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football

Chelsea crowned Women's Super League champions: How Emma Hayes conceded defeat before landing fifth straight title

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Smoke and mirrors. Was that all Chelsea's 4-3 loss to Liverpool earlier this month amounted to? A rouse.

A moment to lure Manchester City into thinking the title was theirs, and a departing dose of Emma Hayes deception, "I'd love to win titles again for Chelsea, but that's not going to be this year I'm afraid," she claimed on May 1.

It felt sincere, and yet, here we stand 17 days later, witnessing Chelsea claim their fifth successive WSL crown. Anyone else feel a little silly?

The thing that stands Chelsea apart from any challenger is an elite mentality. One that cannot be taught.

It is something cultivated through experience, summed up perfectly by captain Millie Bright on the final day: "When half the country write you off, we've always got our monster mentality."

Winners have a special knack under pressure and that was especially evident as the Blues dismantled Manchester United in their own back yard to snatch the title on goal difference, sharing six goals between five different scorers.

Hayes' rallying cry worked. "Let me be clear, it's not ******* over," she said after watching her side trounce Bristol City 8-0 to reignite the race, four days after supposedly conceding the title to City.

Quite the step change.

When Chelsea get punched they don't stay down for long. Chances came and went for both Man City and Arsenal to take the reigns, be the aggressors. But none were bold or cunning enough to deny Hayes her dream end. The perfect epilogue to her Chelsea career.

The past half-decade, so transformative for the women's game, undoubtedly belongs to her, its chief change-maker. And you have got to say Hayes played her hand beautifully.

A home Euros, the first lucrative TV deal, transition to main stadia, sponsorship and commercial opportunities, new audiences, and an influx of the world's best talent - the key was always to stay one step ahead.

Chelsea embraced the game's rapid evolution and, in doing so, became its most potent force. This season marks the first time in WSL history that a women's side sold out their club's main stadium - Chelsea managed that. Attracting the best talent, tick. Plotting championships, they did that too.

We should have expected it would be this way. Once the Gunners wrenched the door ajar, overturning a 1-0 deficit in the 89th minute to beat Man City 2-1 on May 5, the cloak of inevitability descended. It became Chelsea's to lose.

Us mere mortals can do nothing but tip our hats, because there is genius everywhere you turn. Decisions that defy belief but ultimately define eras. Take Mayra Ramirez, signed for a world-record fee (including add-ons) in January after Sam Kerr was savagely lost to an ACL injury.

A gamble, but doubters need only watch the Columbia forward's masterclass on the final day against Man Utd to understand why mega money was spent mid-season - Chelsea scored four first-half goals and Ramirez had a hand in all of them.

When the 25-year-old arrived, from Levante in Spain, she barely spoke a word of English. You'd never know, such are the wonderful connections she has with team-mates all over the pitch. She's registered six goal contributions in seven appearances since her switch. Debt repaid.

Hayes has now won 14 major trophies across 12 extraordinary years as Chelsea boss, akin to Manchester United's Premier League dominance of the 90s and early 00s.

Fitting, then, that her male equivalent and mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, was in the crowd for her swansong moment at Old Trafford. When Hayes became the first woman to receive the Football Writers' Association tribute award earlier this year, the Man Utd legend was the one chosen to offer commendation.

In years to come many parallels will be drawn between the two, for the extraordinary impact they had in their respective fields, as pioneers of the game.

"I hope to get a glass of wine with Sir Alex in a minute," Hayes said at the final whistle on Saturday.

"Everyone told us we couldn't. Everyone said girls can't play, nor can they fill stadiums, nor can they get paid, nor can they create history."

They were wrong.

The perfect sign-off from the game's most revered champion.