus a bunch of accompanying beliefs, doctrines and convictions, is at the core of everything she does.
Hayes is no soft touch, quite the opposite. The six-time winner of England’s Women’s Super League with Chelsea is unapologetically uncompromising, appreciating that the harsh realities of having to cut, drop or bench players leaves little room for sentiment.
And yet, with a blueprint that centers around the thinking that players will respond to even the toughest treatment as long as unshakable principles of fairness and decency sit beneath, Hayes has thrived to the point where she was the obvious choice for the biggest job in women’s soccer. She will take over officially after Chelsea completes its current English campaign.
[Carli Lloyd: Emma Hayes is ‘the perfect candidate’ to coach the USWNT]
Under her stewardship, the USWNT is about to enter arguably the most interesting period in its storied history. Following last summer’s round of 16 World Cup failure in Australia and New Zealand, the four-time world champion and four-time Olympic gold medal-winning program is heading into the unknown.
A fascinating insight into Hayes’ thought process was provided last week when the coach was presented with the prestigious Football Writers Association Tribute Award, which has a list of prior recipients including current England men’s coach Gareth Southgate, legendary club leaders Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, plus iconic players like Pele, David Beckham and George Best.
Hayes made a speech on Jan. 21 before more than 500 guests at London’s Landmark hotel, where she spoke movingly about the journey that took her from life in 1980s England, where women’s soccer was still treated as an afterthought, to the pinnacle of the sport.
“I’ve always looked at my role as an opportunity to tell a narrative and work together to build the picture for possibilities for scores for girls and women,” Hayes said. “[They] hopefully can see what people like myself and players do, and they aspire to be the very things I never got the opportunity to be. I didn’t have any female role models apart from my mum – and mum, you’re the best one anyway.
“I remember the moments. I aspired to be [former England men’s midfielder] Glenn Hoddle growing up, because you certainly couldn’t be [modern women’s players] Fran Kirby or Carly Telford. I couldn’t even believe that [opportunity] was there, to be seen. The first real role models in the women’s game were the U.S. women’s national team and, of course, I will be absolutely delighted come the end of the year to get the chance to lead a wonderful football nation.”
USWNT beat China 3-0, as the Emma Hayes era begins
Speeches at such occasions often amount to little more than a bunch of thank yous and a handful of platitudes. This one was different. Hayes spoke with depth, humor and emotion, and left those in attendance with no doubt that she intends to turn around a U.S. program in dire need of an uplift, with an approach that combines elite people management and the required steeliness.
Hayes received a rousing round of applause when first taking the podium and kicked things off with a zinging joke – “I hope my funeral’s as good as this” – and had the audience in the palm of her hand from there.
“There was a lot of warmth in the room,” FWA president and renowned soccer journalist and author John Cross told me via telephone. “There was so much respect and admiration for what she has done before she goes off to take on this new challenge.
“She is clearly a very humble person but she knows what it takes to be great. When you talk to people in the game, they say she reminds them of [Manchester United icon] Sir Alex Ferguson. She is very strong, very single-minded, in control, wants to take charge, and accepts the responsibility that comes with that.”
Last week’s occasion had extra meaning for Hayes. When she was a girl, her father, who died last year, earned extra cash selling tickets outside stadiums. She remembers accompanying him to the Landmark when dropping off tickets for wealthy American clients. While there, she would think how nice it must be to stay in such a posh place, not necessarily expecting it to ever happen.
“I can sit here and see all those great achievements, but trust me, there were millions of setbacks and failures and millions of days, strung out, tired, a lot of setbacks, a lot of crying,” she said.
“[There were] a lot of great people that helped guide me there and took me to the most amazing football club in Chelsea, and I’ve had 11-plus years being a part of a family and building a culture and an infrastructure and hopefully an influence on an industry to expect the very best for girls and women and I wouldn’t change a single day.
“The challenging times you have as a coach and an athlete, it is not always rosy. There are tough moments, cutting players, selling them, benching them, but I have always wanted to do it with a degree of humanity because I think it is important. No one wants to work for an assh—, it’s true. We have a choice. And nothing gives me more pride than watching these women what they are beyond their football careers and seeing the leaders they have become.”
[Emma Hayes has already won over USWNT: ‘Emma will take us there’]
Hayes’ first huge challenge will be in the Paris Olympics, and she will only have a short lead-up time between taking over and beginning the Games campaign. The rest of women’s soccer has improved dramatically and the days when the USWNT can routinely be expected to dominate every time are gone.
Yet with Hayes at the helm, given her habit of success and her strength of character, the window may stay open a little longer.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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