IT SAYS something of Lenny Hayes' nature that if he was to change anything about his stellar St Kilda career, it would be the end.
With six games to go in 2014, the Saints champion announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. It spawned a 'We love Lenny' farewell tour, which didn't sit comfortably with the humble midfielder.
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"There was a bit of carry on for the last part of that year. I didn't fully understand the ramifications of making an early call on it," he said.
Hayes better be ready for another round of the spotlight after being announced as an inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
Few observers would have been surprised. Hayes' CV proves him to be one of the midfielders of this century.
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Across 297 games and 16 seasons, Hayes was a four-time All-Australian, the Saints' captain on two occasions, and placed in the top-three of St Kilda's best and fairest in eight seasons, winning it three times.
Growing up in northern Sydney suburb Pennant Hills, Hayes tried a number of sports, but his competitiveness was best suited to the Sherrin.
St Kilda used pick 11 at the 1998 NAB AFL Draft on Hayes, and as he navigated the AFL world, it was a word from coach Grant Thomas late in 2002 that saw his game jump a level.
"I was out injured so I was just helping out at training, and he said 'You're going to have a really good year next year'. I think that probably instilled a bit of confidence that he believed in me," Hayes said.
Thomas was right. Hayes won his first best and fairest and All-Australian the following year, starting his ascent among the competition's best ball-getters.
Hayes' attack on the ball was fierce, his courage famous. He battled injuries (two knee reconstructions) and ailments (he played the 2012 season with a heart condition) without compromising his hardness or consistency.
Hayes was the heartbeat of the St Kilda side that made three preliminary finals and three Grand Finals in his time (across 2009-2010) without clinching the ultimate prize.
'Saint Lenny' could not have done any more to drag his Saints to their elusive second premiership, including his brilliant Norm Smith Medal-winning game in the 2010 drawn Grand Final with Collingwood.
"There's no doubt every year you look at the premier and wish that could have been us at some point," he said.
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1999, round 5 v North Melbourne, SCG
Hayes' debut is best remembered for him being on the receiving end of a crunching bump from Kangaroos great Glenn Archer. After the ball trickled along the wing, the 19-year-old Hayes attempted to sidestep Archer but was flattened by a side-splitting hit. It was the first display of the toughness that came to define Hayes' career. "It's one of those moments that I still haven't been able to live down. He got me fair and square right up the middle. It's the difference between coming out of under-18 footy and playing with the big boys," he said.
2003, round 11 v Brisbane, Docklands
By 2003 the Saints' build was coming together, as was Hayes' career. One of the key games of his – and the Saints' – season came against the Lions, who were coming off back-to-back flags. Hayes led the way in St Kilda's five-point win with a game-high 35 disposals and six clearances. Brisbane went on to win their third successive flag that season, but it was an important win for the Saints. "They used to absolutely smash us and that was the first time we stood up and played pretty well," he said. "That game was definitely a moment. It was a good springboard for the 2004 season."
2004, Preliminary Final v Port Adelaide, AAMI Park
St Kilda's first genuine crack at a premiership in Hayes' career fell short in the second last week of season 2004, with Port Adelaide beating the Saints by six points in the preliminary final. Hayes skippered the Saints that year under the club's rotating captaincy plan. He had 32 disposals and nine tackles in that famous game, his performance kickstarting a run of brilliant finals campaigns. "Everyone wants to play well in finals and I'd had a pretty disappointing final the week before against Sydney (he was kept to 10 disposals by Swans tagger Brett Kirk)," Hayes said. "He kept me pretty quiet and I wanted to respond. I felt we were in control of that game. Unfortunately it didn't go our way."
2005, Qualifying Final v Adelaide, AAMI Park
The Saints were considered underdogs against the red-hot Crows, but pulled off an upset eight-point win. Hayes was again among the Saints' best with 25 disposals and 12 tackles, while Saints veteran Robert Harvey ran rampant with three goals and 31 disposals. "'Harvs' turned it on and kicked three and dragged us over the line. That was a really sweet victory. Winning finals interstate when your back's against the wall is always good fun," Hayes said.
2009, Preliminary Final v Western Bulldogs, MCG
Hayes looks back on this win as the "best feeling" of his career. In his fourth attempt to reach the Grand Final, the Saints had finally secured a preliminary final win. It was a tight contest, with St Kilda's class edging them ahead by seven points after a dominant home and away season that saw them win the first 19 games. Hayes was brilliant, best afield with 34 disposals and a goal. "To win that game was a relief but…it was probably was the [best feeling I've had in footy] because we were hoping we were going to have a better feeling the week after," he said. The following week they lost a nail-biting Grand Final to Geelong.
2010, Drawn Grand Final vs Collingwood, MCG
The game which Hayes is perhaps best remembered for after winning the Norm Smith Medal. Hayes etched himself into football folklore with his outstanding performance in the first drawn Grand Final since 1977 – and the last ever after the AFL abolished the replay in 2016. His long goal from outside 50 in the final quarter was significant, he had 11 of his 32 touches in the last term and it was his kick that bounced through for the behind that levelled the scores with less than two minutes to play. "I appreciate the history around the medal and certainly don't take that for granted, but it's not something that I'm ever going to really celebrate or anything like that," he said. "It's a bit of a weird feeling to be honest, because most people who win it have played in a premiership. It would be a much different feeling to me [if the Saints had won]. I don't have it hanging up in the house."
2014, round 23 v Adelaide, AAMI Stadium
Heading into his final AFL game, Hayes needed eight tackles to break Sydney great Jude Bolton's AFL record of 1490 tackles. He overtook Bolton early in the third term and finished with 13 tackles in the Saints' heavy loss. West Coast's Matt Priddis has since taken over the record. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't [on my radar]," Hayes said. "After that game all the boys were flying back to go to Melbourne but I had a lot of family and friends there so I stayed in Adelaide. I packed my bag up by myself and walked back to the hotel from the ground through a few supporters giving me a bit of stick. It hit home then that it was all over."
Lenny Hayes by the numbers
Played 297 games and scored 95 goals for St Kilda: 1999-2014
Club captain: 2004, 2007 (joint)
Club Best & Fairest: 2003, 2010, 2012
Norm Smith Medallist: 2010
All Australian: 2003, 2005, 2009
Pre-Season Premiership: 2004, 2008
International Rules Representative: 2003
Madden Medallist: 2014
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