Hayes strives to preserve Chelsea empire Abramovich helped her create | Chelsea Women

An extra place had been laid for a mystery guest, but no one guessed the identity of the man who would take the additional seat at the dinner table. It was a warm late summer evening in Jerusalem in 2019 when Roman Abramovich joined Emma Hayes and her Chelsea players for a memorable few hours. “It was a great surprise, the players were giggling like teenagers,” Hayes would later say.

“We sat around at dinner talking about Middle Eastern history and the love of working for a club that supports its women’s football team in the way Chelsea have. We spent time talking about how proud he is of us and what we do.”

Until very recently Hayes was happy to enthuse about that pre-season tour of Israel and the day she and the players spent on a private sight-seeing trip alongside Chelsea’s owner. With the Wailing Wall serving as an evocative backdrop, the Russian oligarch stood shoulder to shoulder with her as they posed happily for photographs beneath a searing Levantine sun. “It was a wonderful, brilliant, self-reflective day,” said Chelsea’s manager. “The experience was immensely spiritual for everyone. It’s brought us closer together and reinforced the value of taking care of each other. Roman spending time with us in Israel meant an awful lot.”

Three years ago, few of those staring up at the Mount of Olives could have envisaged the geopolitical train hurtling down the track towards them. Back then, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seemed almost inconceivable. The idea the British government would impose sanctions on Abramovich, placing Chelsea in paralysing limbo as his UK assets were frozen, would have been dismissed as fanciful by those wary of mentioning the litigious owner’s ties with Putin.

As the only manager to have survived a full decade during Abramovich’s regime, Hayes was closer than most to the enigmatic Russian who once enjoyed deep dinner table conversations with Rafael Benítez but, particularly in recent years, has often distanced himself from his men’s team managers. Significantly, last May, Chelsea’s owner entered the dressing room in Gothenburg to commiserate with Hayes’s players after their 4-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Touched, the manager pledged to win the trophy one day “for Roman” and could not possibly have imagined her world would implode 10 months on.

Arguably the most talented coach in the domestic women’s game is striving to preserve the empire Abramovich’s money helped her create at Kingsmeadow. Since arriving at Chelsea in 2012 and surviving an early relegation scare Hayes has played a key role in transforming the entire topography of elite female football in England. After leading her side to a first Women’s Super League title in 2015 she has recaptured the trophy three times, while also celebrating a trio of FA Cup triumphs and twice winning the League Cup.

Along the way Chelsea raised the collective bar, a desire not to be upstaged persuading other leading clubs, most notably Manchester City and Manchester United, to invest heavily in their women’s teams. Anxious not to be left behind, Newcastle have pledged to build a female side that will challenge for silverware.

Roman Abramovich at last season’s Women’s Champions League final in Gothenburg. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

Given that leading players in the fully professional WSL can earn up to £250,000 a year, it is quite a commitment. Tellingly, though, Chelsea’s success opened rival clubs’ eyes to the female game’s previously untapped commercial potential.

WSL sides are now studded with overseas talent but it was Hayes who made the first marquee foreign signing with her acquisition of the South Korea midfielder Ji So-yun in 2014. Ji was the women’s game’s answer to Lionel Messi and her arrival paved the way for numerous imports. Typically, Chelsea set a world record female transfer fee when they paid Wolfsburg about £300,000 for the Denmark forward Pernille Harder in 2020.

Chelsea kick off at home to Aston Villa on Sunday in second, five points behind the leaders, Arsenal, but with two games in hand. For the moment, though, the music has stopped at Kingsmeadow, where only season-ticket holders will be admitted, at least for now, after the ban on general ticket sales. While Hayes frets about losing a quartet who will be out of contract in the summer – Maren Mjelde, Jonna Andersson, Ji and Drew Spence – Kingsmeadow regulars fear Abramovich’s eventual successor may be disinclined to invest in their side.

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After all, a Liverpool board obsessed with bolstering Jürgen Klopp’s ambitions allowed a female team that won successive titles in 2013 and 2014 to slip into second-tier obscurity two years ago. Similarly, the FA demoted Sunderland two divisions in 2018 when the billionaire Ellis Short sold up and the financial taps were turned off.

Only time will tell if Chelsea’s moment in the sun is over but, whatever happens, Hayes has already left an indelible impression on the women’s game, changing it virtually beyond recognition.