When Emma Hayes signed Ji So-yun in 2014, she claimed the South Korean was “one of the best midfielders in the world” and promised fans they would love her.
It was clear to see on Sunday, as Ji ran out of the tunnel to a roar from the crowd, with a “champions” flag draped across her and a big smile on her face, that Hayes’ promise had come true.
The fans do love her and Ji’s trophy cabinet during her time at Chelsea marks her success.
After the Blues wrapped up a third successive Women’s Super League title with victory over Manchester United on Sunday, Ji became one of only four players to have won the competition five times.
This weekend, she will chase a fourth FA Cup medal when Chelsea take on Manchester City, to add to the two League Cups and the Community Shield she has also won.
It will be her final game for the club at Wembley – a fitting arena for her send-off where, seven years ago, her goal proved to be the winner in the first Women’s FA Cup final to be held at the national stadium.
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When Ji joined Chelsea in 2014, the club wasn’t the trophy-winning machine that it has since become.
Chelsea general manager Paul Green was part of a club delegation who managed to persuade Ji to move to west London. Recollecting that meeting with her agent, which took place in a baseball bar in Japan’s capital, Tokyo, Green tells BBC Sport it was a massive coup to be able to persuade Ji to join a club that was “still in our infancy”.
She didn’t speak any English at first but he says she “settled pretty quickly” on the field, and after her first season she was named PFA player of the year in 2015.
Over time she developed into a “legend” for the club, he said, as well as the WSL as a whole.
“She’s got to go down as the best import into the league in WSL history for what she has contributed to the team’s success and some of the individual success she has had,” said Green, who works alongside Hayes on a daily basis.
“If someone would have said to us that night in the baseball bar, that we would have had Ji for eight years, I don’t think anybody would have believed that because of where we were at that time, and where she was and the potential she had.
“It’s been a partnership that’s worked really well. She’s been good for us, we’ve been good for her.”
Ji was the first South Korean to play in the league and the first non-British player to make 100 and 200 league appearances.
Sunday’s substitute appearance was her 124th in the WSL and she has contributed to 66 goals – scoring 37 and assisting 29.
|Ji So-yun stats in the WSL since joining Chelsea in 2014|
|Total appearances||124||Passing accuracy||83.2%|
This season alone, she has assisted five goals in 12 league games, as well as creating 11 chances.
Someone who has experienced the difficult task of coming up against Ji, former England and Everton player Lindsay Johnson, told BBC Radio 5 Live that she was an intelligent player who was “so difficult to get the ball off”.
“She’s so influential on the ball and very creative,” she said. “She can open the game up and find passes which you just don’t think are on.”
‘Life and soul of team’
Aside from her footballing ability, Ji’s personality has also left a lasting impression on her team-mates and the coaching staff.
Chelsea striker Sam Kerr said: “Ji is obviously class on the field but she’s a character off the pitch too that we’ll definitely miss.”
The South Korean is someone who always has “a smile on her face”, said Green. “She’s a very funny character – the life and soul of the dressing room, always having a laugh and a joke with team-mates and staff members.”
Green said the staff used to joke that she would use the language barrier to her advantage.
“She is such a likeable character. We used to wind her up that she only knew English when it suited her. If she wanted a day off or a pay rise then she’d be able to ask for that in English, anything else – like contributing in team meetings and answering questions – she’d refrain from doing that.”
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Ji has played a key role in Chelsea’s run to the FA Cup final this season, scoring in the 2-0 win over Arsenal in the semi-finals and starting three of their four games en route to Wembley.
Her introduction at half-time in Sunday’s title win was crucial in turning around the 2-1 deficit to win 4-2.
“Ji wanted this day in front of the fans. She wanted to be instrumental and she was,” Hayes said after the midfielder paraded her latest piece of silverware and was honoured in front of the home supporters.
Hayes said Ji has been “an honour to coach” and was unquestionably “the most successful player from outside our league” as she departs, alongside team-mates Drew Spence and Jonna Andersson.
“We’ve been through things together in their lives, on the pitch and off the pitch. Those three are driving standards all week because they understand what Chelsea is,” added Hayes.
“Even on the way out they want to leave as champions. I know Ji leaves with a huge stamp on everybody’s heart. I will miss her terribly.”