Emma Hayes, Carla Ward, and exhaustion in the women’s game

“I just feel re-energised,” Emma Hayes said after her first game in charge of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). “You can see we’re building something.”

And so Hayes begins the building blocks of a new project, breathing new life into the USWNT, an institution and nation iconic to the women’s game. A game that, in England, Hayes not just breathed life into, but was perhaps close to the beating heart of for over a decade.

Wherever one may place the beginning of the recent revolution of women’s football into mainstream media in the UK—even without the relative luxury of history or hindsight—Hayes will undoubtedly lurk somewhere where the pin drops. After helping to painstakingly carve the face of women’s football in England into something unrecognisable in her 12 years at Chelsea, it was probably a surprise to no one that she had not “another drop to give it” when she announced her departure. 

Her departure was naturally paralleled in the press with the exhaustion Jürgen Klopp lamented in his announcement of leaving Liverpool after nine years with similar language, but perhaps the more appropriate and productive comparison in English football that slipped out of the frame at the season’s final whistle was Carla Ward at Aston Villa.

Emma Hayes, Carla Ward, WSL, women's football, men's football, the women's game, managers, exhaustion, sacrifice
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Whilst these three exits all brought into question the personal price of football’s most successful minds, for Hayes and Ward, it was the burden of balancing a drastically changing job role, pressures, and home life.

What parts of the job, then, make them, as Jan Verwoert broadly questioned in ‘Exhaustion and Exuberance’, “utter the magic words I Can’t?” In his 2008 essay, he suggested that we had entered a culture in which we no longer just work, but perform. 

We can infer from the bits Hayes “won’t miss” that the media aspects of a top WSL managerial job were ones she lamented. Her emotion, her transparency, her poetry were indeed acts of this performance. For many such top-flight managers, their obsession and character are products in themselves.

For women’s football, still perfecting its position and popularity in UK culture in a relatively flashing speck of time in wider footballing history, this jump is still to be grappled with. Increasingly entering into a mainstream cycle, it must meet impatient audience demands: drama resolutions on-demand, authenticity as performance without proof of its ending. It is perhaps in Hayes and Ward where we see splinters indicative of more fundamental problems and parallels. 

In her recent appearance on the Counter Pressed podcast, Ward speaks, with typical transparency, on her reasons for stepping down. It is partly exhaustion (she discussed a desire for “a bigger conversation around mental and physical exhaustion”), but the overwhelming notion of the decision centres around her daughter, Hartley. 

“That’s the straight-up answer: my little girl,” she said. “Mum guilt is the worst guilt in the world. When something cuts you deep, you start to think ‘Everything you do in life is for your child,’ and the moment she came into the world that’s all I wanted to do. But then you don’t get to see her. 

“I started to question what I was doing. Life is short, she’s growing up quickly. there has to be a moment I have to stop.” 

Ward and Hayes’ friendship and bond contained an understanding of these feelings during their time in the WSL; in phone calls and chats, they often discussed the difficulty and guilt cutting between football and their children. Hayes has always been open about her dedication to her son Harry, who even encouraged her to take the USA managerial role. As she put it: “The job has taken a toll on me. I just want a quiet life.” 

Where short-termism is king in the topflight conveyor belt of the managerial merry-go-round, these are two managers who have, in varying ways, changed the face of their clubs and sports, and have both cited motherhood as a priority as principal reasons for leaving their roles. As Verwoert quotes Annika Erikson: “As a mother (when your child is in need of you) there is no no.”

Hayes changed the nature of the game, the nature of her own job. She and her players’ pitfalls of fame stumbled into times when off-the-record conversations with the media expired. “Now,” she said recently, “it’s just an exercise of not tripping up. You say too much and get whacked for it. You don’t say enough then it’s just something dull, a repetition function we have to serve.”

She recently deleted her social media due to the floods of toxicity. Increasing status and sporting cultural power of women’s football put her on an iconic pedestal, one that often, perhaps more often for women, walks a knife edge to a firing line. She created conversations within mainstream media that divided but ultimately conquered. Her end was built into the beginning.

Klopp leaves with a recurring image of being another in a long line of father figures and paternal imagery not uncommon in footballing narratives around managers. After all, it is parental figures that harness, and shape the texture of one’s dreams, ambitions, and childish fantasies. But history will have managers such as Hayes down for different roles, different dreams developed and demonstrated. Her goal had always been partly motivated by creating spaces and professions that weren’t possible when she started, to explode the women’s game’s status–“that was all I wanted”–but perhaps in doing so faced the brunt of its brutality.

The long nights and sacrifice not only built the elite career Hayes celebrated at Chelsea, but also the pushing of progress beyond herself. Throughout her time in front of an increasingly growing media, she repeatedly used her voice to speak of personal struggles with health, menopause, motherhood, bereavement, and fighting for women within the sport. It calls to mind Maggie Nelson’s quoting of Simon Critchley in her book On Freedom: perhaps this is a role with an “obsessive experience of responsibility that persecutes…with (its) sheer weight.”

When looking at the departure of these managers from English football, at least for now, it begs the question of whether all weight of responsibilities are created equal. Management, or elite sport in general, has always involved sacrifice, but the way we talk about female exhaustion undoubtedly exists in a different cultural context. Caroline Criado Perez dedicates an entire book on Invisible Women to the unpaid work of female labour that makes the world, and, by extension, the footballing world, go round.

If women’s football is to resemble the men’s game, its endlessness, its frenzy, its circus, it must also contend with the exhaustion of those who energise, propel, and get swept away in the machine, and the context of those within it is perhaps inherently different than the men’s game.

For the WSL to lose two managers on such a human basis must mark a cause for introspection. It is a conversation rarely circled in the history of a game dominated by men. Whilst reductions to essentialist gender differences are sometimes unhelpful in sport, future ends will be built into new beginnings, and we would do well to remember that perhaps exhaustion and legacy are not always carved equally.

Juliet Nottingham

Into football, films, Wales, and other nice things. Studying journalism to counteract.