Football is littered with teams that write themselves into sport folklore – the dynasties who dominate and pave the way for others. On the women’s side, there is Vic Akers’ quadruple-winning Arsenal (2006-2007). The imperious Barcelona, who have won four straight league titles and two Women’s Champions League trophies. Then, of course, there is Emma Hayes’s dominant Chelsea.
With four successive league titles (six in total), three consecutive FA Cups (five in total) and a couple of League Cups, Chelsea remain the team to beat and with the new Women’s Super League campaign starting on Sunday the question is whether anyone can topple them.
Every season provides a glimmer of hope for those in pursuit. The title race has come down to the wire on the past three occasions. Last term, Chelsea were the chasers rather than leaders, with Manchester United setting the pace. The Blues endured a shaky start and spent 95 days at the top of the table (compared with United’s 105). However, in the final two months they clicked into gear, scoring more than a third of their season’s goal tally and going on a seven-game unbeaten streak.
The same could be applied to winning the FA Cup. It was not pretty at times, but they got the job done. Carla Ward’s Aston Villa came close to beating them in the semi-final, a result that hurt Ward “more than anything has ever done in women’s football”. Meanwhile, Paul Green, Chelsea’s general manager, described the first half against Manchester United at Wembley as “the worst first half of FA Cup football” they had had. There was never really any doubt, however, that the Blues would come through against less experienced opposition.
As a new season begins, the teams around them try to plot a way to derail the Chelsea train. There are realistically three main challengers – Arsenal, United and Manchester City – plus Aston Villa. Ward’s side are earlier in their journey but it will surprise few if they make a move on the top four. Recruitment across the board has been crucial. As Ward says: “There’s no ‘we can’ or ‘we can’t’. The reality is we must close the gap and improve on what we did. We have to continue to grow and develop.”
In one of the busiest transfer windows to date, the contenders – Manchester City aside – have strengthened significantly. Hayes is a diligent recruiter and the acquisition of Ashley Lawrence and Catarina Macario adds title-winning quality. Arsenal made landmark signings including Alessia Russo and Kyra Cooney-Cross; Manchester United bought quality with Geyse and Hinata Miyazawa; and City brought in the experienced Jill Roord. For Villa acquiring one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Daphne van Domselaar has caught the eye. The quality is increasing, and this will further increase the competition for trophies across the board.
Developing structure off the pitch is also key. During Hayes’s 11-year reign at Chelsea, she has meticulously created a club that leave nothing to chance. From her backroom staff to the facilities, she has helped ensure the best environment for her players. Other clubs are following her lead, understanding that the quality of personnel and environment off the pitch is key to performance on it.
Arsenal have brought in Kelly Smith, widely regarded as the best player England has ever produced, as assistant coach. Manchester United have added various support staff over the summer while Villa have hired the highly regarded Leanne Hall, who, as Ward says, has “been there, done it and won everything”.
The hardest part is turning this development into results. Here Chelsea remain a step above the rest. The “mentality monsters” turned “hybrid monsters”, as Hayes labelled them last year, have the capability and confidence to adjust to any situation and the desire to succeed. “When you come to the club you know what the demands are,” says the goalkeeper Zecira Musovic.
The signs are there that the gap is narrowing. Arsenal’s exploits in the Champions League and winning the League Cup showed a strength of character that had been lacking. Manchester United, Manchester City and Villa posed challenges at points but narrowly fell short. Chelsea’s aura looms large. There will be renewed hope, however, that the margins can be closed to make it the most fascinating WSL title race to date.