Hayes has been speaking informally with Gareth Southgate

Credit: Action Images via Reuters

The conversation has ranged from the origins of her newly acquired black eye (a lively three-year-old son) to a desire to drive over her mobile phone as she recharges from a truly draining season when Emma Hayes delivers an unequivocal verdict on the most important skill in coaching.

“It’s people management,” says the Chelsea women’s manager. “It’s a profession of giving and there are many roles that you can serve in a player’s life: mentor, friend, teacher, guardian, confidante, inspiration. It’s tiring. It’s hard. But there is so much joy in giving back.”

It is a subject which leads naturally to Gareth Southgate who, whatever happens over the next month, has ensured that his football career is now rather better known for transforming how young players feel about representing England than a missed penalty at Euro ’96.

Hayes has got to know Southgate through an informal group of sports leaders who speak regularly to share their experiences and discuss best practice. And, wherever you stand on taking the knee, the issue is certainly an example of how modern management is about rather more than tactics and whether you can play Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden in the same team. (Hayes’ heart says yes but her head says no, incidentally). “If it was just the coaching, it would be a doddle,” she says. “That’s 10 percent. You’re like a CEO. It’s all encompassing. Sometimes I go home and I’m so spent.”

And so what has Hayes noticed about Southgate? “Great people skills. Great communicator. He relates to the players and has empathy.”

Hayes, then, believes that it was critical for Southgate and the players to stick to their beliefs over taking the knee, even if she thinks that some England fans will inevitably again boo the gesture. “It’s like with any petulance,” she says. “If I ask my child to be quiet during a mealtime he’ll scream louder. We all know that there is always going to be a handful who don’t represent the whole. It’s important that the players stick to their task.

“I thought Gareth wrote a wonderful statement. You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. The whole point of having an appreciation for what others have gone through is that you don’t really get it, you don’t really know, you don’t really understand. But I do fully appreciate that we have to shift attitudes, mindsets and behaviours. You have to recognise that for the players it is really important.” 

Empathy, says Hayes, was also the prevailing quality that she needed during a rollercoaster season. Chelsea won three domestic trophies, including her fourth Super League title, and progressed to the Champions League final but the experience of then losing 4-0 is something she is still processing. “The game was over in minutes,” she says. “If we played them 10 times I don’t think it would happen again. When we went 3-0 down, I said to myself, ‘I will coach to the end and make sure they hear me’. It’s easy to be there when you are winning.

“Defeat is so vital – you take the learnings. We were disappointed but I can’t be too disappointed because we had a great year. The sacrifices that players made were immense. Some dealt with deaths, and couldn’t get home for funerals. Some missed really profound family moments.

“It was the toughest year of my coaching. I had to show that I cared, listened and supported them… but it never feels enough when you manage a squad of 23 players and 20 staff.”

And what about the manager herself?

“I have to give myself the breathing space,” says Hayes. “I jot down my reflections as and when they come and get clear in my head. I can’t say I’m fresh now but I know we will, as we have always done, find another level in ourselves.”

Hayes also wants to speak out on the wider issue of coaching and its vital wider importance in the nation’s pandemic recovery. One of her proudest achievements was forming the Camden and Islington Youth League and she still derives vast happiness from walking around Regents Park and seeing as many as 3,000 children playing every Saturday. 

“We talk about good teachers but it’s also important to have a good coach,” she says. “It is something we must invest in.” And her advice to any prospective coach? “Make sure they keep going back. Talk to your children about what they did well, what you enjoyed about watching. Engage in the relative successes, the progress, the journey as opposed to the result and questions like: Did you win? Did you score? Which we all sometimes do. And, as parents, recognise that you need to let coaches do the job.”

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