Emma Hayes dedicated her side’s third consecutive Women’s FA Cup victory to the Chelsea fans after explaining she feels the wider club has “suffered” as a result of untold change and unrest.
Striker Sam Kerr scored a second-half winner to fire Chelsea to a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in front of a record crowd of 77,390 at Wembley – a historic moment for a domestic club fixture in the women’s game.
It was the fifth time in nine years Chelsea have triumphed in the showpiece event, owing to another defining moment from Australia international Kerr, who latched on to substitute Pernille Harder’s pinpoint delivery to steer home the decider.
“I’m a football fan. I’ve watched how much my club has suffered this year with ownership changes, the men’s team hasn’t been brilliant. Chelsea fans this is for you,” Hayes said in her post-match press conference.
“I hope we gave you something you can smile about it this year. The whole club, owners included,” she added.
Chelsea remain second in the WSL, a point behind leaders United having played a game less, and while victory at Wembley secured their first piece of silverware of the campaign, it may well simultaneously have given Chelsea the psychological edge going into the closing stages of an intriguing title hunt.
“Nobody plays more games than Chelsea, year on year,” Hayes continued. “It’s really hard. Trust me it is really difficult to play every three days and play high octane football. I thought the first half we were off everything.
“Only we know what this is like. We’re the team that has done it every year, to grind and grind to compete on all fronts. I felt tired on the touchline. When you play games you don’t sleep, then you’ve got to go again.
“This team can dig and dig, even when we weren’t at our best physically. With how clinical we were with P [Pernille Harder] coming on – in other weeks she would have started.”
Speaking about the impact of Kerr, Hayes said: “I’ve never coached a player like Sam Kerr. She has such conviction, confidence and courage. The way she attacks everything. What I love about Sam is she’s willing to take responsibility for the team. But without Pernille Harder she wouldn’t have got that goal – she came in and did exactly what we had asked and what we missed.”
Hayes: I’ll pat myself on the back – most memorable FA Cup title
Hayes made two game-changing substitutions midway through the second period, needing to gain more of a foothold in central midfield, and add more fluency and potency in attack.
Sophie Ingle and Pernille Harder were introduced just before the hour mark, eight minutes prior to Kerr’s breakthrough.
“I will pat myself on the back,” Hayes said, when referring to the tactical tweaks that made the difference. “The most important thing is more silverware. Man United made it hard, they are a wonderful football team.
“This is a victory for grind. Hard work matters and we can roll our sleeves up with the best of them. Our team has been in transition, we had six different players in our starting XI to last year’s final.
“My big thing is ‘how can we keep winning while still transitioning’. To win knowing we’re in that stage, this is far and away my most memorable FA Cup final.
“We are hybrid monsters. It takes years to master. Congratulations to the players for being so adaptable.
“Sometimes we sneer and look down on winning football matches the way we do. There is a sense that everything has to be perfect, but any winning manager will tell you there is such a mixture of performances needed. Finding ways to win when you aren’t at your best is the marker of a great team.”
Skinner: I believe we can overtake Chelsea
Man Utd manager Marc Skinner was understandably proud of his players in defeat, and believes that over the coming years, his side can overtake Chelsea.
He told Sky Sports News: “It’s a tough one. Chelsea are good at what they do, we knew which style they would play. When we assess it just now, we should win that game in our opinion, we feel that we do enough. We have big moments, Sam took one but apart from that, they didn’t create much.
“I’m proud of all the girls, they showed a real maturity and something that will only hold us in good stead going into these games in the future.
“I can see very clearly what Manchester United needs to be in the next year or two and the recruitment we need to make us be in that position but I believe we can overtake Chelsea. I know that sounds strange, but that’s the desire and belief I have… that’s what I’m going to keep working towards and I promise the Man United fans that I won’t stop until we’re in a constant winning phase.
“We need to make sure we recruit now and should we secure Champions League, then look at trying to win the title and beyond that, the players will come to Manchester United. We’re building something really exciting here.”
He added: “This is just the start… We’re in a growing phase. The experience Chelsea have and the investment they have injected over years and years is why they win. It’s not rocket science.
“We’re bridging gaps. We have to be in the pool for the best players; we have to get into the Champions League to help us do that.
“This is the club you want to come to if you’re a top talent. This is a club that’s going places. If you’re a top player, I’m sure you can get my number pretty quickly.
“It’s about winning finals, not about being pretty with it. We have a style we can’t get away from – we were too tentative at times. I wanted us to shoot a lot more, test the goalkeeper more. We were in positions to shoot.
“All I can promise, as I sit here, is that this fuels us. We will give everything to keep getting United back to finals because this is a special club, synonymous with success. Along the way we will get a few bumps and this is one of them.”
Analysis: Kerr, Harder the jewels in Chelsea crown
Sky Sports’ Laura Hunter:
Sam Kerr’s name will be the headline grabber. Her celebration shot will be the image used to accompany any commentary of another momentous Chelsea triumph.
Kerr is used to her position in the spotlight. The prodigal striker is Chelsea’s big-game player, so often rising to the occasion and producing the spectacular. Against Manchester United that came in the form of a sensational backflip, which rather outstripped the somewhat simple tap-in she delivered to clinch Chelsea’s third straight FA Cup title.
This final will be remembered as historic, perhaps not for the football, but for another watershed moment in the development and popularity of the women’s game – attendances continue to rise and this was no different as over 70,000 packed into a resplendent Wembley. What is a consistently unwavering, however, is how synonymous Chelsea’s success is with Kerr’s presence.
“I’ve never coached a player like her,” manager Emma Hayes said after the full time whistle had blown. “A player to have such conviction, confidence and courage. She can cope with the pressure and expectation and is the sweetest human being.”
Kerr, deserving of such acclaim, must also be thankful. This was not a solo venture. The brilliance of substitute Pernille Harder gifted the Australia international her fifth Wembley goal in four visits. She’s now scored 10 times in seven domestic cup finals – six in succession. But plaudits need to be shared. Harder changed the complexion of the tie entirely.
“Sam Kerr is priceless but let’s credit Pernille,” Hayes told the BBC. “We knew we needed more stretching runs. I almost made the change at half-time.” Who knows where Chelsea would be if Harder had not spent six months of the season on the sidelines with injury. Further along in the Champions League, and out of sight in the WSL, perhaps. She is that influential. At the very least, under the surface of it all, this FA Cup conquest belongs to her. The unsung hero of yet another Chelsea crown.