Carly Telford has endured a tortuous five years since she left Chelsea. Now she is back at the club which has been transformed under the leadership of Emma Hayes into one of the best in Europe. Katie Whyatt hears an uplifting story
Carly Telford was there at the genesis of Emma Hayes’s five-year plan to take Chelsea to the summit of women’s football. Another milestone on the road was ticked off this week when Chelsea qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time.
It was in Telford’s first spell in west London that Hayes arrived as manager. The goalkeeper was one of the first to be let in in the masterplan that has subsequently delivered a WSL 1 title, an FA Cup win, European football and, in April this year, the WSL Spring Series that bridged the league’s move to the winter.
“She has a clear vision,” Telford says of the coach with whom she is now reunited. “I worked with her the first time I was at Chelsea [from 2010 until 2012], when I was captain, and she sat me down and she told me her ambitions and her plans. She had this five-year plan of where she wanted to take Chelsea. It made me laugh, in a way, because it was something that I kind of thought was too far-fetched. I didn’t know whether anyone would invest that far in the game, or if anyone else would follow. Back then, we were all part-time, playing in the winter league, and we were on the men’s pitch between eight and ten at night, when they weren’t there, and so on.
“She told me year one would be a clear-out, year two would be to try and win something – and everything she wanted to happen has occurred. Along the way, she’s spoken to some of the biggest directors at the club, put her ideas to them and they’ve fully embraced what she’s trying to achieve. That’s credit to her, as a woman of her word. When she wants something, she does it in the best way possible for the game and for the girls, and to see the game that she loves, that she’s grown up with, grow and progress.
“I think she’s paved the way for many men’s teams and many women’s teams to really get on-board, and show where the game can be taken if it’s done correctly. That’s a lot of hard work and a lot of hours. I remember, at the time, she was carrying two jobs, and she still does: she still has a family business that she works for. Now her heart and soul is invested in Chelsea football club, and you can really see that.”
Hayes’s enthusiasm is infectious. Three members of the men’s board watched an earlier round fixtures against Bayern Munich. “That shows their interest and the connection she has,” says Telford. “They visit regularly and ask if we’ve got everything we need. They want to make us a world-class organisation, a brand that’s recognised all over. And that’s not just the men’s team, but the women’s team.”
Not only are Chelsea in the last eight in Europe’s premier club tournament – they finished off a 4-0 aggregate win against Rosengard in Malmo in midweek – they are unbeaten in the domestic league, having not conceded a goal in five games to date, and are two points behind leaders Manchester City, who are their next WSL opponents in three weeks’ time.
Telford looks back on a strong pre-season that proved crucial in synchronising the players after the European Championship in the summer. “We got back, had staggered time off depending on when players exited the Euros or where they were in pre-season,” the 30-year-old explains. Seven days were spent in Austria, in the heart of the Obertraun Mountains, where they played friendlies against Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. “We knew we were five weeks behind their pre-season so it was to find out where we were, and we tested ourselves against the team we ended up getting drawn against [in the Champions League] in Bayern.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind pre-season for the international girls who didn’t get a lot of time with each other, then we’ve come back into it and we look like we haven’t been apart. You can see that in the international girls who have come into the club, really settled and want to stay. The girls travel quite far and they leave home, leave families, but they love being here, and love being at this club. That’s not just because we have really good facilities, but because they want to play for Emma.”
Pictures circulated on Instagram of Telford bathing in a nearby stream. “We stayed up in the mountains and it was a beautiful place,” Telford says. “The river came straight down from the glaciers up in the top of the mountains. It was freezing, but it was our recovery method while the weather was beautiful. It was an easier way than having to buy ice or find a bin. It was different but it was very pleasant – in a strange way.”
What’s next, then? Simply: domination. “We want to become a brand that’s recognised all over, and one that’s in Champions League repeatedly,” she says. “We’d like to become a team where we can attract the best players over from the likes of Europe, America, wherever she wants to bring them from. And [to do that] you have to play Champions League football – that’s what every international player wants. In the men’s game, you hear the whole adage, ‘If Liverpool don’t qualify for the Champions League, are players going to leave?’ In the women’s game now, that’s the pinnacle.”
Telford nonchalantly reels the aims off, but Chelsea’s sense of ambition remains striking. “Achieve an FA Cup, and we’ve never won the Conti Cup, so I’m sure that’s on Emma’s radar. But winning the league gets us Champions League next year. We’ve got the players, the squad and we’ve certainly got all the facilities to be able to do it. And I don’t think we could have had a better start.”
It is a far cry from Telford’s circuitous and torturous route back to Chelsea that was chronicled in The Mixed Zone’s recent in-depth investigation into the health of the women’s game in this country. Her three clubs in the intervening five years – Leeds, Charlton and Notts County – all lost funding while Telford was there and she found herself jobless time and again.
This season’s turnaround in her personal fortunes means she can afford to be slightly more lighthearted. “There seems to be a common theme here – I’d best leave Chelsea before it happens to them,” she laughs. But you sense Telford – bright, articulate and searingly honest about the game’s shortcomings – is relieved that she no longer has to worry whether her club will even continue to exist come the end of the season. And if Emma Hayes’s masterplan continues to prove accurate, there may be tangible reward for the girl from County Durham come the spring.
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Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles