The Stars Of The Super League

Culture28 February 2019


Nestled in the Surrey countryside sits a state-of-the-art, world-class, multi-million pound football facility. The ultra-lavish Cobham complex consists of well-groomed pitches, cutting-edge hydrotherapy pools and hi-tech fitness facilities. It is where international stars like David Luiz and Gonzalo Higuain come to train every weekday. But this isn’t just the home of Chelsea Football Club’s Premier League squad. The club’s all-conquering women’s team also hone their skills here, and their coach, Emma Hayes – who has already been recognised with an MBE for services to the sport – can’t quite believe how far the women’s game has come.

“When I was younger, we didn’t have any of this,” she says. “There wasn’t even much of a chance of having a playing career but the opportunities, not to mention the facilities at a club like Chelsea now are unbelievable for any young woman. We need to show our gratitude because a lot of people have done a lot of work to put the women’s game where it is.”

Practice makes perfect: the women’s squad are put through their paces under the watchful eye of manager Emma Hayes (above)

Emma, who has been the Chelsea boss since 2012, is far too modest to mention it, but she herself has been at the forefront of that work for years. She grew up in London, the daughter of an Italian football coach, with the game in her blood. “My dad’s job was a curse and a blessing in disguise. He coached me and my sister, and drove me mad screaming at me. But I’m grateful for his knowledge,” she laughs. “It meant I learned how to kick a ball from an early age, and I grew up playing street football every night until it went dark.”

Emma progressed to a youth team that eventually morphed into Arsenal Ladies (where she would return as an assistant coach) but injury cut short her potential. She has long since come to see that as a positive though because, she says, “it pushed me towards the route that I was supposed to be in; coaching.”But after managing her university team and then kids’ teams in Camden, Emma found her opportunities were limited. So she packed up her boots and headed to the USA, where a more progressive attitude towards the female game prevailed. She coached city kids and youth leagues before graduating to college and league football with Long Island, Iona, and Chicago Red Stars. Over the last decade, however, the English game has caught up. Participation amongst girls has rocketed, impressive England teams have grabbed the public’s interest, while the creation of the FA Women’s Super League in 2011 gave the sport the structure it deserved. Chelsea have since won the title twice under Emma, and are current reigning champions.

“The league is getting stronger every year, and that means it’s getting tougher to win,” she says, “which is great! America and Germany have fantastic leagues, but I think this will soon be the best in the world.”

Emma is incredibly proud that today’s footballing landscape is “unrecognisable for girls” compared to that of her childhood. “Girls have genuine female footballing role models and that’s fantastic,” she says. “When I was growing up, the only role models I had were men, but now we’ve got players like Fran Kirby, Millie Bright and Karen Carney... That’s wonderful! And there are real opportunities for women in football – whether it’s playing or coaching, as part of the backroom staff, or in the media. I had to go to the USA because those jobs didn’t exist for me.”

Emma’s days, however, aren’t consumed by the rise of the women’s game: she’s got a(nother) league title to win. “To be successful, you need to have a process in place that focuses on performance day in, day out,” she says. “I try to create an environment that evolves each season. That keeps players on their toes, but it should also lead to attractive, winning football.”

Emma keeps a level head, too, in a job famous for piling on the pressure. “I try to find little successes every day, and not to look too far ahead,” she says. “There are highs and lows in this profession, so when it’s good it’s important not to get too high.”

But with players like these in her (ahem!) arsenal, it’s very difficult for her to keep her feet on the ground.


Defender and England international

Millie Bright is made of tough stuff – both on the pitch as a battle-loving defender, and off it. Growing up in Killamarsh near Sheffield, she had numerous jobs in an attempt to make it to the top of her sport.

“I wasn’t sure football could be a career, so I did other things as well,” she says. “I worked with horses and as a fitness instructor, so it was a dream when Chelsea eventually came calling. I just grabbed the opportunity with both hands!”

Millie started out as a kid playing for her home team; Killamarsh Dynamos. “I loved it and got stuck in right away,” she remembers. “I got picked up for the Sheffield United Academy when I was about
11, and later was scouted for Doncaster Belles. When I turned 18, I went on loan to Leeds United, where I really developed as a player. At the time I was a forward, scoring loads of goals. Then Chelsea came in for me in 2015. I love it here, it’s a family club.”

Millie is now a strong presence in defence for both club and country. She won her first England
cap in 2016, and is a regular for a Lionesses side that is making a big impression on the world stage. “Being involved with England is very exciting. Phil Neville has come in as manager and he’s a great person. It’s exciting to think where we could be in a few years’ time. The World Cup is coming up later this year, so it’s time to push on and prove we can be the best!”

And that ambition is just the same at Chelsea under Emma Hayes, where nothing short of a
bulging trophy cabinet will be considered a success. Meanwhile, on a personal level, Millie is relentless in her drive for self-improvement. Her determination has never been in doubt, but her technique has improved radically under Emma’s guidance.

“Getting to this point is the biggest buzz,” says Millie. “We are part of something special here at Chelsea. This is work for us, so it can sometimes take an outsider to make you realise what you’ve achieved. And proving all the doubters wrong is my main motivation – there is nothing better than knowing you were right to believe in yourself!”

Chelsea players and England internationals Fran Kirby and Millie Bright share their tips on how to become a professional footballer


Millie: "We eat lots of meat, veg, fruit, pasta and rice. I'll have a bagel and a banana at about 10am on match day; you don't want to feel too full, but you need to eat! It's good to have a cheat day, too. For me it's pizza, ice cream and some pick 'n' mix!"


Fran: “Mental strength is vital, especially when you have difficult times. When I was out for a year with my knee I was in the gym while everyone else was outside playing. In a way it helped me by making me mentally stronger.”


Fran: “In a group there are all kinds of leaders; different personalities and opinions. You can lead in lots of ways – it’s not all about shouting. Off the pitch I’m pretty chilled, but I think I lead when I step on the pitch.”


Millie: “You have highs and lows, so you need to keep two feet on the ground during the highs. I try to make sure I learn from everything; I’ll put bad things to one side, but I’ll never forget them because they’ll make me a better person.”


Fran: “We need our rest.I sleep 10 hours a night and nap in the day, too! In my downtime I do very little. I’ll take my dog out for a walk to clear my mind. Some girls go out for food or to watch football – I try to chill.”


Fran: “I hate losing so much that I have to be miserable for a while. But you have to get over it. I can’t change what happened yesterday, so the next day, I have to be better. And if we lose, I push myself so hard in the next game!"


Millie: “You’ve got to put yourself out there if you’re going to progress. It was a risk for me to move to Chelsea. Some doubted my ability, but I knew that by training with the best players I’d develop every day. I’ve learned what it’s like to be a winner on and off the pitch.”


Fran: “It makes it harder for Chelsea to win when other teams get stronger, but you’ve got to relish that challenge. We had a tough start to the season because other teams are improving, but that’s the only way we’ll get better.”


Millie: “If I’m not happy off the pitch, I’m not happy on the pitch. When I moved to Chelsea, I had to know that I’d get on with the players and the staff, and that they’d get the best out of me. They’ve done that, and got me to another level.”


Striker and England international

An unwritten rule when discussing women’s football is not to compare its players to those in the male game. But in the case of Fran Kirby it’s a rule that has to be broken. The Chelsea and England player is so diminutive, well balanced and brilliantly skilful, that her former England coach, Mark Sampson, nicknamed her ‘Mini Messi’. The moniker has stuck! On a good day, like Barcelona’s Argentinian wizard, she’s almost unplayable.

“It adds a bit of pressure because he’s one of the best players the game has ever seen, but it’s a massive compliment!” says Fran, who was at the heart of England’s 2015 World Cup run. She was an exciting part of an impressive Lionesses side that made it to the semis, eventually winning bronze in what was something of a Year Zero for English women’s football.

“That World Cup in Canada was unbelievable and people started taking the game more seriously at home after that,” she remembers. “After I scored, my phone blew up! I was just 21 years old and playing in my first tournament. The reaction was mind-blowing!”

Chelsea, for whom Fran was reportedly a record signing, has certainly played a part in that shift. “The game has changed even since I’ve been here. When I first came to Chelsea in 2015, you’d turn up, train and go home. Now, we have breakfast and lunch here, people help you settle in, they find players somewhere to live. All that means a lot to you as a human being.”

Fran was voted PFA Player of the Year last season and was shortlisted for the coveted Ballon d’Or, but the idea of being a role model still feels weird, she says. “I’m just a normal human being who goes to work and loves what they do. It’s a bit bizarre, but I know the exposure we’ve had has helped our game.

“Boys are turning on the TV and seeing women play in an FA Cup final, so they may talk to the girls at school the next day and ask if they watched the match. That sort of thing helps massively.”


Striker and Switzerland international

Ramona Bachmann has played in Switzerland, Sweden, America, Germany and England

You’ve played all over the world. How does the English game compare?
It’s different everywhere, with different mentalities. In the USA, it’s less about tactics and more about being strong in the head and physical on the pitch. In Germany, it is more tactical, but I felt they weren’t bothered about how the players felt. In Sweden, it’s less technical but they really care for their players. England has a bit of everything.

Tactics and toughness?
Yes. It’s physical, it’s technical, it’s tactical. I’ve known about Chelsea since I was a kid, so to be a part of it is something special. The club really cares about you as a person, too.

What makes the club different?
The people. Emma [Hayes, manager] brings in players who are good characters, not just good footballers. People here want to work for the team, not just for themselves.

What is your training regime like?
We have great facilities and a great set-up; there is lots of expert help here. We need to make sure we get enough rest as well as training hard. I do resistance work in the gym, but generally, playing the game is the best training.

How mentally tough do you have to be?
Very! My dad was a footballer, so I’ve always been part of the game. I never thought about being good, I just loved playing all the time. When I was 12, I was picked to go to a soccer school for the best girls in Switzerland. I only saw my family at weekends, which was tough but it brought me on.

And then you transferred to one of Europe’s best clubs?
Yes I went to Umea in Sweden, which is where [legendary Brazilian] Marta was playing. It was a dream come true.

I loved every single minute of it.Is it the best job in the world?
For sure! I am doing what I love the most. If I worked in another job this is what I’d do in the evenings, so to get paid to do it is the best!


Goalkeeper and Swedish international

Hedvig Lindahl is one of her country’s most experienced players, having been to 12 major international tournaments

How did you get into football?
I grew up in a little Swedish village, and all the kids did in the summer was play football. My dad was a coach and when I was four my sister, who’s three years older than me, wanted to play – and I always wanted to do what she did. My parents had to order special boots because I was so small.

What attracted you to playing in goal?
I always liked two positions – up front and in goal. I just wanted to be in the box, where it all happens! I played in a boys’ team and was completely respected. There were only 12 people in my age group and we all got on. Girls with a passion found a way to play.

When did you realise football could become a career?
I didn’t think about that early on, but at 13, I decided my mission was to become the best goalkeeper in the world. I was picked for the World Cup in 2003, and we won silver.

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of being a goalie?
I love it when you find a flow, when what you’ve practised becomes automatic, when you don’t have to think, you just act.

You’re Sweden’s most-capped goalkeeper. What’s been the highlight?
If I go to the World Cup this summer, it will be my 13th major tournament. Athletes get Olympic ring tattoos after their first Games – and I’ve been to four! Rio 2016 was probably the highlight because we were underdogs and nearly took it all the way. It was Sweden’s first medal in women’s Olympic football.

As a long-serving pro, how much has the women’s game changed?
I remember when we were OK with just being on the outskirts. We couldn’t imagine seeing ourselves as equals. Now, I see it as embarrassing that there are situations in sport where women’s events aren’t equal. We are changing perceptions! And football is changing at grassroots level, too…Yes. Hopefully, as role models we can show that football isn’t just for boys. When I look back on my career, I’ll be most proud of helping to change perceptions. How we see the value of women – that is more valuable in the long run.

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