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!

FA Cup final: Kostas stings the Blues

Ultimately, the media got its wish and the narrative was fed just a little more. The double/treble/quadruple (delete as appropriate) is still on, the brilliant white teeth of Jürgen Klopp continue to gleam and the badge keeps getting punched by the tall German.

There was something inevitable about the outcome. Liverpool ooze confidence, have a system built over more than six years, Chelsea’s squad is a bolt-on project, the result of several managers’ influence and a less thoughtful approach in the market. It may rile Chelsea and their fans that they have been down-graded in the trophy-winning stakes – their Champions League success may turn out to have been the last throes of the dice – but the fact is, Liverpool’s self-belief at Wembley seemed a marked contrast to the slightly tetchy, end of the road show of Chelsea.

The tale of two players sums it up. For Chelsea, the performance of Romelu Lukaku, their lethargic £ 97.5 million investment looked like money poorly spent, while the mid-season acquisition of Luis Duiz by Liverpool (a snip at £ 45 million), appears to be one of the season’s bargain buys. In some ways, these two transfers underline the difference between the two clubs, one buying at will, the other purchasing astutely with the system in mind.

Lukaku, like Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, looks poised to become another disappointing big money striker. He looked lethargic, out of touch and slightly clumsy. Christian Pulisic, a more nimble and methodical front-runner, might have won the FA Cup for Chelsea with a shade more accuracy, but the Blues were never supposed to rely on the young American. Lukaku was meant to be the talisman, but he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Thomas Tuchel seems to know it and the new Chelsea regime will undoubtedly change the way the club plays the role of “kid in a sweet shop”. If anyone needed a reminder of how careless Chelsea have been, there was Mo Salah, conversing with Chelsea’s Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, wondering what might have been had he been given the right chance at Stamford Bridge.

Yet the game could have gone either way, it was remarkably even across the 120 minutes. Liverpool started with menace and Chelsea were fortunate to hang on to parity beyond the first 25 minutes. The pundits and commentators were convinced the day was all about Liverpool’s pursuit of glory rather than Chelsea’s bid to end the campaign with something tangible – “It’s only a matter of time,” claimed one mic man. Salah limped off after just 33 minutes, causing anxiety on the Liverpool bench, but his FA Cup in 2021-22 comprised 123 minutes, Klopp had used him sparingly.

Then Chelsea found their game plan and by the start of the second half, Marco Alonso  – arguably Chelsea’s best player on the day – had struck the woodwork. As the game looked destined for extra time, Tuchel removed Lukaku from the action – Chelsea fans must wonder if they will see him next season in the club’s colours. The half hour that followed was something of a phoney war as both teams tired and penalties loomed, never a satisfactory way to win a cup. But of course, the broadcasters loved it.

The model that served Chelsea well in the early years of Abramovich may have become passé

This week’s hero emerged as Kostas Tsimikas, the 21 year-old Greek defender signed from Olympiacos in 2020. Perhaps there was some justice as Tsimikas had played in most of Liverpool’s FA Cup games right up until the semi-final when the first choice guys took over. Somehow, those watching this vaguely compelling contest knew Liverpool’s “mentality monsters” would prevail. They simply seem in better shape than Chelsea, who really don’t know what to expect in the coming weeks.

If the final, indeed the season, represents the zenith of Liverpool under Klopp remains to be seen, but for Chelsea, they missed out on the chance to end the Abramovich age with a trophy. The resurrection of Liverpool also highlights how football has, and continues to evolve. Chelsea’s triumphs under Abramovich were often the result of bulk buying, impulse acquisition of the next big thing and continual turnover of managers. Although it was short-termism at its most conspicuous, and demonstrated a zero tolerance of failure, it also had a life span. Naturally, Chelsea fans lapped it up as their club was turned into winners after decades of under-achievement.

Somebody, somewhere, identified there was a slightly different way. It would be wrong to consider that both Chelsea and Liverpool are not beneficiaries of elitism, but whereas the London club has continued to hire and fire, Liverpool have allowed Klopp to build something that not only brings success, but also helps the club to operate smartly. Manchester City are almost a combination of Chelsea and Liverpool as they have almost limitless funds to play with, but they clearly use their money well. It is not only the age of Abramovich that has ended at Chelsea, it may be that the model that served them well for a decade or more has become passé. Since Klopp was hired by Liverpool and Pep Guardiola took over at City and, Chelsea have won four trophies to City’s eight and Liverpool’s four. The strategy is not as successful as it once was.

Chelsea’s challenge now is to remain relevant in a new business paradigm. Liverpool and City are on a roll at the moment and the gap between them and Chelsea (it is hard to agree with those that believe the Blues are streets ahead of fourth and beyond) is substantial. But they did run Liverpool very close at Wembley, not once but twice in 2021-22. Klopp’s ebullient team have not “beaten” Chelsea this season, although the records will show they won two trophies at their expense.

Look at the fundamentals and the two clubs have little between them, although it is very obvious Chelsea had to thank their owner for his generosity. They both made well over £ 400 million in revenues in 2020-21, there is just £ 18 million difference in their wage bills and over the past five years, Chelsea’s net transfer deficit is £ 43 million more than Liverpool’s net outlay. Both have very good squads and they have top-of-the-range coaches. These are facts that will puzzle Chelsea’s new owners, but the answer may simply be continuity, patience and planning.  And a bit of luck at penalty shoot-outs, perhaps?