New rivalries add to intrigue as WSL season reaches dramatic finale

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Fortunately, the most gripping title race of the WSL’s professional era will be the most viewed, most documented and most talked about. This may be the new normal, with booming attendance and TV deals. But even so, every inch of the ending is primed for drama.

Enough factors have come together for an arrival that cannot be ignored.

Chelsea are level on points with second-placed Manchester City, but two goals ahead. City travel to Aston Villa on the final day seeking a favor from Manchester United, who host Chelsea at Old Trafford. Two weeks ago, Arsenal inadvertently dragged Chelsea back into the title race by inflicting City’s first WSL defeat since mid-November.

All of this is set against the backdrop of how Emma Hayes’ final season as Chelsea manager has unfolded.

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Rivalries in women’s soccer are more venomous than they were several seasons ago. That of Arsenal and Chelsea is even richer, given the relationship between Hayes and Jonas Eidevall, the Swedish manager of Arsenal.

In its early years, the Premier League sold itself globally on the strength of its personalities – and their dysfunctions – as much as on the product on the pitch. Managerial relations within the WSL have generally proven to be much more collegial: coaches and players, knowing the challenges of women’s football, often join forces to direct their criticism to the federations and governing bodies. Most WSL teams only held regular press conferences in 2019.

Then Eidevall arrived at Arsenal. Hayes found an enemy and the WSL his first managerial rivalry.

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Hayes, Eidevall and a final chapter in the WSL’s most intense managerial rivalry

For those who have just joined us, a brief Previously, in the WSL…

When Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-2 in their first match of the 2021-22 season, Eidevall fell to his knees in a celebration that was liked more than 4,000 times on the Sky Sports WSL account on December’s FA Cup final, Eidevall revealed he was superstitious. “I never let any black cat cross my path,” he said. “If Emma sees this, she’ll probably buy a thousand black cats with Chelsea’s money and send them all over our training ground. I’m going to be invaded by black cats.

After the match, Hayes, enjoying a 3-0 victory, smiled as he said Chelsea were “purring from start to finish” and meowing at the cameras.

After winning the title that season, Chelsea’s Millie Bright and Erin Cuthbert imitated Eidevall’s pose on either side of a trophy which had changed hands between them and Arsenal five times that afternoon. A few weeks earlier, Eidevall had accused Chelsea of ​​manipulating the schedule to cope with Sam Kerr’s absence.

So it continued. March saw the most high-profile incident to date when Hayes shoved Eidevall after her Continental Cup final defeat and told the press she had responded to “male aggression” Eidevall had demonstrated on the touchline. When asked months later if she would thank him for his role in getting Chelsea back into the title race, Hayes joked that she would be better off keeping quiet, but chose to call back to the press that she had “always liked Swedish players”.

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Hayes walks away from Eidevall after their clash at the end of the Continental League Cup final (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

No love is lost between the fanbases either.

Jeremy, a writer for the Chelsea fanzine Kingsmeadow Chronicle, says Eidevall’s actions “make you dislike him and make you want him to fail.” And I’ll laugh along the way.” Arsenal fan Louise “recognizes Hayes’ contributions” to the development of the WSL, but adds: “I don’t really think he’s someone I’d want to see managing my club.

“I don’t think the rivalry would be as intense without her because she, or the character she plays, adds a lot of personality to what is primarily a club rivalry. It makes for more entertaining viewing.”

“Under (former manager) Joe Montemurro, we had one of the nicest guys around who would politely and respectfully downplay a lot of the rivalry,” continues Joe, an Arsenal Women fan who attends in every match. “Combined with our increasingly poor record against Chelsea, we felt like it kept things very civil.

“The arrival of Jonas contributed to a huge change. His personality and passion had more confrontation, fire and challenge to bring a completely different energy to the rivalry.

“Emma has definitely ‘messed with me’ over the years with her frustrating comments and successes. Jonas challenging her these past few seasons has been really empowering. People are so interested in what each might say about the other, in a way reminiscent of Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson), José (Mourinho) and (Arsène) Wenger. Male Arsenal fans would talk about him as someone who defends the club.

“We used this new fire to create incredible support in those games against Chelsea. Proving the better fan base is an important factor in the rivalry.

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Eidevall and his Arsenal team after their 4-1 win over Chelsea in December (Warren Little/Getty Images)

This all plays out on social media, where the WSL has created its own online space filled with memes and jokes. Managers and players regularly monitor trends after matches. Opposition fans gleefully mocked the trajectory of Hayes’ farewell tour.

El, an Arsenal Women fan with 1,000 X followers who turned her profile picture black to mourn the departure of Vivianne Miedema, finds X at the heart of her football experience. “There’s a real battle going on between the fans online,” she says. “The victory against Chelsea is the victory over this institution in women’s football.

“At the press conferences, Hayes said some really important and meaningful things. We also know how many strange things she said. It’s just an easy thing to get rid of. (Manchester United manager) Marc Skinner has also said strange things, unlike Gareth Taylor. He doesn’t seem to become a target that way. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like this stuff, joking-wise.

“It’s so hard to isolate the two things in my mind: in my head, Emma Hayes is Chelsea. I follow quite a few City fans on Twitter, but I don’t follow any Chelsea fans because of that rivalry. If Gareth Taylor was that kind of character and said similar things, it would fuel City’s rivalry a lot more.

Chelsea’s unprecedented success and the force of Hayes’ personality made him a symbol for the WSL. Her relationship with Arsenal is even more complicated as she was the club’s assistant manager when they won the Champions League in 2007. Arsenal are still the only English team to achieve such success.

“With my impartial Arsenal hat on, I am very grateful for what she has done for women’s football in driving change,” says Adam, one third of the Arsenal Women’s themed Vik Akers Wonderland podcast. “But with my Arsenal hat on, there is a strong dislike for Emma Hayes due to Chelsea’s performances. They knocked Arsenal off our perch when we were the dominant team for so long.

“Arsenal and Chelsea are our fiercest rivalry because of their history and trophies. This is one of the reasons why Arsenal fans are so grateful that Barcelona beat Chelsea: of everything Chelsea has taken from us, the only thing Emma Hayes hasn’t won from Chelsea yet is the Champions League.

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United manager Hayes and Skinner step down ahead of 2023 FA Cup final (Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Emelia, a Manchester United fan, describes herself as “fiercely United” but wants City to win the championship ahead of Chelsea. A City title would be a good thing for the city of Manchester, she said. “I think it’s something quite specific to women’s football: the fans really want other teams to have a chance,” she explains. “I know some Arsenal fans who wanted Tottenham to win the FA Cup against United because they really wanted to see someone else at the top.”

The fact that women’s football is still in its infancy has given rise to rivalries that are not limited by geography or the customs of men’s football. This means that WSL teams are now forging their own history.

Emelia says United fans are angered by the way Chelsea ‘pressurised’ their own title hopes at the end of last season. Still, she respects Hayes – “I don’t think the WSL realizes how much we’re going to miss her next season” – particularly as someone who challenges stereotypes about what a football manager should do and say.

She told friends there was “no bad result” for her in United’s match with Chelsea on Sunday.

“If we win and Chelsea lose the championship – after being so strong at the start of the season – it’s very football,” she said. “But if they win the championship, we can all stand here and say: ‘What a great way to end Emma Hayes’ tenure as Chelsea manager.’”

For United fan Femi, finishing second to Chelsea last season made a title preferable to City. “For Chelsea to come to Old Trafford on the final matchday to lift the WSL (again) will be a punch in the gut. I’d rather City win it than (Chelsea claim) a fifth title in a row at Old Trafford.

This reasoning might be unthinkable to WSL fans who feel traditional rivalries much more keenly.

“If United take points from Chelsea, I won’t thank them,” says Manchester City fan Charlotte. “You never want your rivals to succeed and you want to win on your own terms. It’s not rooting for United, but I would laugh a lot if they took points from Chelsea.

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City manager Taylor and Hayes on the touchline during the 2022 FA Cup final (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea and Arsenal fans were grappling with the same sort of emotions when Arsenal came from behind to beat City 2-1 earlier this month, with those dropped points pushing Chelsea back into the title race after their 4-3 defeat to Liverpool earlier in the week. Rob, a Chelsea fan who runs the CFCW social account, tweeted: “You were allowed to say one nice thing about Arsenal that day. »

Arsenal fan Shane had more complicated feelings.

“I’m never unhappy when Arsenal win, although there is a part of me – not a part I’m proud of – that would have preferred a draw so that City would have had things in their own hands,” he says. Chelsea fan Jeremy said he saw Arsenal fans posting on social media that they were “hoping their team would lose so they wouldn’t have to see Hayes lift another trophy.” Its success caused people to oppose their own team.

“It was strange wanting Arsenal to win last week, but, at full time, it felt a lot less like an Arsenal win and more like a Chelsea win in the long run,” adds Kyal. “You have to support your team, no matter who they help. »

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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