At the start of the month, AFC Wimbledon were on the hunt for a new manager, after Glyn Hodges left the club by mutual consent. Managerial replacements are by no stretch a rarity in football, but this particular one caused quite a stir. Wimbledon, currently 19th in League One – the third tier of the EFL, approached Emma Hayes, manager of Chelsea Women, who are reigning champions and currently top of the Women’s Super League.
While some supposed she would be advancing her career, becoming the first female head coach of a men’s side, Hayes swiftly shut down any rumours, reportedly calling the reports an insult to women’s football, adding that Wimbledon would “absolutely not” be able to afford her.
“I don’t know why anyone would think women’s football is a step down. The football world needs to wake up…
“First of all, I am the manager of Chelsea. I manage and represent elite, world-class players and this for me is an amazing job. I’ve spent the last nine years cultivating all my energy into it” Hayes said about the links, adding “I don’t know why anyone would think women’s football is a step down. The football world needs to wake up. While the game is played by a different gender, it’s exactly the same sport.”
Her strong response was entirely correct and highlights the lack of respect shown towards women’s football. Why would Hayes leave Chelsea, where her team has won three WSL titles and two FA cups, as well as recently setting a league record of 32 games unbeaten, for AFC Wimbledon, a club for which playing League One football has been their high point thus far?
In recognition of the vast gap between AFC Wimbledon and her Chelsea side, Hayes added, “Women’s football is something to celebrate, and the quality and the achievement of all the females I represent… it’s an insult to them that we talk about women’s football being a step down, with the dedication and the commitment and the quality they have,”
“I know when you’re winning a lot there’s just this expectation you’re going to keep doing it, but this is the best Chelsea team I’ve ever had…
“Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder, Beth England, Magda Eriksson, Millie Bright, Maren Mjelde – do you want me to keep going? These are world-class players, and women’s football is not a step down from anything.” After Chelsea set their league-record unbeaten run, Hayes declared “This team will go down in history, I’m certain of it. I know when you’re winning a lot there’s just this expectation you’re going to keep doing it, but this is the best Chelsea team I’ve ever had.”
AFC Wimbledon never formally approached Hayes for the vacancy, yet, for all the audacity of the links, the fact Hayes was thought of at all is a telling sign. There has never been a female coach of a male football side, and a scarce number of non-white coaches too – it is evident there are major issues regarding diversity across the men’s game. So although it may be momentarily welcoming to see a women considered for such a role, the quality and stature of the individual coach should be the only priority.
Importantly, Hayes drew discussions of her links to the role onto the wider issues of diversity in football, talking of the game’s responsibility to modernise: “This is not a conversation about ‘Emma Hayes and AFC Wimbledon’. We should be having larger conversations about creating opportunities across a diverse spectrum so that opportunities in the men’s game are not limited to those in privileged positions.”
“It should be a normal conversation to talk about coaches from Asian backgrounds, coaches from Black backgrounds, female coaches in [men’s] dressing rooms. Not as an exception to the rule, but something that is normal. When the football world is ready to adhere to the diversity codes, so that BAME communities plus women get the opportunities in men’s football, I will see that as a step forward.”
The sooner the men’s football system can deliver consequential actions to back up their written commitments to inclusivity, that demonstrate the game is moving forward, the better. And the sooner AFC Wimbledon can find a new permanent manager to see them through the second half of the League One season, the better for them. While they look to stay out of the relegation spots, Hayes will work to keep Chelsea exactly where they are – top of the Women’s Super League.
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