READING, England -- There was a beautiful balance to Reading lining up alongside Chelsea at the Select Car Leasing stadium on Saturday afternoon. It was the team at the top vs. the team at the bottom, with neither the title nor relegation completely settled before kickoff. But beyond the state of the play in that moment, the match saw the two longest-serving managers in the division pitted against each other; Reading's Kelly Chambers and Chelsea's Emma Hayes aren't just good friends, but confidantes.
Chambers and Hayes have a lot in common; they're two mothers who have nurtured their respective clubs to where they are today. In one dugout was Chambers, a manager who had operated on a comparative shoestring budget, even taking on numerous additional roles at the club, to get it to a place of safety and competition within WSL after earning a promotion from the second tier in 2015.
In the other was Hayes, a manager who had pushed the envelope in the WSL. She also claimed her first league title in 2015 but, rather than it gaining a place in top division, it was the beginning of Chelsea's dominance of women's football in England as they claimed six of the next eight WSL crowns. Indeed, the investment from Chelsea, like that from Manchester City and Arsenal back when the Royals were taking those fledgling steps in the WSL (or WSL 1 as it was known at the time), is what has ultimately spelled Reading's demise.
Saturday's 3-0 win for Chelsea confirmed the Blues' latest title and as Chambers said in her prematch news conference ahead of the last fixtures of the season: "I think as the women's game has grown, clubs have put money in to make sure that their women's team grows. That is so important for the game and unfortunately, right now, we just can't keep up with that at the rate it is going."
It was a sentiment that had been danced around all season and indeed, for many of the past few. There were no illusions about the financial clout (or lack thereof) Chambers has had to work with. The financial gulf -- along with club-wide struggles that have only gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic -- doesn't just impact the players the club can bring in and the wages they can pay, but the size of the staff Chambers has to work with.
As well as a bespoke training facility at the club's training ground outside of Reading, the strength of the coaching is what Chambers believes is the biggest draw for potential signings. And, as director of football along with being head coach, the 37-year-old has plenty of say in who it is the club are trying to bring in, but it's been clear this season that the team is lacking some of its previous quality. Injuries to key players such as nine-month absentee Deanne Rose, as well as Deanna Cooper, Emma Harries and Jackie Burns have only further hampered what they've managed on the pitch this term.
After a 4-1 loss to Spurs in their penultimate game of the season, Chambers spoke of the "miracle" required to keep the team up, but the Royals were granted a temporary reprieve when relegation rivals Leicester City failed to beat West Ham the following day, taking the fight all the way to the last round of fixtures.
Reading went into their last game knowing they needed not just their best performance of the season against reigning champions Chelsea, but a favour from Brighton (the Seagulls were hosting the Foxes, who were two points better off than Reading at kick-off.) As it happened, Leicester snatched a late win, dooming the Royals regardless.
It was the culmination of a season-long slide. Even if Reading had managed to stay up this time, it would only have felt like delaying the inevitable. The chasm of financial disparity between them and their peers has grown season on season, threatening to swallow them as they tumbled.
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After their insipid loss to Spurs, Chambers faced the usual WSL questions about possible relegation, though everything was phrased with hope after the return of Liverpool and Bristol City following their respective demotions. Yet such attempts at positive spin didn't make much sense; the money Liverpool could put into their women's programme far outstrips Reading, who have also seen their men's team relegated to League One for next season.
However, Chambers is keen to keep as much continuity between this season and the next, and said after the loss to Spurs. "I want to keep the whole set-up as full-time like we are. We have unbelievable staff that work hard, many have more than one job."
At Reading for 21 years, the landscape of the women's game has rapidly shifted. Chambers has gone from a player, to coach, to director of football and manager. Equally, the game is no longer an amateur or part-time pursuit, but a viable career that has to pay the bills. And even though the pay structure in WSL and the Championship doesn't currently have the same weight as promotion and relegation in the men's game, belts are routinely tightened when women's teams are forced to take a step down.
A family club first and foremost, with Chambers always painted in the maternal role long before the birth of her first child in 2016, last weekend the manager spoke of worrying for those at the club, the players as well as her backroom staff, many of whom had been in limbo through so much of the season. She admitted, just five weeks before her second child was due, that she hadn't even packed a bag for the hospital or settled on a name; Reading's season and the implications for those involved was her first concern.
When asked by ESPN about the community and family side of the club, the 37-year-old was steadfast. "We have to keep those values; obviously post-COVID it's been hard. I want the players and staff back into the community more and build on the fanbase we've built. We have had a good number of fans at every game but we need to build that regardless of what league we're in.
"We're a family club and we can't lose that as a value, it's so important to us. Playing in Reading now was a big move for us, you see kids meeting players and you don't get to build those relationships [with fans] in the men's game. That's such a big part of the women's game I hope doesn't change too much.
"Yes, there's on the pitch stuff we need to sort out and off the pitch we still need to grow as a club, so it's how we do that."
Situated some 40-miles west of London in the heart of Berkshire, there is a deeper sense of the community aspect at the club that has played a key role in the careers of countless WSL players, from centre of excellence graduates like Fran Kirby and Emma Harries, to those who cut their teeth elsewhere like Lauren Burton, Tash Harding and Mary Earps. It's little surprise to hear Chambers offer such high praise to player development and community integration.
Quizzed on her future numerous times over the years, not least this season, which felt like one protracted struggle against the tide, Chambers has repeatedly said that the Royals are her focus and that it's hard to see herself elsewhere. The manager, who has done so much with so little over her time in WSL, and one who has given more than two decades of her life to the club she cherishes, has been highly praised and muttered about in conjunction with other vacant jobs around the league for the strength of her coaching ability.
Yet, just like the manager she lined up opposite in her last game in WSL, it is almost impossible to imagine her anywhere else. Just as Chelsea would not be where they are today without Hayes, Reading would be a shadow of itself without Chambers.