Since Chelsea’s Emma Hayes was linked to the AFC Wimbledon vacancy, the age-old comparison between men’s and women’s football has been regurgitated. But why would Hayes swap being top of her game for a lowly men’s club, and what does the debate reveal about our sport, asks Rich Laverty.
Fans of women’s football are no strangers to endless comparison between the men’s and women’s game.
This week, when Chelsea manager Emma Hayes was linked with the vacant AFC Wimbledon post in Sky Bet League One, that old chestnut reared its head again – from a link that was probably nothing more than rumour, based on the two clubs once sharing a stadium.
Hayes came out in typically bullish, honest, and incredibly refreshing style when speaking to the media on Tuesday. She asked the question on my and others’ lips: why would anybody think women’s football is a step down from the men’s football league?
Naturally, reactions were split between those who loyally watch and cover the women’s game, and those who have probably never watched a game in their lives and possibly aren’t even aware of Hayes’ managerial successes.
Whatever the boring comparisons are between two sides of the sport – which should never really be compared in the first place – there is one simple fact. Hayes is in a great position and has zero reason at this point in her career to go into the men’s game – even if she does at one stage in her career receive such an offer.
The women’s game is thriving in its own right, and Hayes is at the top of it. While AFC Wimbledon currently sit in the League One relegation zone, Chelsea are top of the Barclays Women’s Super League, on the verge of a second consecutive League Cup final, and in with a decent chance of threatening Lyon’s European throne.
Beyond that, Chelsea now have their Kingsmeadow stadium all to themselves after AFC Wimbledon moved to Plough Lane last year. They have their own building and training area at Cobham. On the pitch they have an array of international superstars who very few clubs anywhere in the world can claim to match in terms of quality and honours.
Every morning, Hayes steps onto the training pitch with several of the current best players in the world, including the player she paid a record transfer fee for in Pernille Harder. Beyond the Dane, there is Aussie superstar Sam Kerr, Asia’s finest Ji So-yun, her mercurial captain Magdalena Eriksson, as well as homegrown talent such as Fran Kirby, Millie Bright, Beth England, plus one of North America’s brightest talents in Jessie Fleming, among endless others.
Hayes and her side are currently on the longest unbeaten run in the history of the FA WSL. They look well set to defend their title for the first time, and to add to the three titles Hayes has already won during her time in charge: four including the 2017 Spring Series.
Add to that two FA Cups, a Continental Cup, and a Community Shield, and Hayes is clearly dealing at the elite end of the women’s football table. She has coached in front of 25,000 fans at the club’s own Stamford Bridge, in front of 23,000 in a Champions League semi-final, and over 45,000 at Wembley, walking the famous stairs to lift the FA Cup back in 2018. It’s unlikely she would get the same opportunities in League One.
There are of course several reasons why the men’s game is looked upon as the dominant sport of the two – not least the fact that women’s football was banned for 50 years in this country, until 1971. But Hayes is right in saying it’s not a step up in manifold ways. The women’s game has afforded the Chelsea boss many incredible memories and roaring successes, which would be hard to come by elsewhere.
History will also likely remember names such as Hayes more than most in the lower leagues of the men’s game – just as it will remember Serena Williams more than many male tennis players. Isn’t it curious, though, that nobody seems as keen as the football world to compare the two sides of sport?
If one day there is a genuine link between Hayes and the men’s game, it will of course demonstrate the respect the women’s game is being shown by their male counterparts.
In reality, it still feels far away. But that’s no issue: Hayes will have her mind much more focused on lifting silverware in the coming months than wondering what men can do for her.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty