The Grey Neutral: Emma Hayes – who will really change the game and hire a serial winner?

ONE DAY a football club is going to make history by appointing a woman to manage a men’s team. When that day comes, the sport will change forever, the impact will be more seismic than any 91,000 crowd at the Camp Nou. Why? Because football will move from being a man’s pastime played by women to simply being “The Game”. That woman may well be Emma Hayes, currently presiding over Chelsea’s Women and arguably the most successful football manager in Britain at the moment. She deserves huge respect for her achievements, but what will be the next career move for Emma Hayes? It could be a stint abroad, managing one of the blue riband women’s clubs such as Barcelona, Lyon or Wolfsburg, or maybe it will be a rival such as Manchester City or United.

But what of shifting into the men’s game? Hayes has many positive attributes. Her man management skills are, apparently, excellent. Her no-nonsense personality would also shield her from some of the nonsense that goes on in football, and her tactical nouse is without question. She’s a highly intelligent individual, something that’s often lacking in football. Aside from looking the other way in a dressing room full of primadonnas, there is no reason why Hayes should not be given a chance – if she wants it, of course.

Hayes’ Chelsea completed the double at Wembley, beating Manchester City 3-2 after extra time a day after the men’s team lost their third successive FA Cup final. A week earlier, they clinched the WSL title. Hayes has won six titles and four FA Cups. What’s more, she’s spent a decade in charge – when did a Chelsea manager ever manage that? The answer is Billy Birrell (1939-1952), but given the second world war restricted his role, nobody is ever going to beat David Calderhead who sat in the Stamford Bridge hot seat from 1907 to 1933.

Even goal machines age

THE BUNDESLIGA is over for another season and guess who has won the title? Bayern Munich for the 10th season in a row. Germany was supposed to be the perfect model for a football structure, clubs partially owned by fans, sensible financing, big crowds, plenty of goals and unanimous hatred of any club that doesn’t comply to 50+1. Bayern’s domination is somewhat boring and cannot possibly be healthy for German football.

Germany’s clubs do not seem as competitive at the highest level these days. Bayern, of course, have enough money to remain an elite organisation, but they tumbled out to Villareal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Now we hear that their star striker, Robert Lewandowski, may want to leave Munich. He will be 34 by the time the 2022-23 season gets underway. Who will be in the market for him? Cost aside, is the gamble worth it as a 34 year-old can be more prone to injury and will take longer to recover. Lewandowski is an exceptional striker, but only a club with a short-term outlook would sign him, surely? Call me cynical, but in all probability, he will stay at Bayern on improved terms, unless Barca and PSG take a punt.

When you’re 26, you should be the finished product

THE SIGHT of Ruben Loftus-Cheek leaving the field after being substituted by manager Thomas Tuchel was a little sad. The 26 year-old had only been on the field 14 minutes after coming on for Christian Pulisic in the 106th minute of the FA Cup final. Notwithstanding it’s pretty humiliating to be subbed as a sub, you have to wonder how long Loftus-Cheek will stay at Chelsea, where he has never established himself? At 26, he is what he is, so if Chelsea don’t fancy him, then let him go. His five-year contract expires in 2024, so Chelsea can command a fee, but from his perspective, he probably needs to move. This is a player with eight England caps, by the way.

Why we should be glad that Stockport are back

THE ROMANTICS among us undoubtedly raised a smile or two when news of Stockport County’s promotion back to the Football League came through. Their 2-0 victory over Halifax finally beat-off Wrexham’s challenge and after 11 years, they are back. The mere mention of “the Hatters” is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, Rochdale, Bury and Oldham represented the heart of the game. It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong? In 2015, the club set out to win back their Football League place by 2020. They’re two years overdue, but nobody will complain. Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. The town featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry, so It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events in Manchester. Welcome back Stockport County!

Liverpool’s quad may not be impossible

THE ONLY credible quadruple in British football was achieved by Celtic in 1966-67, the year they won the European Cup, Scottish League, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup. Jock Stein’s all-conquering team played 59 games across that lot, winning 48 and losing just three. They scored 184 goals and conceded 48. This was a great Celtic team that played wonderful attacking football.

Winning a double used to be near impossible, let alone a treble, hence when Tottenham achieved it in 1961, it was the first time it had been won since 1897. The modern treble of Champions League (European Cup), League and Cup has been won just nine times, the most recent being Bayern Munich in 2020 and the only English side being Manchester United in 1999. Manchester City became the first team to win all three domestic trophies in England in 2019, but Liverpool won a treble in 1984 when they lifted the League, the League Cup and the European Cup. 

Liverpool could, conceivably, win four trophies this season. They have already captured the EFL Cup, beating Chelsea on penalties, they are in the last four of the FA Cup (where they will face Manchester City), they are chasing the Premier League (where they are up against City) and they have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals (where they may come up against City in the final). In 2021-22, we face the possibility of a campaign that will be defined by a set of Liverpool-City clashes.

Before we analyse 2021-22, however, it is remarkable how the current battle between these two teams reminds us of the days of Leeds United’s golden period when Don Revie’s team chased every prize. In the early 1970s, clubs didn’t have sizeable squads and players often carried injuries into vital games. In 1970, for example, Leeds finished runners-up in the league and FA Cup, were semi-finalists in the European Cup and reached the third round of the Football League Cup. They played 62 games and lost just 10, scoring 127 goals, but finished with nothing. Similarly, in 2008, Chelsea were runners-up in the Premier, Champions League and League Cup and quarter-finalists in the FA Cup. They lost just six games out of 61 but never made the winners’ podium.

The way football has developed in recent years arguably makes it easier for Liverpool to achieve the impossible dream, simply because they are so much better than the majority of opponents they will face. English football has crystallised into a two-horse race with another two or three clubs behind the leading duo. At present, City and Liverpool are the leaders, Chelsea most definitely number three and then there’s Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal along with other pretenders to the top four.

Liverpool comfortably won their UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg and unless something miraculous happens, Benfica will not be able to turn around a 3-1 deficit. In all probability, they will face Bayern Munich in the semi and on current form and strengths, they should beat the Bundesliga champions. The smart money is on another all-English final, but that also depends on Manchester City, who have a narrow 1-0 lead over Atlético Madrid from the first leg.

Liverpool face Manchester City on April 10 and this could be the moment the Premier League title race becomes a little clearer. Liverpool’s two league defeats have both been away, but two of City’s three losses have been at the Etihad. City seem to have problems with a certain type of side, they have dropped points against Tottenham (City gain 0), Crystal Palace (1) and Southampton (2) this season. The only other team to take points has been Liverpool.

The FA Cup has already got its big ticket bout in the form of City versus Liverpool in the semi-final. At present, Liverpool may have the edge on Pep Guardiola’s side, they have won 10 in a row in the Premier and they’ve lost just three games all season. Liverpool have more options than when they joyously won the Premier League in 2020, notably up front with Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz (both 25) being added to the Salah-Firmino-Mané trio. Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino are both 30 now and Mo Salah reaches that landmark later this year. Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip are both 30 and Jordan Henderson is a year older. Liverpool’s team is at its peak, so 2021-22 may be the current XI’s best chance of immortality. City have over-30s such as Kevin De Bruyne (30), Kyle Walker (31), İlkay Gündoğan (31) and Riyad Mahrez (31), but they have a deep squad.

Liverpool seem more relaxed than during the 2018-2020 period when the anxiety about a lack of a league title hung heavily over the club. They won the Champions League in 2019, were denied by City after a sensational season, and a year later, broke the hoodoo of 30 years and won the Premier. Although they finished a disappointing third in 2021, missing Virgil van Dijk and perhaps fatigued by the previous two years, they regained their mojo from 2019-20.

It’s not just a Liverpool quadruple at stake. City could also win a treble (the treble) of UEFA Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup. Chelsea have won two “prizes” already in the FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup, so they could end with four, even if two are relatively insignificant baubles. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Benfica and Villareal cannot win a treble of any sort.

History tells us that going for everything on all fronts usually ends in tears. Teams are tired, injuries and suspensions play havoc with selection and every game becomes a cup final. The pressure often gets to the sides striving for perfection. Liverpool and Manchester City, not to mention Chelsea, have learned to live with intensity. There is something “automatic” about the way the top teams perform these days and multiple triumphs are no longer unthinkable. Don’t be surprised if Liverpool win everything or Chelsea or Manchester City win two or three tin pots. Polarisation of elite football has given us the tableaux of the crowded trophy cabinet.

Chelsea may be facing an existential threat

THE SUMMER of 1976 was a very warm one, but the event that made Chelsea fans extremely hot under the collar was the news the club was in dire financial straits and on the brink of extinction. For young fans, it was heartbreaking news, but nobody could really imagine Chelsea Football Club going under. Thankfully they didn’t, but they endured a lost decade before the Blues could really smile again.

The news today that Roman Abramovich, the club’s Russian owner, has been sanctioned by the UK government is even more catastrophic than the headlines of 1976. There is every possibility that, if  the war in Ukraine is prolonged and becomes even nastier, Chelsea could become a zombie club, unable to operate, unable to attract a cash injection and banned from selling assets. Abramovich has supported the modern Chelsea for 19 years, pumping in money when the cash flow demanded it, funding big transfers, paying top dollar to the men wearing the famous blue shirts. While the money is there, such a business model can exist unless something unexpected happens.

For years, opposition fans have predicted a collapse into non-league if Abramovich was to suddenly get up and leave, taking his wealth with him. The man himself was probably never likely to do that, but external events were a danger that nobody really factored in. But then, the world never really listens to warnings – the covid pandemic was predicted for years by people at the World Economic Forum, but everyone looked the other way. Roman may have been Russian, but ask any Chelsea loyalist and they would have replied, “yes, but he’s a decent Russian.”

Everyone knows the man or woman on the Moscow omnibus has nothing to do with the ambitions of Vlad Putin, but Russia has become a social pariah. It’s a comical reference, but there’s nothing to laugh about, the world is tip-toeing closer and closer to oblivion.

Therefore, it is difficult to exclude Abramovich from sanctions, not because he’s involved in football, but because his wealth was made within a corrupt, opportunist system and for all his hopping around the world to steer clear of Russia, the company he partly owns could be making the steel needed by the military. Football loves a bit of schadenfreude and Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans, among others, will lap it up, but the most staunch Chelsea fan would surely agree that some things are more important than football. It is in extremely bad taste that one pundit has encouraged Thomas Tuchel to quit Chelsea and head for Manchester United.

Of course, the announcement makes for good PR for the UK government – they’re nailing Abramovich, a person they’ve never warmed to, and one they know has had close links with the current enemy of all people. At the same time, they have permitted the club to operate under a license, but how long this will remain effective is anybody’s guess. The club cannot sell new tickets, but season ticket holders can attend games. They cannot sell anything, they cannot spend more than £ 500,000 per game on hosting games and their travel bill cannot exceed £ 20,000. As for the next round of the Champions League, if they get through that is, they may have to be play behind closed doors. The effect on morale at Chelsea should not be underestimated, though, as there could be a very negative impact from all the uncertainty, not to mention the squeeze on finances.

The club’s wage bill is £ 28 million per month, so they will need to draw on cash reserves at some point, and it is not an infinite pot. They could run dry and have no way of replenishing funds. In a worst case scenario, Chelsea could have a cash flow problem that cannot be solved. There is the possibility of contagion, too, with the club’s shirt sponsor Three, suspending its deal.

One can only hope – if you’re a Chelsea fan – that the UK government allows a sale to go ahead, but they’ve made it clear Abramovich will not get a penny of the proceeds. There seems, at this time, Chelsea’s owner will have to write-off more than the £ 1.5 billion loan he didn’t want back. The government will not want to be responsible for sending any club to the wall, so it is likely a solution will be found – the club is looking for some adjustments to the license – before the gates have to be locked. It does seem as though the golden age is over, and although Chelsea fans might consider it harsh, a bit of perspective is needed in this very worrying time for the world.