Millie Bright exclusive: Chelsea Women's WSL title showdown, Emma Hayes impact and injury comeback

17 May 2024, 12:33 | Updated: 17 May 2024, 20:25

Chelsea Women have had some huge days in their history and captain Millie Bright has been there for most of them. But the final day of the 2023/24 season on Saturday could prove to be one of their most defining.

The Blues are top of the WSL table on goal difference - two goals ahead of Manchester City - and anything but a win against Manchester United, live on Sky Sports, would put them in danger of ending the season without silverware for the first time since 2019.

Cup competitions this season have proved tricky. There was defeat to Arsenal in the Conti Cup final and semi-final exits in the Champions League and FA Cup. Man Utd knocked them out in the latter, and Bright admits Chelsea do not want to lose in their first meeting with them since that game.

Emma Hayes, now perhaps prematurely, conceded the title to Man City after a bruising 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. But Chelsea have come roaring back into the picture, aided by some late Arsenal goals, and can now lift their fifth successive WSL title.

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Saturday's game will be the ultimate test of everything Hayes has instilled at Chelsea, the final bit of evidence - as if anyone needed it - of the mentality monsters she creates. "She's made me into a winner," Bright says.

Barely a slither of paper separates Chelsea and Man City and with the Blues holding the slender advantage, all of their experience and nous is needed to see them over the line.

"It's been a tense and very tough season and I think it's been the most competitive season out of all of them in terms of the title race," Bright exclusively told Sky Sports.

"I look back over the years and every title race has been different. But everybody knows Emma is leaving and that's where things have been a little bit different. As a team, we've really wanted to succeed this year more than ever in every competition, which has not gone to plan.

"But Emma is the best professional so she wants all eyes on us and it's about going out and performing on Saturday and getting the job done.

"This would be an extra special one if we did go on and win the title, especially because we've not succeeded with the other competitions more. But we've got to be ready, train well and be ready."

When asked why Chelsea have not quite hit the heights they wanted to this season, Bright reflected: "Life and football is what happens. People that work normal nine to fives, they have good days, bad days and we're only human at the end of the day.

"I also put it down to the league growing so much and every team has gone to a new level, so it's harder to win, it's harder to score goals, harder to keep clean sheets.

"And it is also hard when you get injuries, the squad is a little bit smaller and everyone's still got to keep competing for every trophy, which at one point we were doing, but that's what happens when you're at the top.

"And with the announcement of Emma leaving, it's credit to the staff and players because I think everyone's dealt with it incredibly well. Everyone should be proud of how we've overcome certain things this season."

'The legacy of Chelsea is Emma Hayes'

It was in November when Hayes announced her departure from Chelsea to take charge of the USA Women's team. Saturday's game brings an end to her 14-year, transformational tenure in the WSL - but Bright is not yet contemplating a Hayes-less Chelsea.

"I refuse to until the game's over tomorrow (Saturday)," the defender said. "That's her messaging as well - she wants everyone to stay focused and stay committed right through to the last game.

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"Once the season's done, I will start to process it and probably will be flooded with emotion. I've always said she's a life coach just as much as my manager and someone I know I can rely on in life.

"It's not easy news to accept and mid-season as well. It's hard to process there and then because as we know, fighting for titles every season, you can't take your eye off the game for one second. There's no time to dwell, you've got to be prepared and on your A-game.

"As a team, we definitely didn't allow it to affect us, although in hindsight, it is always going to affect you because it's something so big and there are changes on the horizon.

"For some of us, everything we've ever known is Emma Hayes, so I think we channelled that into making sure that we were as successful as possible. Now, we want to make sure we end on a high for her and it's something that she can be proud of, even more than everything she's achieved over the years."

The Blues skipper is a prime example of Hayes' ability to identify talent and develop them into world-class players. In fact, it is the outgoing Chelsea boss who helped Bright decide on defence as her main position.

"I've always said that they took a gamble in signing me. I never expected it. We had a discussion about whether I should play midfield or centre-back, I was flicking between positions.

"I remember we sat down and she was like 'what do you want to do?'. I said 'I want to be the best player in that position, so what is it?' and she said 'defence', and then that was it. I was sold in defence.

"First and foremost, she taught me about professional life and how that's meant to look as a player. Technically, it's gone through the roof and that's my biggest area that she's improved, and reading of the game.

"Also that being in a team is more than just playing. Being in the leadership role, it's everything on the pitch, but everything off the pitch as well.

"She's changed this club and representing the women's team, it's incredible. I've never seen anything quite like it. She's at the front fighting for us every single day and changing the mentality of the club to represent both men and women equally. I've always said the legacy of Chelsea is Emma Hayes.

"She's taught me how to be strong and the way in which you want to make change, it's all about the process in doing so and doing it the right way."

How Bright continued her leadership during injury

Bright spent six months out with a knee injury, the first time the 30-year-old has missed a significant part of a season and something she describes as "challenging".

While she may not have been able to influence on the field, she still used her leadership skills to guide the dressing room, especially for stand-in captains Niamh Charles and Erin Cuthbert.

"I feel like I've had more challenges than ever in one season on and off the pitch, but I still had a role to play as captain," Bright said.

"I wanted to support the girls as best I can and I'm not a player that gets injured and leaves the team. If the team lose, I lose and if we win, I win - we're a team no matter what.

"I've tried to support the likes of Niamh and Erin, stepping up in that leadership role and making sure they've got everything they need to not only lead, but to perform as well. They've been fantastic this season and the two most consistent players. Credit to them as young leaders, stepping up is not an easy role.

"You definitely see things differently [from the stands] and I was making sure that we've got each other's backs, players were stepping up when necessary, and we're doing the right things in the chaotic moments.

"I tried to make sure there were meetings in place if I felt like we needed it as a team. There's been many ups and many downs throughout the season and it's about getting through those together.

"Personally, I've tried to balance how much you give to the team and how much you're focusing on rehab as well. I wanted to get back as quick as possible, but life sometimes isn't always easy.

"I'm so proud of the girls for what they've overcome this year and to still be in the title races, it's credit to everyone."

'I adore representing my country'

Bright's injury return has been timed well. She was called up to Sarina Wiegman's latest squad for the European Qualifiers against France, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland this week - her first involvement since October.

"I absolutely adore representing my country, being out there doing what I love and being with my friends," Bright said. "I can't wait to get back out there, I'm super excited that I was able to make the end of the season in order to get some minutes in before selection.

"To be the best, you've got to beat the best and for us as players, we thrive in any situation against any opponent. It's an extremely tough group, but one we know we're capable of [winning].

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"You also have to evolve. We've had success over the years with England, but we have to find a new level. You've seen how hard it is to win, score goals, to defend and it's credit to the whole women's game really. It's just gone to another level."

But back-to-back international camps after a busy season allows little time for players to rest, with the increasingly congested calendar continuing to be a source of concern for players and managers.

"I'd love for it to look a lot different than what it does, that would be a great start, but it is what it is for now," Bright added.

"Hopefully changes are made moving forward to allow the players to have a full recovery and have a proper pre-season to build-up to an extremely busy schedule.

"As players, we want to be able to perform at our highest levels in every single game, not just at the start of the season. It's very tasking when you don't get that off-season and things are not scheduled properly.

"Honestly, everyone needs to come together, sit down and work out the best scheduling for the players performance. It's not just the physical side, but it's the mental side as well.

"Enough players have spoken out now about scheduling and how dangerous it could be if things don't change. I think you'll see the performances will drop, there'll be fewer players on the pitch because players will just keep getting injuries and big injuries as well, which will keep them out for seasons, let alone two weeks.

"I hope people start listening to the players because we're speaking up for a reason and it's coming from a good place. We aren't robots, it's hard to maintain, but we will always do our best to perform for the fans. Ultimately injuries will happen and no rest is not a good solution."

How to follow the WSL's final day with Sky Sports

Watch Man Utd vs Chelsea live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 2pm; kick-off 3pm. You can also stream the game with NOW.

You can follow the twists and turns from every WSL game across Sky Sports' digital platforms with our dedicated live blogs, including in-game clips and free match highlights from Old Trafford.

We will also have analysis and insight from an enthralling final day, as well as free match highlights from every WSL game later on Saturday.

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