Chelsea Women’s journey from “after thought” to Champions League finalists

Eni Aluko still remembers the start of Chelsea’s journey under Emma Hayes.

It was just four months after Hayes had replaced Matt Beard that Aluko returned to west London in December 2012.

“I remember arriving at Chelsea in 2012, the club was still in the foundation stage,” Aluko recalls.

“We didn’t have bibs and balls and water bottles and it was kind of an after thought.

Nine years on, the Blues become just the second English team to compete in a Women’s Champions League final as they take on Barcelona.

“I think that’s what makes the journey so special,” she says.

Eni Aluko was signed by Emma Hayes just a few months after her arrival at Chelsea

“Emma came in as a real visionary having had experience at Arsenal and in America, and she really set in motion a long-term vision for the club that she knew would take a bit of time.

“That’s been the journey, it’s been one where Emma has always had her finger on the pulse and understood what it took to get better each year.”

By Aluko’s own admission, Chelsea “were terrible” during her first season.

But her 68 goals in 158 appearances ensured she left in May 2018 as their all-time record goalscorer.

Whilst that record was recently taken by Fran Kirby, she can watch on this weekend itching to be involved but knowing she more than played her part.

Emma Hayes’ journey has led Chelsea to the Women’s Champions League final

“I’m so excited for the game. Obviously I can’t be involved as a player and I’ve retired now, and I was part of a Champions League semi-final with Chelsea.

“To see them in the final, I’m so proud and so pleased for so many people that I’m still friends with and a place that I still call home.

“I’m super proud of them to have got to the final, but I know in that dressing room they won’t be patting themselves on the back that they’re in the final. They’ll want to win it.”

In the wider context of the women’s game, the backstory could hardly be better.

With Thomas Tuchel guiding Chelsea’s men’s team to the Champions League final, the Blues have already made history and could well emerge with two European titles over the coming weeks.

Aluko believes that is the best possible message to owners around the world to invest in the women’s game.

World record signing Pernille Harder has helped take Chelsea to the next level
World record signing Pernille Harder has helped take Chelsea to the next level

“It’s the biggest advert for it,” she says.

“If Chelsea being in the Champions League final alongside their men’s team is not an encouragement for long-term investment from owners, I’m not sure what is.

“That’s what it takes, it’s not something that happens overnight. It takes time, as we’ve seen with Chelsea, but the rewards come.

“For too long in women’s football it’s been, ‘oh it doesn’t make money, there’s nothing in women’s football to invest in it’.

“If you asked me 10 years ago whether Sky would be investing £20million+ in TV rights, we’d be getting Barclays sponsorships and an English team in the Champions League final with some of the best players in the world, I’d have bit your hand off for that.

“If the last 10 years are anything to go by, the next 10 years are really exciting.”

Simply reaching the final signals a major jump, one made possible by investment from above, including world-record women’s signing Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg.

“I think when I was there in 2018 and we lost to Wolfsburg, there was still a gap,” she states.

Aluko was involved in a Champions League semi-final defeat against Wolfsburg when the Blues still had ground to make up
Aluko was involved in a Champions League semi-final defeat against Wolfsburg when the Blues still had ground to make up

“They were still one of the dominant teams and still had an edge over us, certainly psychologically.

“But Chelsea have added some really important players that we didn’t have that season, and they’ve obviously still got Fran Kirby who, for me, is one of the best in the world, if not the best.

“They’ve added Sam Kerr, added Pernille Harder who was the difference for Wolfsburg in many of those Champions League games.

“I think Chelsea have elevated themselves since then and there’s no surprise to me to see them in the final.

“They’ve got the players from around the world to do it, and they’ve got the support, the resources and the manager, Emma Hayes, who has pushed for so long for this.”

Barcelona have been on their own journey and were losing finalists to Lyon last year.

Whilst acknowledging her prediction comes with an element of bias, Aluko is confident Chelsea can make history.

The Blues take on Barcelona in Sweden looking to make history
The Blues take on Barcelona in Sweden looking to make history

“If Chelsea were to win, I think it says everything about the WSL, where the women’s game is at in England. It’d be massive for the game,” she states.

“I think they can and I think they will. They’ve got the hunger you can’t coach and you can’t really deal with that fire, ‘this is our chance’.

“Champions League finals don’t come around often, you’ve got to make the most of them when they happen, and I think that fire in their belly is going to help them.

“I don’t think they’re predictable. It’s very hard to predict what they’re going to do, and it’s easier to predict Barcelona’s possession style.

“Chelsea wait to see what the opposition will give them and tactically adapt, so I think they have the edge.

“Obviously I’m biased, I want them to win, but I think they have the edge.”

BT Sport has live coverage of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Chelsea Women and Barcelona Women live from 7.15pm on Sunday 16th May on BT Sport 2.

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