It has been another trophy-laden season for Bethany England and Chelsea Women. Our chat takes place two days after the Blues added the Women’s FA Cup to their WSL title on the hottest day of the year so far – arguably an accurate reflection of Chelsea’s red-hot form since the turn of the year.
Emma Hayes’ side have lost just one game in all competitions in 2022 – although it was the Women’s League Cup final to Manchester City in March.
In the WSL, they won 11 matches and drew twice since the turn of the year, conceding just five goals and scoring 35. They overtook Arsenal at the top of the Women’s Super League in March and maintained their lead to clinch a third successive league trophy on May 8.
It marked England’s third WSL title – four if you include 2017’s Spring Series – and was swiftly followed up with an enthralling FA Cup victory against Manchester City on Sunday.
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It was another domestic double for a dominant Chelsea side and England has credited manager Hayes for cultivating a team full of not only talented players, but nice people too.
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In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, the forward said: “Any job has its highs and lows and it’s no different in sport, especially in football, because it can be a very tense environment at times. It’s very easy to say things and be nice and happy when things are going your way, but when it gets down to the tough nitty-gritty bit, that’s when tensions can get high.
“But, for me, I honestly cannot praise enough how good we are at staying together as a group. It’s not really a catty team, I’ve said before that the biggest compliment I could give Emma is the people and personalities that she’s brought to this team because she doesn’t just bring winners, she brings genuinely good people and I think the group reflects that.
“I don’t think it’s a case of anyone get singled out and if someone’s down, you see how to pick them up. That is one of the reasons why we win as much as we do it because it’s not just exceptional football, it’s great people. We are able to bring that from the dressing room to the pitch as well.
Highlights of the Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Manchester United as Chelsea clinch the WSL title
“It’s also a case of we don’t quit, we don’t give in, we’re fighters, we’re competitive for a reason and I think we have such trust and belief in each other that something good will come. I don’t think we’re ones to lay down and be defeated. You can see the characters in the dressing room that we’ve got that it’s not the type of people we are.
“The game against United [on the final day of the WSL season], for me, the character in the way we played that game, I thought it really showed the brilliance of our girls because we went down not once, but twice, and then to come back into fashion as we did and obviously Sam Kerr’s wonder goals, as always, just sealed the deal.
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“I do think City underestimated us [during the FA Cup final] from the Conti Cup final because, credit to them, they wiped the floor with us that day, we were nowhere near good enough to get that trophy. But then I think they thought it wasn’t going to be that tough and I’m glad that we were able to.
“Even if it wasn’t pretty football, it showed that we could grind the result. People don’t remember how you play, people remember teams and titles. You can play pretty football but if you don’t win titles, it’s not something you need to talk about.”
And this year’s trophy victories were, arguably, not won in the expected Chelsea way. They have previously led the WSL from almost the first day and won the title. This time, they had to overcome a stuttering start by their own high standards, battling with Arsenal right up until the final day.
“We’ve usually been the ones leading the way from the off and teams have gotten closer to us from that aspect”, England reflected.
“But then this season, we’ve been in a slightly different position where we did have to come from behind. We were behind Arsenal for quite a period of time and we didn’t start the season well with our first loss against them. We also got a really bad result against Reading so it was like we knew we weren’t helping ourselves, but we knew there was still an opportunity and chance as long as we did the right things.
Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes describes winning this year’s title as ‘the best yet’ after they beat Manchester Utd 4-2 to win a third successive WSL trophy
“I think we’ve more than shown this year that you just have to grind results out. We’ve got such an unbelievable squad and group of players that were able to find a way somehow. We’ve managed to push through and persevere, with the help of other teams taking points off Arsenal and City as well.
“It’s been a very tough year and I’m very proud of the group because of coming from behind. We were in a different position, we managed to get in front. It went down to the wire but we kept in it. For a neutral or any football fan, it’s nice to see competition rather than one team just running away with it.
“Winning titles never gets old. Each one is just as special and you know how tough the league has got this year. The level of quality has gone up and the teams fighting for top places have become more difficult and even the bottom-table teams have taken points off big teams this year, so it’s rewarding when you know how tough it’s been and you still managed to fight through the best of the best and you come out on top.”
The Blues did also sweep aside all-comers in the FA Cup too – conceding just one goal on their way to the final – but were arguably not the best side on the day against an in-form Man City. However, as England has alluded to, it is not the performances that matter when you lift the trophy in front of a record-breaking crowd at Wembley.
She said: “Wembley is just such a special place. I think everyone’s dream is to walk out on that pitch in front of a packed crowd. It was just a phenomenal occasion and, again, for the neutral, end-to-end stuff.
“We probably thought we could have just hung on for those last few minutes and then it went to extra-time. I’m just glad it didn’t go to penalties, I don’t think my heart could have taken it sat watching.
“City are a tough team and they showed their qualities as well, but I’m just really chuffed that we were able to go that one little edge further and bring the trophy back.
England was delighted as Chelsea won the FA Cup, securing a league and cup double for the Blues
“It was really strange on the pitch. You could almost feel when momentum was shifting either our way or their way when we were under the cosh a little bit or when we were on top. I don’t think we had many entries into their final third in the first 10 to 20 minutes and then we got our goal and then we were able to add a bit more pressure.
“Then they equalised just before half-time but, again, we were under the under cosh quite a lot in the first five or 10 minutes of the second half. Then we found a few more opportunities and the second goal came and we were on top and it just swayed back and forth.
“I was an exciting game. I think it was every emotion possible in that game and I’m just glad that the end emotion was a good one for us.”
One of the blemishes on Chelsea’s season was a Champions League exit in the group stage. Chelsea were knocked out by the finest of margins – goal difference – having reached the final the previous year. It remains one of the only trophies the club has not won.
Image: Chelsea were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages this season
“It was such a shame and it was so tight, but we know where we went wrong,” England said. “We gave away too many sloppy goals.
“Getting knocked out in the group compared to the season before, going all the way to Champions League final, it just really hit home how gutted we were. There was also a lot going on because of Covid, but we were not good enough on the day and we should have done more to prevent that in the first place.
“But that only spurred us on more and I think that is one of the reasons why we did so well domestically because we didn’t want to go back to that feeling.
“As much as we did lose the Conti Cup, we were going to be damned if we were going to let them take away the league from us again and in the FA Cup. We wanted to keep hold of that a little bit longer and we definitely made sure that happened.”
England’s advice on mental health | ‘Beautiful to see football get behind Daniels’
England ends the campaign with two winners’ medals, but it has not been the easiest of seasons from a personal standpoint.
The forward went 12 games without a goal in all competitions between October and January. After eventually scoring against West Ham at the end of January, she then picked up a calf injury and spent a month on the sidelines.
England revealed to BBC Sport in April that she had sought professional help to improve not only her form, but also her mental health. It is an experience that helped her turn her perceived weaknesses into strengths.
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“I think the biggest lesson is that no matter how low and how down I got, I managed to bounce out of it. You go into a ‘woe is me, the world hates me, everything’s against me’ type feeling and I’ve not been shy in saying that I went and got external help.
Chelsea Women and Reading Women managers Emma Hayes and Kelly Chambers open up on the pressures of leading sides in the WSL as part of Mental Health Awareness week
“They helped me get out of my bubble – there was too much noise in my bubble so I had to get rid of the noise. Once I freed the noise, I was able to be myself again, be happier and I know I’m playing at my best when I’m happy.
“I’m an overthinker so if there’s too much going on in my head, I will go over it repeatedly and it’s almost like you make up fictional things in your head to fit the story or the narrative that you want, but that’s not how life works. You have to take it at face value.
“I learned this year more about myself and the strength I have inside of me. I always thought a part of the way I am is a weakness when actually I found that it’s a strength. I’ve been able to turn it from what I believe is a weakness into one of my biggest strengths.
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“It’s just knowing that there’s always support and you will find the right support which helps. Talking to a therapist isn’t always for someone, they might find it through something else, but I think as long as you get down to the core of what it is that makes you happy and what makes you tick and you know what you let in to affect you.
“Before I was quite sensitive and I’d let things get to me, whereas I think I’ve got much thicker skin and get on better with not reacting to things that initially I probably would have been very defensive about.”
There was also a watershed moment for the men’s game last week with Blackpool’s Jake Daniels coming out as gay – the only current player in men’s football in the UK to do so.
England is also openly gay and women’s football is well-known for its inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community. The 27-year-old was pleased to see the reaction from the football community in support of Daniels.
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“What a brave young man,” she said. “Obviously Justin Fashanu came out 30 years ago and sadly took his life eight years later and I think the game has shifted a long way since then.
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“To have that courage to do what he did, honestly I’m proud of him. He doesn’t know me and there are a lot of us in the women’s game that are very open and proud, but you still get the hate. I think for him to do that at his age, he’s just taken so much weight off a lot of other people’s shoulders that is put on his own.
“I thought it was a very mature interview that he did and he’s like ‘you know what, you’re still going to pay to come and watch me play, if you want to shout abuse, I’m still getting money in my pocket and I’m doing the job I love’.
“To have that mentality and stance on it knowing that we still have a long way to go with regards to racism and other things in the game, it was just so beautiful to see the footballing world and other people get behind him.”
Bethany England wears adidas Predator Edge, available at https://adidas.co.uk/football-shoes
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