Jess Carter shakes hands with Emma Hayes after Chelsea's WSL win over Arsenal on Friday. | Darren Walsh / Getty Images

Emma Hayes has conceded that she was wrong to label player-to-player relationships in women’s soccer as “inappropriate” after her comments sparked a heated debate.

The Chelsea manager, who will take over as head coach of the United States women’s national team at the end of this season, told the media on Thursday that relationships between teammates present challenges within a club or team environment that are “far from ideal” and suggested they should be phased out as the game becomes more professional.

However, after watching her Blues players beat Arsenal 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on Friday night to move three points clear at the top of the Women’s Super League table, Hayes said she regretted how the issue had “blown up” on social media and appeared to accept her role in that.

“I have to expect that I am supposed to be the most well-trained, non-clickbait headline coach, and I’ve let myself down yesterday,” she admitted.

The primary question put to Hayes and other WSL managers at press conferences across England ahead of the weekend action concerned relationships between players and coaches.

The topic is in the news after it was revealed that WSL side Leicester have launched an investigation into the conduct of their manager Willie Kirk over allegations he had a relationship with one of his players. Kirk, 45, has reportedly been suspended while club officials look into the matter.

Last month, Sheffield United — who play in the second-tier Women’s Championship — sacked Jonathan Morgan from his position as manager after it emerged he had had a relationship with a player during his time in charge at Leicester.

The position of the Football Association in England is that player-coach relationships are “not advised because of the potential for power imbalance and the impact on team culture and dynamics.”

The consensus among WSL coaches was stronger than that — “unacceptable” said Aston Villa’s Carla Ward, while Arsenal’s Jonas Eidevall said it is “very inappropriate” for a coach to be in a relationship with a player in their charge.

However, Hayes went further. “I think player-coach relationships are inappropriate, player-to-player relationships are inappropriate,” she said, citing the need for codes of conduct in the professional era.

Asked to expand on the second part of her response, she said: “It’s about the challenges it poses — one player’s in the team, one’s not in the team. One might be in the last year of their contract, one might not be. One might be competing in a position with someone else.

“You don’t need me to spell that out. It presents challenges.

“Longer-term, in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to deal with that. It is quite challenging for coaching teams to have to deal with it… we have to [think] an awful lot about how we manage those challenges in the locker room, because they are far from ideal.”

Her comments immediately raised eyebrows, not least because her last three WSL title triumphs were all achieved with at least two couples in her squad — Jess Carter and Ann-Katrin Berger, and Magdalena Eriksson and Pernille Harder.

England defender Carter and Germany goalkeeper Berger are still at Chelsea now, with the club on course to achieve five league crowns in a row in Hayes’ final campaign in charge.

Ann-Katrin Berger, Emma Hayes, Jess Carter at Chelsea
Emma Hayes flanked by Chelsea players and couple Ann-Katrin Berger and Jess Carter after the club’s FA Cup win last year | Naomi Baker / The FA / Getty Images

On Friday, Carter’s X account was showing ‘likes’ for several tweets from journalists and fans who took exception to how Hayes had framed her argument the previous day.

But after the win over Arsenal, Hayes explained that she had spoken to her defender whose performance in the match she described as “outstanding”. The Blues boss said: “Of course, Jess and I have had a conversation today, as I have with other players in the team. They know exactly who I am and they know exactly what my intentions were.”

She continued: “I have zero criticism of any player in my dressing room for anything, their professionalism, for what they have given to their club, regardless of their status or who they are in a relationship with.

“I’ve been unbelievably supportive of all of the players. I have been a champion for equality and equity.”

Also offering a view before Friday night’s WSL game was Kate Richardson-Walsh, who made history at the Rio 2016 Olympics alongside her wife, Helen, as part of the Great Britain team that triumphed in the women’s field hockey tournament. The Richardson-Walshs were the first same-sex married couple to win Olympic gold medals together.

In a tweet that included a picture of herself with Helen celebrating their success in Rio, Kate wrote: “Definitely not “inappropriate” and certainly not being “phased out”.”

She did agree with Hayes on player-staff relationships, calling them an “abuse of power.”

Last summer, Eriksson and Harder joined Bayern Munich, who are the current leaders of the Frauen Bundesliga.

Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema are girlfriends at Arsenal, while another prominent recent example from women’s soccer of club teammates in relationships is former USWNT stars Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, who were together at Orlando Pride and NJ/NY Gotham FC. They got married in 2019 but began divorce proceedings last year

In other sports, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner — teammates at the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun — have been engaged since last July, while Marie-Philip Poulin and Laura Stacey are also fiancees and competing alongside one another for PWHL Montreal in ice hockey.

Hayes was trying to put her point across in the context of professionalism. It was as recently as 2018 that the WSL in England went fully professional, and another step forward for the game is imminent with the setting up of the so-called “NewCo”, an independent company that will take over the running of the two top divisions from next season.

The Chelsea coach did attempt to qualify her view, noting “we’re dealing with human beings… every office place has different challenges to deal with.”

As is so often the case, it’s also on the complete flipside to professional men’s team sports, where relationships between players are all but unheard of.

It was Hayes’ problematic wording, however, suggesting there was something improper about two players falling in love akin to the blatant unsuitability of a player-coach relationship, that really ruffled feathers.

She concluded her post-match comments on the matter by adding: “Sadly this has become a topic that has been blown up in an unnecessary way. But I can’t control social media, nor do I wish to.

“Even if we have disagreements in life, we must not play them out publicly. We must have conversations with each other because it’s an important thing you must do in a workplace.”

Don't forget to share: