Australian Rules Hall of Fame Inductee Lenny Hayes

On St Kilda’s all-time lists Lenny Hayes achievements are exceptional, he ranks sixth for games played, equal eighth for finals played (15), third for Brownlow Medal votes polled (129) and equal fifth for Best and Fairests won (3) and he is also the only St Kilda player to win a Norm Smith Medal for best afield in a Grand Final. Several of Lenny’s greatest strengths however can’t be measured purely with stats, being his unwavering courage and hardness at the ball and the man, as well as tremendous leadership and inspiration he provided to his team-mates and the entire St Kilda Football Club both on and off the ground.

Given these lofty accomplishments it is not surprising that midfielder Hayes became a favourite of St Kilda supporters and team-mates alike, however Lenny is one of the rare players that transcended his own club to earn the respect and admiration of the entire football world including supporters and players of rival AFL clubs.

Hayes was remarkably consistent throughout his decorated career, he missed less than four games in a season in 10 seasons from 2002 onwards, each time he finished in the top five of St Kilda’s best and fairest, and in the 16th and final season of his career he had his eighth top three finish in the Saints best and fairest.

The three seasons that Hayes did not record a top five best and fairest finish from 2002 until his final season in 2014 were due to injuries, requiring a right knee reconstruction in 2006, a left knee reconstruction in 2011, and being limited to 14 games in 2013 due to calf injuries.

Whilst Hayes suffered more than his fair share of injuries whilst playing for St Kilda his extraordinary powers of recovery, together with his dedication and mental toughness, both during the rehabilitation process and once he returned to the field enabled him to maintain his high level of performance and continue to be one of the Saints best players.

After breaking his collarbone in Round 5 2007 Lenny missed only three games, about half the time expected on the sidelines for a player with this injury. Lenny’s return to AFL football at 32 years of age in 2012 after a left knee reconstruction early in 2011 was phenomenal, playing scintillating football during 2012 Hayes was one of the form players of not just St Kilda but the entire AFL to finish in the top 10 of the Brownlow Medal for the third time in his career.

Lenny had countless operations during his AFL career, however not all of them were football related, he was unable to attend the 2012 St Kilda best and fairest and accept the third Trevor Barker award of his career in person as he was at home recovering from heart surgery. Just before Christmas 2011 Hayes found out about a hole in his heart that he has had for his entire life, however he delayed having the operations until after St Kilda’s 2012 season had concluded.  

On Monday 1 June 2020 three-time St Kilda best and fairest winner Hayes was inducted into the AFL Australian Football Hall of Fame at the first available opportunity, having been retired for the minimum five seasons since his last game in 2014.

In the video for Hayes’ induction into the Australian Football Hall of Fame his former teammate Nick Riewoldt commented “If you are a lover of the competitive, tough style of game, well then he is your man. If you are a lover of the silk and the finesse and the high skill level well then there is something in Lenny’s game for you. If you love guys that just compete, Lenny, he is your man so there is something for everyone encapsulated within Lenny Hayes as a person.” Riewoldt went on to say “There was just something innate within him that just drove his desire to compete so strongly and I can’t think of a moment where there was a short step, there was anything less than everything he had to give.”

Riewoldt commented “He is the best player I played with, he is such a deserving inductee into the AFL Hall of Fame because of the way that he played the game. Even in canvassing teammates, past coaches, medical staff before coming and speaking today, this is a seat that I am very privileged to be sitting in because everyone would love to be in this seat talking about Lenny, there are so many moments in all of our individual careers when we were better players and better people for having Lenny as a friend or teammate. He is the best player, teammate, warrior, all of those things, he is at the top of the box in everyone.”

Talking about his game Lenny said “I wasn’t overly quick, I never took a hanger in my life, I couldn’t kick the ball over a jam tin most of the time so the contested side of it was what suited me and I think that is the great thing about our game that there is something for everybody, that was the thing for me. I sort of wanted to be a player that when they did get it and especially being a midfielder you wanted to be able to connect with your forwards. I think there was always that balance but being at the coalface was probably where I felt most comfortable and when I did get it I tried to do something good with it.”

Over his outstanding career Lenny has had many significant achievements, including being a three-time All-Australian, three-time best and fairest winner and having three top 10 finishes in the Brownlow Medal, including third place in 2009. However, arguably the greatest achievements throughout Lenny’s brilliant career have been the ability to get the absolute maximum out of himself whilst also providing great leadership both on and off the field to his teammates. One of  Lenny’s most impressive traits was the ability, frequently when it looked as though games were slipping away from St Kilda to will himself to elevate his performance to another level, in the process inspiring his teammates to lift their output leading to a St Kilda comeback victory, this was particularly apparent during the 2010 season.

Today, January 14 2021 is Lenny Hayes 41st birthday, to mark the occasion Milestones and Misses belatedly celebrate Hayes’ induction into the Australian Football by taking a comprehensive look back at his incredible career below:

Early life

Hayes was born on 14 January 1980 and grew up deep in rugby territory in Pennant Hills, a suburb approximately 20 kilometres north-west of Sydney’s CBD. From his time playing rugby growing up Hayes picked up a couple of very useful skills that he utilised when playing Australian Rules, the ability to sell candy and sidestep his opponents which resulted in the nickname ‘the candyman’, and to anticipate how his opponent was going to move and tackle them effectively. On Fox Footy program ‘On the Couch’ in August 2014 Hayes said “Selling candy is one of those things I sort of picked up playing touch football and a bit of rugby throughout my school years. I was never overly blessed with pace so I had to throw it out there every now and again and luckily a lot of guys have fallen for it.” 

“Born in Sydney, Hayes’ interest in Aussie Rules was stirred by his father Chris, a Victorian who had played good football at school level. The family lineage extended back to great grandfather Vin Maguire who played 43 games with Geelong from 1915 to 1918.”1 Lenny was named after his maternal great uncle Leonard, although he rarely gets called the name he was given at birth. Lenny comments “I only got called Leonard by my mum if I’m in trouble which was a fair bit early days but no-one really calls me Leonard, no.”

Hayes was a Sydney supporter growing up, started playing Australian Rules Football at seven or eight years of age and would frequently be taken to Sydney’s home games at the SCG by his dad Chris who  was a North Melbourne supporter. As a kid Lenny had number 14 on his back, being the number of his idol, 1995 Brownlow Medallist Paul Kelly, it was a great choice by Lenny and he has gone on to play in the same courageous style as his idol. During the 1998 season Hayes played one reserves match for the AFL club he grew up supporting, Sydney.

Only a handful of students at his High School played Australian Rules so Hayes relished his time playing Australian Rules at the Pennant Hills Demons with like-minded people including Mark McVeigh.   

When asked by Gerard Whateley during his Hall of Fame induction “You moved to Canberra as a teenager to chase your dream, how big a step was that for you?” Lenny responded “Yeah, it was a big step, I still remember some of my teachers at the time here in Sydney were telling me that it was the wrong move especially in year 12, but the opportunity came up to relocate to Canberra and play with the NSW/ACT Rams and I saw that as my best opportunity to get drafted. You know up until that age of 15 I didn’t really know a clear pathway and luckily enough for me and a few others the Rams came about in ‘96 and I probably couldn’t get down there quick enough to be honest.”

Lenny Hayes had a distinguished junior football career which culminated in him captaining his under 18s club NSW-ACT Rams and winning the 1998 Morrish Medal as the best and fairest player in the TAC Cup. Hayes made his debut for the NSW-ACT Rams at the age of 15, and when he graduated to the AFL he held the Rams games record. Lenny’s strengths were his ball-winning ability, skills and leadership, the biggest criticism recruiters had of him was his lack of leg speed. Hayes was selected as ruck-rover in the 1998 TAC Cup team of the year, with NSW/ACT team-mate Craig Bolton being named on the interchange, future St Kilda teammate Luke Penny was selected at centre-half forward. Other members of the team included Jude Bolton, Adam Ramanauskas, Brady Rawlings, Brendon Fevola and Heath Scotland.  

In the lead up to the 1998 National Draft St Kilda Recruiting Manager John Beveridge travelled to Sydney, met with Lenny and his parents, father Chris and mother Elizabeth, to discuss the possibility of St Kilda drafting Lenny. Lenny has three siblings, sisters El and Gillian, and a younger brother, Duncan, it is likely that being from a large family contributed to Lenny’s strong competitive instincts as well as his caring and loyal nature. The Saints first selection at the 1998 draft was number 11, however St Kilda expected that Sydney would select Hayes with one of their three selections in the first eight picks overall.

Sydney’s first two draft selections in 1998 were two players recruited from the SANFL, Nic Fosdike and Ryan Fitzgerald taken at numbers 3 and 4 respectively.  Sydney had their third draft pick of the 1998 National Draft at selection number 8, three choices before St Kilda and chose Jude Bolton from TAC Cup club the Calder Cannons, Jude went on to become a premiership player and play over 300 games for the Swans.

When it was time for St Kilda to make their selection at pick 11 in the 1998 National Draft they were delighted that Lenny Hayes was still available and had no hesitation in selecting Hayes with this pick.  At the time of being drafted by St Kilda Lenny Hayes was 18 years old, 186 centimetres tall and weighed 82 kilograms. St Kilda had seven selections at the 1998 National Draft, the Saints first five selections all played over 50 AFL games, however Hayes was one of only two players that reached 100 AFL games, along with Steven Baker who was the Saints third draft selection at pick 27, Baker went on to be joint winner of St Kilda’s 2005 best and fairest and play 203 games from 1999 to 2011,  predominantly in a negating capacity as a midfielder and a small defender, he became one of Lenny’s closest mates at the St Kilda Football Club.

A sign of how impressed St Kilda were with Hayes was that after the draft John Beveridge offered him  the number 7 jumper, a number that had previously been worn by club greats, including most recently, St Kilda Team of the Century wingman Nicky Winmar. On being offered the number 7 jumper Lenny commented, “I was pretty shocked at first, I hadn’t proven myself or done anything. I’d just been drafted and hadn’t even trained at that stage.”2 John gave Lenny some time to think about it, and after talking to a few people and listening to what St Kilda felt Lenny would be able to provide to them throughout his career Hayes accepted the offer to wear the number 7 jumper.

During his 16 season AFL career Lenny not just lived up to St Kilda’s lofty expectations but exceeded them. It is highly unlikely that St Kilda have had a better duo than Winmar and Hayes wear a jumper number back to back in the club’s 100 year plus history as Nicky and Lenny did with the number 7 jumper across 28 seasons from 1987 to 2014.

Whilst Winmar and Hayes have several similarities included being superbly skilled, prolific ball-winners, textbook tacklers and fan favourites they were different types of players and there would be intense debate about who had the better career. Winmar was more exhilarating, particularly with his overhead marking, and had the versatility to have a significant influence in several different positions, including midfielder, wingman and forward. Whilst Hayes didn’t have the same positional flexibility, predominantly playing as an inside midfielder, he was a great leader and his ability to inspire his St Kilda team-mates with his deeds on the football field is unsurpassed during the past 25 years.

Robert Harvey played a St Kilda record 383 games and won the league’s highest individual honour the Brownlow Medal in 1997 and 1998 (the two seasons before Hayes joined St Kilda), although he is eight years older than Hayes, Harvey made the following comment about his younger team-mate “He really was that genuine leader by his actions. That was pretty clear pretty early, that he had that inspirational leadership on the field. He’d do acts that would just lift the team. Even as an older player… I used to look to him for inspiration, even though he was a far younger player than me.”3 Harvey also said about Hayes “He is an icon of St Kilda, he is the heart and soul of the place and I can’t speak highly enough of Lenny as a bloke and as a player.”

their three first round selections at the 1998 National Draft, however Hayes was not the first New South Wales player picked as Lenny’s teammate from the NSW-ACT Rams Mark McVeigh was selected by Essendon at number nine, one pick after Bolton and two picks before Hayes. The NSW-ACT Rams had five players drafted with McVeigh and Hayes being joined by Nick Davis (pick 19), Craig Bolton (34) and Ray Hall (79).

Looking back now all three clubs can be very satisfied with their selections of Hayes, Bolton and McVeigh, all three became 200 game players with the club that selected them and in 2012, 14 years after being drafted all three were still playing in the AFL, long after many of their peers from the first round of the 1998 National Draft had retired. None of the other picks in the top 11 went on to play 200 AFL games with the club that selected them at the 1998 draft. After the retirement at the conclusion of the 2011 season by three-time North Melbourne best and fairest winner Brady Rawlings who was selected at pick 15, Hayes, Bolton and McVeigh were the last three first round selections from 1998 still playing in the AFL.

Of the 83 players selected at the 1998 National Draft Hayes’ 297 AFL games has him ranked second, behind Jude Bolton with 325 games. Despite both players playing an uncompromising style of football with their attack on the ball as well as the man Bolton and Hayes were among the last players of their draft class playing in the AFL, with Bolton retiring at the conclusion of Sydney’s 2013 season. After Heath Scotland during in May 2014 Hayes became the last-man standing from the 1998 National Draft still playing AFL football.

The AFL have kept records of tackles from 1981 onwards, during this time Bolton and Hayes have been amongst the best tacklers to play the game. Bolton held the record for most tackles in an AFL career with 1,491. Hayes commenced his last game with 1,482 tackles and laid 13 tackles to surpass Bolton’s tally and increase the record to 1,495 for most tackles laid from 1981 onwards. Hayes and Bolton now rank fifth and sixth on the al-times tackle list, having been overtaken by Matt Priddis, Joel Selwood, Gary Ablett and Scott Pendlebury.

Whilst Hayes was at the NSW-ACT Rams he was coached by former Sydney rover Steve Wright who was surprised that Hayes snuck through to selection 11 at the 1998 National Draft. In April 2003 Wright commented on Hayes “He was excellent in-close, he had very good hands and vision, and he was courageous, we thought those things maybe outweighed the question marks about his lack of pace” Wright added “you’ll notice now that he doesn’t caught too often: he’s got a very good awareness.”4

In his first AFL practice match against the Western Bulldogs Hayes spent time opposed to his predecessor in the St Kilda number 7 jumper, Nicky Winmar. After a 12 season, 230 game career at St Kilda from 1987 to 1998 including two best and fairests and three All-Australian selections Winmar was not offered a contract by St Kilda for 1999 and joined the Western Bulldogs, playing 23 games in 1999 before retiring.

To mark the 25th Anniversary of Nicky Winmar’s stance against racism on 17 April 1993 a feature article looking back at the career of the mercurial Nicky Winmar was published on Milestones and Misses on 17 April 2018. A link to the Nicky Winmar feature article is provided below:

https://milestonesandmisses.com/2018/04/17/st-kilda-football-club-team-of-the-century-member-nicky-winmars-stance-against-racism-25-years-ago/

After starting the 1999 season in the Reserves and being named an emergency for the Seniors in Round 4 Hayes made his AFL debut aged 19 in Round 5 1999 against the Kangaroos at the SCG in Sydney his old home city. Hayes’ first kick just before half time went out on the full and after he gathered a bouncing ball on the wing in the last quarter he was knocked down by a legitimate Glenn Archer shirtfront that Lenny still cops a ribbing about to this day from his mates, many of whom were at the game. More importantly Lenny was unflustered and got straight back up after the trademark Archer hip and shoulder. When announcing his retirement Lenny commented on the Archer shirtfront “Afterwards, I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s not going to get any worse than that’. He got me a beauty right up the middle and took the wind out of me. When you start your career you get thrown in the deep end, and I guess it’s how you respond (that matters). I guess I responded pretty well.”

On the 5 June 2020 episode of the ‘Unpluggered Podcast’ Hayes expanded on the shirtfront from Archer, commenting “I said to someone earlier I was never hit that hard for the rest of my career. I wasn’t actually concussed, I just couldn’t breath, he knocked the bejesus out of me. I always used to think that I had a pretty good sidestep but I reckon I probably made sure I was even better the next time we played North Melbourne.”

Hayes was dropped twice during the 1999 season, in Round 12 and Round 20, both times spending only one week in the Reserves. Hayes played 16 matches for St Kilda in 1999, averaging 6.0 kicks, 5.1 handballs, 1.9 marks and 0.8 tackles per game.

Hayes received a Rising Star nomination for his performance in the 41 point Round 22 victory against the West Coast Eagles at Subiaco Oval in which he had 10 kicks, nine handballs and laid three tackles. The top four players in the 1999 Rising Star award in order were Adam Goodes, Brett Burton, Simon Black and Dean Rioli.

John Beveridge commented about Lenny “In his early time here, a member of the strength and conditioning staff told me he had a remarkable capacity to recover quickly from a hard training session. It’s been well documented that Sydney had three picks in the top eight and most people expected them to take a couple of Sydney boys including Mark McVeigh, in that eight. They chose Nic Fosdike who was a very good player, Ryan Fitzgerald of Big Brother fame, and Jude Bolton. We knew Jude Bolton was a keen St Kilda supporter so the thinking was at that stage that if Sydney picked Lenny in the top eight, then we would take Jude at 11.”5  Whilst Hayes and Bolton both settled in well during their first season of AFL for St Kilda and Sydney respectively the two clubs were involved in discussions during the 1999 trade period about the possibility of trading Bolton, the Melbourne boy who grew up barracking for St Kilda, for Hayes, the Sydney boy who grew up as a Swans supporter. Sydney and St Kilda ultimately decided to stick with the player they each picked at the 1998 National Draft and a trade never materialised. Hayes himself did not find out about these trade discussions until after his retirement press conference.   

Under pressure, Hayes showed composure to kick a classy goal late in the final quarter of the Round 3 2000 match against West Coast at Docklands, the match ended in the first draw at the new stadium.  Hayes was among the best players, setting a new career high for kicks with 20, seven more than his previous best, he also had five handballs, laid five tackles and took three marks. Hayes’ good form continued with 21 disposals against Melbourne in Round 4 and 20 disposalss against Richmond in Round 5 to make it three straight games with at least 20 disposals.

Right-footer Hayes well and truly established himself in the St Kilda side during the 2000 season, being one of only five Saints along with Nathan Burke, Tony Delaney, Max Hudghton and Steven Sziller to play all 22 games. In 2000 Hayes played 22 matches, averaging 9.1 kicks, 6.7 handballs, 2.2 marks and 2.1 tackles per game, he was ranked third at St Kilda for tackles, handballs and loose ball gets, fifth for handballs received and equal sixth for goals.

The profile for Hayes in AFL 2001 the official history of the AFL said “Played every game in 2000, mainly in a forward role, but is expected to push into the midfield because of his hardness at the ball.”6

In his 45th AFL game Hayes received 2 Brownlow Medal votes in Round 7 2001 against Hawthorn at Docklands, the first votes of his AFL career. Lenny had four kicks, three marks, 13 handballs, and laid four tackles in the 11 point loss. In the 20 years since that game between St Kilda and Hawthorn several aspects of AFL Football have changed, with the increased focus on tackling and a rising possession count being two of the main changes. Hayes’ four tackles in Round 7 2001 were a game-high for both sides with St Kilda losing the tackle count 26 to 27. Today an AFL club would be disappointed with their work-rate if they laid 27 tackles in a half, let alone a full game.

During 2001 Hayes regularly played as a midfielder and at 21 years of age he played his 50th game, having 20 disposals in a 10 point victory over Fremantle in Round 12 at Docklands. Reinforcing the old adage that a week is a long time in football, the very next week Hayes injured his shoulder against Richmond in a 39 point loss at Docklands. The shoulder injury kept Hayes on the sidelines for the remainder of the season and the Saints did not win another game until their very last match of 2001 when a Barry Hall goal after the siren gave St Kilda a two point victory against Hawthorn at the MCG.

In 2001 Hayes played 13 matches, averaging 7.2 kicks, 8.5 handballs, 2.8 marks and 2.8 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 82.8%. Although he missed nine games due to his shoulder injury Hayes was ranked fifth at St Kilda for handballs and tackles in 2001.

During 2002 Hayes went from being a solid contributor to one of St Kilda’s best players, remarkably a status he would retain until his retirement a dozen years later. Hayes arguably would have won the 2002 St Kilda best and fairest if he didn’t suffer a broken hand after a Brad Scott tackle resulted in him colliding with the fence in Round 11 against Brisbane at the Gabba, the injury kept him out for two weeks. Hayes was runner-up in the best and fairest with 125 votes, only seven votes behind winner Nick Riewoldt who also won the Rising Star award in 2002 making it back to back Saints victories after Justin Koschitzke won the award in 2001.

Lenny received Brownlow Medal votes in only one of his first 69 matches, however with a magnificent finish to the 2002 season Hayes received Brownlow Medal votes in his final two games of the season, the 70th and 71st matches of his career. Hayes went on to become a regular vote-getter throughout his career.

In Round 21 2002 Hayes received 3 Brownlow Medal votes for his performance in the 11 point loss against Collingwood at the MCG and the following week Hayes received one vote in the 18 point loss to Melbourne at the Docklands. Hayes had 13 kicks and 14 handballs against Collingwood and nine kicks, 16 handballs and a game-high eight clearances against Melbourne.

Hayes was able to increase his average disposals per game from 15.8 across the 2000 and 2001 seasons to 20.2 in 2002. During 2002 Hayes was led St Kilda for tackles, hard ball gets and handballs, and ranked fifth for kicks. In 2002 Hayes played 20 matches, averaging 10.0 kicks, 10.2 handballs, 3.3 marks and 5.0 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 82.7%. Hayes signed a long term contract late in the 2002 season and was being touted as a future St Kilda captain.

When Hayes joined St Kilda the head coach was Tim Watson, however from 2000 to 2002 the Saints finished 16th, 15th and 15th in a 16 club AFL competition and changed their coach twice, with Watson resigning during his second year in 2000. During these three seasons the Saints only won a total of 11 games and also had one draw. Malcolm Blight was the coach for 2001 but only lasted 15 games before he was replaced by caretaker coach Grant Thomas. Thomas went on to be appointed as St Kilda’s senior coach for the 2002 season, Thomas remained St Kilda’s coach until the end of the 2006 season and his 123 games as coach has him ranked third on St Kilda’s all-time list, behind Allan Jeans (332) and Alan Richardson (126) and ahead of Ross Lyon (121) and Stan Alves (115).

In 2003 St Kilda coach Grant Thomas implemented a rotational captaincy policy, whereby a St Kilda player could only be captain for one season, with a new captain being appointed for the following season. Aaron Hamill, in his third season at St Kilda after spending six years at Carlton was appointed St Kilda captain for 2003. Hamill replaced Robert Harvey, who captained St Kilda for a total of only 19 games in 2001-2002 due to several injuries, with the most severe being a knee injury in 2001 and a shoulder injury in 2002. Hamill missed the opening Round of the 2003 season and Lenny Hayes at 23 years of age captained the St Kilda Football Club for the first time, getting a taste of what was to follow the next season.

Hayes received 3 Brownlow Medal votes in Round 6 and Round 7 2003 with 17 kicks, 10 handballs, six marks, two goals and seven tackles against the Western Bulldogs followed by 24 kicks, 10 handballs, 10 marks, two goals, seven inside 50s and six tackles against Carlton. Hayes’ exceptional performances in both matches contributed to the Saints recording narrow victories, defeating the Western Bulldogs and Carlton by 15 and 12 points respectively.

St Kilda finished the 2003 season very strongly, winning four of their final five games of the season, with each win being by more than 10 goals. Another young emerging side Geelong defeated St Kilda by 19 points at a very blustery Skilled Stadium in Round 22. St Kilda split the season, winning 11 matches and losing 11 matches to finish 11th. Even with this record St Kilda still ended the season two wins behind West Coast and Essendon who finished seventh and eighth respectively. Elite midfielders Hayes and Harvey were the standouts at St Kilda and their outstanding performances together with the improvement of the younger players were the driving forces behind St Kilda’s rise up the ladder.

After being one of his clubs best players in 2002 Lenny made the progression to an elite midfielder of the competition during 2003, averaging 25.8 disposals per game to be ranked sixth in the AFL for total possessions, just behind team-mate Harvey in fifth position, Hayes also ranked fourth in the AFL for total tackles and loose-ball gets, ninth for inside 50s and 10th for total kicks.

During 2003 Hayes played 22 matches, averaging 116 minutes, 15.5 kicks, 10.3 handballs, 4.2 marks and 4.6 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 83.8%. Hayes was ranked first at St Kilda for tackles, handballs, inside 50s and loose-ball gets, second for kicks and hard-ball gets, fifth for marks and equal sixth for goals. In 2003 the interchange bench was not used to rotate players in the same frantic manner that it today, 17 years ago a clubs best players were usually left on the ground for as long as possible and Hayes played at least 91% game time in all 22 games for the season and was on the ground for the entire game 12 times. At the end of the 2003 season Hayes represented Australia in the International Rules Team that toured Ireland.

Whilst continuing to play as an inside midfielder Hayes’ proportion of contested possessions had steadily decreased from 42.9% in 2001 to 36.7% in 2003, however this was due more to Lenny increasing his endurance and improving his reading of the play which resulted in him having a greater number of uncontested possessions. Although his proportion of contested possessions had dropped, Lenny’s contested possessions per game had actually increased from 6.8 per game in 2001 to 9.5 in 2003. In the same time Hayes uncontested possessions had risen from 9.0 per game in 2001 to 16.3 in 2003, one of the biggest increases in the AFL during this two year period.

Hayes was rewarded for his outstanding 2003 season with his first Trevor Barker award as St Kilda best and fairest and was selected in his first All Australian team, being named on a wing, Hayes was joined in the side by St Kilda stalwart Robert Harvey who was named on the interchange.

It was fitting that Hayes was selected in the All-Australian team for the first time in the same season that teammate and two-time Brownlow Medallist Harvey was selected for the eighth time which turned out to be the final All-Australian selection of his illustrious career. St Kilda players drew the same inspiration from the work-ethic, performance and example set by Hayes that Hayes drew from Harvey. Hayes like Harvey before him was one of the most admired players in the AFL and even rival AFL footballers have mentioned that they drew inspiration from the manner in which Hayes played his football, the courage that he showed, as well as his hardness and consistency.

In his 2008 autobiography ‘Harves strength through loyalty’ Robert Harvey commented “Along with Nathan Burke, the toughest Saint I’ve seen in my time is Lenny Hayes. When I say ‘tough’, I mean running at the man and at the ball fairly. Continually and consistently, he and Burkey were the hardest players I played with. You never get anything different from them.”7

Expectations were high at St Kilda for the 2004 season and beyond as the nucleus of a very good side had been built. Hayes was the 10th most experienced player on St Kilda’s 2004 list with 93 AFL games and was one of the most respected players at the St Kilda Football Club due to his hardness, skills, leadership and ability to consistently perform at a high standard no matter what the circumstances were. Only five other players on St Kilda’s list had represented St Kilda in more senior games than Hayes being Harvey (277), Justin Peckett (204), Aussie Jones (179), Andrew Thompson (148), and Max Hudghton (137). Four other Saints with more AFL experience than Hayes had been recruited from other clubs being 2003 Captain Aaron Hamill (151), Fraser Gehrig (168), Craig Callaghan (124) and Heath Black (103).

Due to Lenny’s experience and afore mentioned qualities, on 9 February 2004 he was appointed St Kilda Captain for the 2004 season under Grant Thomas’ rotational policy. Hayes at only 24 years of age was one of the youngest captains in the AFL. Hayes’ year as captain got off to a brilliant start with the Saints winning the Wizard Cup after defeating Geelong in the Grand Final. On the 2 June 2020 episode of Fox Footy live Hayes commented on him and Thomas receiving the Wizard Cup trophy on the dais. “That was a funny one, I haven’t actually asked Grant this, we hadn’t had a beer for a while and I think he could sense a little bit of excitement out on the field. He has come up to me and said mate, when we go up there let’s just keep a lid on this, we haven’t won anything for a fair while. The last thing we need and we are playing Geelong in Round 1 is to give them any ammo, I think I have probably taken it a little bit too far, could have at least cracked a smile.”

St Kilda played Geelong again in Round 1 of the 2004 home and away season in which the Saints recorded the first win of a 10 match winning streak. St Kilda playing an attacking style of game prospered during the 2004 season with new captain Lenny Hayes leading by example and setting the benchmark for his teammates to follow.

In Round 5 against the Kangaroos Hayes had 16 kicks, a game-high 18 handballs, eight marks, nine inside 50’s, six bounces and five clearances. Lenny followed it up the next round against 2001 to 2003 premiers Brisbane with 16 kicks, 12 handballs, seven marks, 11 tackles, four more than the second ranked player in the game, seven inside 50s and two goal assists.    

Lenny missed two games in 2004, Round 7 and Round 8 after receiving a suspension for striking Brisbane’s Tim Notting in the one point Round 6 victory at the Telstra Dome. Hayes had started 2004 in red-hot form to be equal second favourite for the Brownlow Medal at the time of the suspension.  On Brownlow Medal night he received three Brownlow Medal votes in back to back games in Round 5 and Round 6.

On his return from suspension in Round 9 against the West Coast Eagles, Hayes at 24 years of age played the 100th match of his career. St Kilda put on a football clinic winning by 101 points with Lenny leading the way defensively, setting a new personal best with 13 tackles, seven more than the second ranked player on the ground.

From Round 11 to 15 St Kilda had a form slump losing four of their next five matches, which ultimately cost them a top two spot at the end of the home and away season. St Kilda regathered momentum from Round 16 onwards to win five of their final seven matches and finish the home and away season in third spot with 16 wins, percentage behind second placed Brisbane and a game and percentage behind minor premiers Port Adelaide. 

In a qualifying final at the Gabba Brisbane thrashed St Kilda by 80 points. St Kilda rebounded to defeat Sydney by 51 points in a semi final at the MCG to record the club’s first finals victory since defeating North Melbourne in a 1997 preliminary final.

The 2004 preliminary final between Port Adelaide and St Kilda at AAMI Stadium was one of the games of the season with very little separating the two teams all night. Port Adelaide prevailed by six points, home ground advantage and the experience of finishing in the top four for the past three seasons and making the preliminary final in 2002 and 2003 had proved invaluable to Port Adelaide. Hayes was superb in the preliminary final, having an equal game-high 22 kicks along with Harvey, 10 handballs, seven marks, an equal team-high 13 contested possessions, seven clearances, five inside 50’s, nine tackles and eight rebound 50’s, setting game-high’s in the latter two categories. 2004 was St Kilda’s first finals appearance since 1998, the year before Hayes made his AFL debut.

During 2004 Hayes averaged 112 minutes, 11.6 kicks, 10.7 handballs, 4.0 marks and 5.6 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 79.8%. Hayes led St Kilda for handballs, was ranked second for long kicks and inside 50s, third for hardball gets and fifth for loose-ball gets. Hayes led the AFL in total tackles in 2004 with 129, was ranked fifth for handballs and 13th for disposals. Hayes played 23 of a possible 25 games during 2004 and finished third in St Kilda’s best and fairest with 135 votes behind Nick Riewoldt (163) and Luke Ball (140). Hayes polled 10 votes in the Brownlow Medal to finish equal 22nd and be the fourth ranked Saint behind Riewoldt (17), Nick Dal Santo (12) and Aussie Jones (11).

The profile for Hayes in the AFL Record Guide to Season 2005 said “Relished his role as skipper in 2004, his leadership never better than in the Preliminary Final when he almost propelled the Saints into the Grand Final.”8

St Kilda continued with the rotational captaincy policy for the next two seasons with Nick Riewoldt being appointed captain in 2005 and Luke Ball captaining the Saints in 2006. Whether you supported the rotational captaincy policy or not it provided Hayes the opportunity to captain his club earlier in his career than he would have if it had not been implemented and Hayes grew as a leader and a footballer due to his experience of captaining the St Kilda Football Club in 2004.

Hayes yet again played very consistent football throughout 2005 including a stretch from Round 14 to Round 22 where he was named in St Kilda’s best players in eight out of nine games. Lenny’s sensational form was a major factor in the Saints jumping from ninth position after 13 rounds to finish the home and away season in the top four for the second straight year.

St Kilda finished the home and away season in fourth position and travelled to AAMI Stadium to play the Adelaide Crows who had finished the home and away season on top of the ladder with 17 wins, percentage ahead of West Coast, Sydney finished third with 15 wins followed by St Kilda in fourth with 14 wins. St Kilda showed great character to defeat Adelaide by eight points in the qualifying final despite Xavier Clarke, Brendon Goddard, Max Hudghton, Justin Koschitzke, Matt Maguire and Luke Penny all missing with injuries. Hayes had 25 possessions, 12 tackles, six inside 50s, five clearances and two goal assists during the Saints eight point Qualifying Final win over Adelaide at AAMI Stadium to be named in the best players. The oldest player in the AFL and one of St Kilda’s greatest players of all-time proved to be the difference in the qualifying final victory – 34 year-old midfielder Robert Harvey who had an equal game-high 31 disposals and kicked a team-high three goals in a game that had a total of 18 goals kicked.

The Saints had the week off before playing a preliminary final against the Sydney Swans at the MCG. After leading by 13 points at the 28 minute mark of the third quarter the Saints conceded the last eight goals of the game to the Swans and were defeated by 31 points.

Although Hayes ranked fifth at St Kilda for score assists, his superb decision making and skill execution in passing to a team-mate in a damaging position led to a career-best 20 of these score assists resulting in goals to lead St Kilda in goal assists, small forward Stephen Milne was ranked second with 17.

To underline the consistency of Hayes during 2005 he had 20 or more disposals in 20 of his 24 games and Champion Data ranked him as the sixth most consistent player in the competition behind in order, the late Shane Tuck, Daniel Cross, Ben Cousins, Dean Cox and Kane Cornes.

During 2005 Hayes played all 24 matches, averaging 111 minutes, 12.7 kicks, 10.9 handballs, 4.6 marks and 4.8 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 80.2%. Hayes led St Kilda in handballs and long kicks, was ranked second for tackles and hard-ball gets, third for loose-ball gets and fourth for marks and total minutes played. Lenny ranked sixth in the AFL for long kicks, fourth for handballs and tackles and third for handballs received.

Hayes finished third in the 2005 best and fairest on 144 votes, only two votes behind joint winners, tagger Steven Baker and midfielder Luke Ball. Lenny received nine Brownlow Medal votes, comprised of four two’s and one single vote game to be ranked equal fourth with Luke Ball at St Kilda behind Nick Dal Santo (18), Justin Koschitzke (11) and Fraser Gehrig (10). Lenny led the Saints in disposals and was one of three St Kilda midfielders named in the 2005 All Australian team, Nick Dal Santo and Hayes were each named on a wing and Luke Ball was selected as ruck rover.

The profile for Hayes in the 2006 AFL Prospectus said “To highlight his consistency, in the past three seasons combined he ranks third in competition disposals, second in handball-receives, 11th in hardball-gets, second in tackles, equal 14th in clearances, sixth for inside 50s and equal ninth in goal assists.”9

In the three seasons from 2003 to 2005 Hayes had been one of the best midfielders in the AFL and had missed only two of St Kilda’s 71 matches, during this time St Kilda had gone from a promising young team to one of the strongest contenders for the premiership, however the fortunes of Hayes and St Kilda both changed dramatically during 2006.

In the first eight rounds of 2006 Hayes was one of the form players of the competition, having already racked up eight Brownlow Medal votes including two best afield performances in Round 2 against Richmond with 26 disposals and six inside 50s, and Round 3 against Brisbane with the highest disposal tally of his 16 season career, 38, comprised of 23 kicks and 15 handballs. In the 37 point victory over Brisbane at Docklands Lenny also took 10 marks, had seven clearances, five inside 50s, a goal assist and 14 contested possessions, three more than the second ranked Saint.

Hayes ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Round 9 against the Kangaroos at Docklands, he required a knee reconstruction which kept him on the sidelines for the remainder of the 2006 season. Despite suffering the right knee injury in the first half Hayes had been able to complete the game against North Melbourne, after his knee swelled up overnight he got a scan done the next morning and received the news that he had injured his ACL. In his book ‘My Story’ Lenny wrote “It wasn’t the news that I’d been expecting and I was in a state of shock after hearing it. I’d thought I would have to get an arthroscope done and miss four to six weeks at the very worst, but this was a disaster. I’d played out the game and I’d never heard of anyone any player being able to do that after rupturing their ACL.”10

During 2006 Hayes was in arguably the best form of his career to that stage and averaged 120 Supercoach points per game, ranked fourth in the AFL behind Jonathan Brown, Chris Judd and Adam Goodes. In nine matches during 2006 Hayes averaged 110 minutes, 14.8 kicks, 10.1 handballs, a then equal career-high 5.6 tackles and 5.3 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 82.1%, having at least 20 disposals in each of his first eight games. Hayes led St Kilda in disposals per game, uncontested possessions, tackles and clearances and was ranked third for contested possessions.

The profile for Lenny in the AFL Prospectus 2007 said “Hayes was in close to career-best form in the opening eight rounds of 2006 before suffering a season ending knee injury in Round 9 against the Kangaroos. He ranked equal second in AFL disposals, third in uncontested possessions, tackles and inside 50s, and equal fourth for effective kicks.”11

St Kilda were fourth after 19 rounds of 2006 and despite winning two of their last three games they slipped to sixth. In one of the tightest final ladders in AFL history only one win and percentage separated fourth and eighth. The Saints lost their elimination final to Melbourne by 18 points despite appearing to be in control at half time, leading by 20 points. With so little separating the top eight sides the loss of Hayes’ hardness, experience, skills and leadership had been very telling.

After promising so much at the start of 2006 the St Kilda Football Club reacted swiftly to a season that failed to live up to internal expectations and sacked coach Grant Thomas in the week after the finals loss to Melbourne. Thomas was replaced by Ross Lyon who had been an Assistant Coach for the Sydney Swans for the previous three seasons, during which time the Swans made two Grand Finals and won one premiership.

Under Ross Lyon, the rotational captaincy policy was abolished and Hayes was named joint St Kilda captain along with Riewoldt and Ball for the 2007 season. Hayes returned from his knee reconstruction in Round 1 2007 against previous season’s finals nemesis Melbourne at the MCG, 44 weeks after suffering the injury. In St Kilda’s 2007 season opener Hayes played the 150th game of his career at 27 years of age, and his first game under his fourth head coach, Lyon. Hayes had 12 kicks, five handballs and the Saints defeated Melbourne by 31 points to get the season off to a good start.

Hayes had between 13 and 17 disposals in each of his first three games, before regaining top form in Round 4 against Essendon with a team-high 28 disposals, comprised of 15 kicks and 13 handballs, he also had seven marks, an equal team-high six tackles and five inside 50’s.

The very next week in just his fifth game back after his knee injury, Round 5 2007 against Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium Hayes had another set-back, breaking his collarbone. Lenny missed three games from Round 6 to Round 8 and a couple of days after the Round 8 game St Kilda expected Lenny to miss another 2-3 weeks. St Kilda were decimated by injuries and only barely had 25 fit players to fill the 22 spots in the team and three emergency positions for the Round 9 Friday night game against Fremantle at Subiaco Oval. After St Kilda had arrived in Perth with Lenny Hayes a shock inclusion in the squad then St Kilda Football Manager Ken Sheldon commented “Lenny came to us and said ‘I reckon it’s right’. We’ve done the tests, seen the specialists and they are confident he will be right.” Hayes got through the fitness test and played against Fremantle just four weeks after suffering the broken collarbone, Lenny went on to play all remaining 14 games for St Kilda in 2007.   

St Kilda, struggling to adapt to a far more defensive game style under Ross Lyon were languishing in 13th position with only four wins after 10 rounds of the 2007 season. In the first 10 rounds Hayes was unable to recapture the elite form that he had displayed during the previous four seasons and was only named in St Kilda’s best players twice. Understandably, after returning from a knee reconstruction and then breaking his collarbone it was about half-way through the season when Hayes’ touch and match conditioning returned to their usual elite levels. Over the final 12 rounds Hayes was named in the Saints best players 10 times to again be a driving force behind a charge up the ladder during the second half of a season by St Kilda.

Although the Saints performed significantly better in the second half of the season with Hayes back to his best they had lost too much ground in the first half of the season and could only manage ninth place with 11 wins, 10 losses and one draw, half a win and percentage behind eighth placed Adelaide, 10 premiership points and percentage behind North Melbourne in fourth place.

Despite missing three games Hayes led the Saints in hard-ball gets, tackles and handballs and was ranked equal third for inside 50s. Lenny finished fifth in St Kilda’s best and fairest on 422 votes, just behind Leigh Montagna in third place on 442 votes and Nick Dal Santo in fourth place with 436 votes and given that Montagna and Dal Santo played 21 and 22 games respectively it is likely that the three games missed with a broken collarbone cost Hayes a top three finish.  

Hayes’ numbers were slightly down in 2007 on the previous couple of seasons but he still remained very effective in 19 matches, averaging 92 minutes, 12.1 kicks, 10.7 handballs, 4.4 marks and 5.7 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 76.0%. Hayes spent far more time recuperating on the interchange during 2007, being benched 80 times, the second most at St Kilda behind Luke Ball with 95, his average of 92 minutes per game on the ground in 2007 was a reduction of more 18% on the 112 minutes he averaged from 2003 to 2006. The main reason for the increased time on the bench was to effectively manage Hayes’ workload in his return from the right knee reconstruction, however other factors were the different philosophy of new coach Ross Lyon compared to old coach Grant Thomas, and that clubs were gaining a greater understanding of the benefits provided by resting players on the bench, allowing them to play at a greater intensity in the time that they were on the ground. Hayes ranked fifth in the AFL for supercoach points per minute played with 1.13, West Coast midfielder Daniel Kerr led the competition with 1.18 and Lenny’s team-mate Dal Santo was ranked sixth with 1.12.

Hayes ranked fourth at St Kilda for Brownlow votes with eight, behind Dal Santo (16), Riewoldt (14) and Montagna (9). All of Hayes votes came after Round 14, commencing with three votes against Adelaide in Round 15 after a brilliant game with 17 kicks, 15 handballs, eight marks and 10 tackles in the two point victory at Docklands.

Given that he returned from a knee reconstruction and then broke his collarbone in 2007, many people would have expected Hayes’ tackle numbers to fall away, however he actually set a new career-best with 5.7 tackles per game, and was ranked fourth in the AFL for tackles per game, his sixth consecutive season in the top five.

On 24th March 2008 Hayes signed a long-term contract to remain a Saint until the end of the 2011 season. Nick Riewoldt was appointed the sole St Kilda captain for 2008 with Hayes being named vice-captain.

Hayes had two best afield performances in the first five rounds of 2008, with 13 kicks, 15 handballs, 13 contested possessions and 10 clearances against Carlton in Round 2, and eight kicks, 17 handballs, a team-high 12 tackles – double the next ranked Saint, seven clearances and 15 contested possessions against Essendon in Round 5.  With leader Hayes back to his elite level best for the entire season the Saints returned to finishing in the top four albeit with a much more defensive game style than 2005.

Hayes had another outstanding season in 2008, averaging a team-high 24.1 disposals and a then career best 6.0 tackles per game to finish third in St Kilda’s best and fairest with 627 votes, behind first time winner, centre-half back Sam Fisher (680), with key forward Nick Riewoldt (643) finishing second, and full-back Max Hudghton in fourth place on 507 votes. The Saints made their third preliminary final in five years, however were comprehensively beaten by the eventual premiers, Hawthorn in 37 year-old Robert Harvey’s 383rd and last game for St Kilda, which at the time placed him third on the VFL/AFL’s all-time games list behind Michael Tuck (426) and Kevin Bartlett (403).

When asked by Adam Schneider in his ‘Schneiderman’s Web of Truth’ program on saints.com.au in August 2013 “Who is the most influential player/coach who has helped you in your career”, Lenny responded “Robert Harvey, when I first got to the club he was a gun midfielder, dual Brownlow Medallist, and just the way that he worked, he sort of took me under his wing a little bit as well, so he is probably the most influential player.” 

Hayes won the Robert Harvey best clubman award and polled 15 Brownlow Medal votes in 2008 to be the top ranked Saint, finishing equal 12th overall. Hayes polled votes in seven games, having three best afield performances, the last of which was in the 108 point Round 22 win against Essendon that clinched fourth position at the conclusion of the home and away season. St Kilda won all five games that Hayes received at least two Brownlow Medal votes in 2008.

During the 2008 season Hayes was durable and missed only one match – Round 14 due to having a hamstring strain. In the 2009 AFL Prospectus Lenny Hayes was ranked the 10th most consistent player in the AFL during the 2008 season, with Western Bulldogs midfielder Daniel Cross ranked first and 2008 St Kilda best and fairest winner Sam Fisher fourth.

 In 2008 Hayes played 24 matches, averaging 92 minutes, 10.7 kicks, 13.4 handballs, 4.4 marks and 6.0 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 74.4%. During 2008, for the first time since 2002 Hayes had more handballs than kicks for the season. It was common for Hayes to have more handballs than kicks from 2008 onwards, only twice in the last seven seasons of his career did he register more kicks than handballs in a season, and both times barely, with four and five more kicks than handballs in 2009 and 2011 respectively. 

Hayes led St Kilda for disposals, handballs, tackles, clearances and hard-ball gets and was ranked fourth for inside 50s and handballs received, he was ranked seventh in the AFL for handballs and second in tackles and clearances. “Lenny Hayes won a centre clearance from 14% of centre bounce attendances – ranked No. 1 in the competition.”12

The Saints were a revelation in 2009, taking defensive pressure, tackling and accountability to a new level. This is not to say that St Kilda couldn’t play an attacking brand of football, clearly they could  – if they choose to do so, but the first priority was to place immense pressure on the opposition. Once the Saints had gained the ascendency over their opponent they gradually became more attacking throughout the remainder of the game, increasing the scoreboard pressure on the opposition. During the 2009 season it was common for St Kilda to slowly strangle the life out of opposition sides with the immense pressure and perceived pressure leading to the opposition making many turnovers. Regularly throughout the 2009 season, after an early arm wrestle the Saints gained the ascendancy either late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter and once the Saints were on top the opposition had little hope of coming back.

In order for a Football Club to successfully implement such a strong defense first mentality requiring everyone to perform their role for the club even if it meant sacrificing some parts of their own game the club’s leaders needed to buy in. During the 2009 season Hayes set a new personal best for tackles per game and Riewoldt laid 2.1 tackles per game, a 50% improvement on his previous career best of 1.4 per game in 2002. Riewoldt, Hayes and the rest of the leadership group focused more on the defensive side of their game and making sacrificial acts for the good of the team. With the leadership group setting the example there was no chance of any player on the list not following suit and as a result St Kilda delivered high intensity football week in and week out throughout the 2009 season.

In a seven game stretch from Round 5 to Round 11 2009 Hayes was the form player of the entire AFL, being best afield five times and also polling a single vote in another game to go from zero votes after Round 4 to 16 Brownlow Medal votes after Round 11 and in the process move into second place behind Gary Ablett on 19 votes. To put into perspective how dominant Hayes was over this stretch of seven games Gary Ablett was ranked second during this period with 10 Brownlow votes followed by three players with nine votes, 2003 and 2006 Brownlow Medallist Adam Goodes, Joel Selwood and Brad Sewell, with 2005 (and future 2010) Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd ranked sixth with eight votes, half the tally of Hayes during these seven rounds. In Round 8 Hayes had his third consecutive best afield performance in a game against Essendon with 19 kicks, 14 handballs, six marks, nine tackles, five clearances, a goal and a goal assist.  

In this seven game purple patch Hayes averaged 31.6 disposals, including 11.7 contested possessions, 7.0 tackles and 1.1 goal assists per game. In the second half of the season Hayes polled four votes including his sixth best on ground for the season against the Western Bulldogs in Round 17 with 12 kicks, 19 handballs, five marks, six clearances and a goal assist.

St Kilda and Geelong had both been in rare form leading up to their Round 14 match at Docklands with both sides winning all 13 games to that stage of the 2009 season. Amazingly the game not just reached, but surpassed the unbelievably high expectations with both sides playing attacking, skilful, high intensity football where the tackling and pressure applied to the ball carrier was absolutely immense. St Kilda won a high quality, entertaining game in thrilling fashion by six points after ruckman Michael Gardiner took a spectacular mark deep in St Kilda’s forward line and kicked the set-shot goal to break the deadlock with little more than a minute remaining.

Hayes finished third in the 2009 Brownlow Medal on 20 votes, behind winner Gary Ablett on 30 votes, and runner-up Chris Judd on 22 votes. Reflecting St Kilda’s dominant 2009 home and away season three of Hayes’ St Kilda team-mates also finished in the top 13 at the Brownlow Medal, Nick Dal Santo in equal sixth position with 17 votes, Nick Riewoldt in equal ninth with 15 votes and Brendon Goddard in equal 12th with 14 votes, whilst a further two Saints, Leigh Montagna and Justin Koschitzke finished in the top 28 overall with 13 and 11 votes respectively. During the 2009 home and away season Hayes ranked fourth in the AFL for supercoach points per game with 118.8, and was one of five St Kilda players in the top 10 along with Montagna, Dal Santo, Goddard and Riewoldt.

With superb football in St Kilda’s first two finals Hayes played a key role in St Kilda progressing to the club’s first Grand Final since 1997. In the 28 point qualifying final victory against Collingwood at the MCG Hayes had 21 kicks, 10 handballs, seven marks, an equal team-high five inside 50’s and a game-high 11 contested possessions.

With their win against Collingwood, St Kilda were rewarded with a week’s break and progressed to a preliminary final at the MCG against the Western Bulldogs which was played at an extreme intensity with few easy possessions. After trailing by as much as 16 points early in the second quarter St Kilda were able to over-run the Western Bulldogs with St Kilda key forward Nick Riewoldt soccerring a goal through with two minutes remaining in what ended up being the final score of the game to extend St Kilda’s lead to seven points. After trailing by seven points at half time St Kilda were extremely accurate in front of goal to kick six goals straight in the second half whilst the Bulldogs missed several gettable chances, kicking three goals, four behinds. In the thrilling seven point victory against the Bulldogs captain Riewoldt and vice captain Hayes led from the front with the official AFL records listing the duo as St Kilda’s two best players in the win. Riewoldt had 18 disposals, 11 marks and kicked four of St Kilda’s nine goals whilst Hayes had an equal game-high 23 kicks, 11 handballs, six marks, an equal game-high 16 contested possessions, nine clearances, seven inside 50s and kicked a goal.

St Kilda were dominant during the 2009 home and away season, winning their first 19 games on their way to the minor premiership and a Grand Final birth. St Kilda still performed at a high level in the Grand Final, however they lost by 12 points to a Geelong outfit whose experience of playing in the previous two Grand Finals proved extremely telling and resulted in the Cats being slightly more composed than the Saints throughout the Grand Final.

In the first quarter of the 2009 Grand Final Hayes was clearly best on ground with seven kicks and four handballs. After quarter time, 2007 Brownlow Medallist Jimmy Bartel who had nine possessions himself to quarter time was given the tagging job on Hayes for the remainder of the match. Hayes and Bartel had a great duel with Hayes having 13 possessions after quarter time compared to Bartel’s 10. In the final three quarters of the match with Bartel and Hayes locked in a hard fought battle the other Geelong midfielders had slightly more impact on the match than their St Kilda counterparts. With Bartel playing him closely Hayes was allowed very little space and had to work hard to gain possession, finishing with 18 contested possessions, the equal second most of his career, and only seven uncontested possessions, he also had 13 kicks, 11 handballs, 10 clearances, laid eight tackles and kicked a goal. In the Grand Final Hayes set game-highs for clearances, and contested possessions, the second ranked player Joel Selwood had 13, five less than Hayes. Bartel, focused more on minimising the damage Hayes did after quarter time finished with 12 kicks, seven handballs, a career high 16 tackles, only two clearances and five contested possessions. Bartel’s 16 tackles were at the time the equal most ever recorded in a game, this record is now held by Jude Bolton, Jack Ziebell and Tom Liberatore with 19 tackles in a game.     

St Kilda played unrelenting football on Grand Final day but ultimately they could not produce the desired results in one of the most crucial areas – accuracy around goal. The Saints missed several easy opportunities when kicking for goal which ultimately cost them the game. St Kilda lost the game by 12 points with the Saints kicking nine goals, 14 behinds to Geelong’s 12 goals, eight behinds. 

During 2009 Hayes had 16 goal assists, easily ahead of the following midfielders, Adam Cooney – 10, Ryan O’Keefe – 12, Brett Deledio – 11 and Alan Didak – 13, whilst Gary Ablett and Scott Pendlebury were level with Hayes on 16. Although Hayes was universally praised for his tenacity, consistency, leadership and courage he didn’t seem to get as much credit as most of the players mentioned above for how effective and damaging his disposals were. In 2009 Hayes “had the equal-highest disposal efficiency of any of the top-10 ball winners in the competition and he ranked fifth in the competition for disposals per minute.”13

One of my most vivid memories of St Kilda’s 2009 season doesn’t involve a kick, mark or handball but rather Hayes performing a one percenter and knocking the ball on to a team-mates advantage. It was the Anzac Day eve match between St Kilda and Port Adelaide at AAMI stadium, the ball was loose between Lenny Hayes who at 186 cm and 85 kilograms dived full-length to knock the ball on to a teammate before the considerably larger Dean Brogan at 200cm and 100 kilograms could reach it. It was typical Hayes, whilst this play was not flashy it was brilliant, memorable and got the job done for his beloved St Kilda team with scant regard for his own well being.

Lenny Hayes won the Peter Badcoe Medal that night for the player whose conduct and play during the game best exemplifies the Anzac spirit, displaying skill, courage in adversity, self sacrifice, teamwork and fair play. The medal was well deserved and very fitting because if you were engaged in battle you would want Lenny Hayes at your side.

In 2009 Hayes averaged 28.0 disposals per game despite averaging only 90 minutes per game, he had at least 30 disposals on 13 occasions, a new career best, ahead of eight in 2003. Hayes was at his best during the finals series averaging 30 disposals, 14 contested possessions and five inside 50s to be named one of the best three St Kilda players in each of the three finals. In 2009 Hayes played 22 matches, averaging 14.1 kicks, 13.9 handballs, 4.3 marks and 6.3 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 76.5%. Hayes missed three games in 2009, Round 1 with a hamstring injury and two games with a back injury, Round 19 and Round 21, being a late withdrawal for the latter game.

Lenny finished fifth in an extremely close St Kilda best and fairest with 603 votes, behind Nick Riewoldt who won his fifth Trevor Barker award with 642 votes, Brendon Goddard (638) and Leigh Montagna (635) and Nick Dal Santo(618), and narrowly ahead of negating midfielder Clinton Jones (597). St Kilda’s entire top five from the club’s 2009 best and fairest were all selected in the 2009 All-Australian team, giving the Saints an equal league best five players in the team along with Grand Final opponent Geelong. Hayes was selected in the centre, Leigh Montagna on a wing, Nick Riewoldt at centre half-forward, whilst Nick Dal Santo and Brendon Goddard were both named on the interchange, Riewoldt was also selected as captain, becoming the first St Kilda player to captain an All-Australian team. Lenny led St Kilda in handballs and hard-ball gets, was ranked second in tackles, fourth for inside 50s and fifth for handballs received, he ranked 14th in the AFL for total disposals, and sixth for tackles, with team-mate Leigh Montagna in fifth place.

St Kilda started the 2010 season well, winning their first three games, however they hit a massive hurdle during the Round 3 victory against Collingwood with captain Nick Riewoldt injuring his hamstring just before half-time and missing half the home and away season. In his period as acting captain from Round 4 to Round 14 Hayes provided magnificent leadership and was an inspiration for his club.

From 1981 onwards the AFL have kept records of the number of tackles each player has laid in a game. In Round 4 2010 against Fremantle at Etihad Stadium Lenny Hayes became just the fifth player to lay 1,000 tackles in their VFL/AFL career, joining retired players Brett Kirk (1,278), and Tony Liberatore (1,234), and peers, Simon Black and Jude Bolton who laid their 1,000th tackle in Round 20 2009 and Round 2 2010 respectively.

In Round 6 2010 the Western Bulldogs were in control for most of the match and led by 23 points late in the third quarter, however the inspirational Lenny Hayes played yet another brilliant, skilful and courageous game when the Saints most needed it. Hayes was instrumental in St Kilda’s hard fought comeback three point victory having 13 kicks, 22 handballs, seven clearances, seven tackles and used the ball magnificently to have a disposal efficiency of 89%.

The West Coast Eagles led St Kilda by 17 points early in the third quarter of their Round 9 match at Subiaco Oval, the Saints had lost three of their last four matches and slipped to seventh on the ladder so another loss would have placed them in a precarious position.

A prodigious 10 disposal third quarter from Hayes including a brilliant goal along the ground from the left forward pocket was the catalyst for a massive improvement from St Kilda. The hard running and work ethic of Hayes was contagious amongst his St Kilda teammates during a quarter that ended up being the turning point of St Kilda’s 2010 season. Led by Hayes the entire St Kilda team lifted in the second half to play superb football for the remainder of the match and ran out 35 point winners. Hayes finished the match with 19 kicks, 16 handballs, six marks, seven tackles, two goal assists and 10 contested possessions. The victory against West Coast was the start of a seven match winning sequence for the Saints that got their season back on track and propelled them to yet another top four finish.

With 15 wins, a draw and six losses St Kilda finished third on the ladder with 62 premiership points, behind Collingwood on 70 premiership points and Geelong on 68, the Western Bulldogs finished fourth on 56 premiership points. These four clubs had all finished in the top four in the previous season, 2009, making it the first time since the top eight was introduced in 1994 that the same four teams finished in the top four at the end of the home and away season in two consecutive years.

During the 2010 home and away season Hayes played 21 matches, only missing Round 21 with a back injury, he averaged 77% game time, 13.6 kicks, 14.2 handballs, 4.0 marks and 6.4 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 70.7%. Hayes polled 19 Brownlow Medal votes, to be the highest ranked St Kilda player and finish eighth overall. Hayes polled votes in seven games including five best on grounds, with two of these being the aforementioned Round 6 and Round 9 matches against the Western Bulldogs and the West Coast Eagles respectively. Hayes also received three votes for a 26 disposal, 14 tackle performance against Geelong in Round 13 at the MCG and made it back to back best on grounds in the Round 19 and Round 20 comprehensive victories against Port Adelaide and North Melbourne.

The profile for Hayes in the 2011 AFL Prospectus said “During the 2010 H&A season he ranked second in the competition for disposals per minute, third in tackles, sixth in clearances, and eighth in centre clearances.”14

In the 2010 qualifying final four point victory against Geelong Hayes had a significant impact on the game with his ball-use, unrelenting work-rate and his physical presence, laying a fierce legitimate bump on Paul Chapman on the wing in the first quarter. Straight after the bump Hayes kept on going and within seconds had won a free kick for a high tackle. Hayes was superb in close to have 12 contested possessions, nine clearances and nine tackles to lead St Kilda in all three categories. For much of the game Hayes played on Joel Selwood who had only four first half disposals and whilst Selwood improved in the second half to finish with 19 disposals he was soundly beaten by Hayes who’s influence on the match went beyond his 25 disposals.

In the preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda started slowly to trail by six points at half-time. Hayes was St Kilda’s best player in the first half, having 18 disposals and as usual was tremendous around the stoppages to finish the game with six clearances. Hayes had 16 kicks and 10 handpasses for the match and led St Kilda in tackles and inside 50s with seven and six respectively. St Kilda gained the ascendancy in the second half to win by 22 points and progress to their second consecutive Grand Final.

Collingwood controlled the first half of the Grand Final to lead by 24 points. In the opening minute of the second half Hayes set the standard for the rest of the match, laying a fierce tackle on Dane Swan who was penalised for holding the ball. Hayes had a game-high 32 disposals comprised of 18 kicks and 14 handballs, he also took five marks, had five inside 50s and the equal most score involvements in the game.

When his side needed it the most Lenny found a way to kick a crucial set shot goal from 53 metres out 13 minutes into the last quarter to reduce Collingwood’s lead to seven points. The first time in his AFL career that Hayes had kicked a set-shot goal from beyond 50 metres, it was truly a phenomenal effort to do something he hadn’t done before on the biggest stage of all late in a physically gruelling game. Hayes was superb around the stoppages, consistently reading the hitouts well and propelling St Kilda forward, he had five clearances, 13 contested possessions and laid a game-high 12 tackles.

Hayes was involved in another couple of critical plays in the last quarter, kicking the ball deep into St Kilda’s forward line, Brendon Goddard came in from the side, launched himself and produced magnificent elevation to have his knees land on Heritier Lumumba’s shoulders, Goddard held onto the ball cleanly to take a spectacular mark, he then kicked the goal from 20 metres out to put St Kilda six points in front with just under seven minutes to play.

Collingwood were able to regain the lead, and with just under two minutes remaining Hayes gathered the ball and kicked from 60 metres out towards Stephen Milne and Ben Johnson. The ball landed a couple of metres away from them 15 metres out from goal and went slightly left to be on track for the goals, when it bounced a second time five metres out from goal Milne had got away from his opponent, however the second bounce went at right angles a bit too quickly for Milne to gather and the ball crossed the line for a behind to level the scores with a minute and a half remaining.

Collingwood controlled the first half of the Grand Final to lead by 24 points. In the opening minute of the second half Hayes set the standard for the rest of the match, laying a fierce tackle on Dane Swan who was penalised for holding the ball. Hayes had a game-high 32 disposals comprised of 18 kicks and 14 handballs, he also took five marks, had five inside 50s and the equal most score involvements in the game.

When his side needed it the most Lenny found a way to kick a crucial set shot goal from 53 metres out 13 minutes into the last quarter to reduce Collingwood’s lead to seven points. The first time in his AFL career that Hayes had kicked a set-shot goal from beyond 50 metres, it was truly a phenomenal effort to do something he hadn’t done before on the biggest stage of all late in a physically gruelling game. Hayes was superb around the stoppages, consistently reading the hitouts well and propelling St Kilda forward, he had five clearances, 13 contested possessions and laid a game-high 12 tackles.

Hayes was involved in another couple of critical plays in the last quarter, kicking the ball deep into St Kilda’s forward line, Brendon Goddard came in from the side, launched himself and produced magnificent elevation to have his knees land on Heritier Lumumba’s shoulders, Goddard held onto the ball cleanly to take a spectacular mark, he then kicked the goal from 20 metres out to put St Kilda six points in front with just under seven minutes to play.

Collingwood were able to regain the lead, and with just under two minutes remaining Hayes gathered the ball and kicked from 60 metres out towards Stephen Milne and Ben Johnson. The ball landed a couple of metres away from them 15 metres out from goal and went slightly left to be on track for the goals, when it bounced a second time five metres out from goal Milne had got away from his opponent, however the second bounce went at right angles a bit too quickly for Milne to gather and the ball crossed the line for a behind to level the scores with a minute and a half remaining.

The Hayes behind to tie the match was remarkably similar to the behind kicked by Barry Breen in the 1966 Grand Final which led to a St Kilda one point victory and their only VFL/AFL premiership. Hayes kicked from about 15 metres further out in a similar area of the ground and both kicks changed direction on the bounce to go strongly to the right and through for a behind.

Neither side was able to get a score in the final minute and a half, resulting in the first drawn Grand Final since 1977, with Collingwood nine goals, 14 behinds, 68 points to St Kilda 10 goals, eight behinds, 68 points.

St Kilda vice captain Hayes and utility Goddard were clearly the best two players during the Grand Final, and without the heroics of Hayes and Goddard along with resilience shown by the St Kilda defense led by Sam Fisher the St Kilda Football Club would not have been able to get back in the match and finish with a draw to earn themselves an opportunity to win a premiership a week later. Hayes won the Norm Smith medal with 13 votes, finishing ahead of teammate Goddard on seven votes with Collingwood’s Dale Thomas third on six votes.

The first half of the Grand Final replay played out in a similar fashion to the game a week earlier with Collingwood leading by 27 points at half-time. In the Replay however, St Kilda were unable to fight back, Collingwood extended the lead in the second half to record a comprehensive 56 point victory.

Lenny Hayes was controversially left out of the 2010 All-Australian team and the Norm Smith medal winning performance demonstrated exactly why Hayes should have been selected in the All-Australian side. Sure, some of his rival midfielders may have had slightly better stats, however several times throughout 2010 Hayes almost single-handedly changed the course of matches by performing at an exceptional level when St Kilda were struggling, he inspired his teammates to lift, run over their opposition in the second half and record a victory. Put simply when the stakes were at their highest few players in the AFL went close to matching the performances of champion midfielder Hayes.

Hayes was a run-away winner of the Trevor Barker award as St Kilda’s 2010 best and fairest, finishing with 528 votes, midfielder Leigh Montagna was second with 451 votes, closely followed in equal third place by utility Goddard and defender Sam Gilbert on 435 votes. In 2010 Hayes played 25 matches, averaging 94 minutes, 13.6 kicks, 13.8 handballs, 3.7 marks and 7.1 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 71.1%. Hayes led St Kilda in tackles, was ranked second in handballs, handballs received and loose-ball gets, third for hard-ball gets, fourth for inside 50s and fifth for kicks. Hayes ranked 12th in the AFL for disposals per game in 2010 with 27.2, 13th for handballs with 13.8 and ninth for uncontested possessions with 16.7.

In 2009 & 2010 Hayes played 47 of a possible 51 games for the Saints, remarkably he had only three games with less than 20 disposals during this time and had the two best seasons of his career for disposals, handballs, tackles, clearances and uncontested possessions. During 2009 and 2010 St Kilda made the Grand Final for only the second and third seasons respectively since 1971, with 1997 being the first time. In these Grand Final seasons of 2009 and 2010 St Kilda had several stars that performed at or very close to the peak of their powers, however, the umpires were clearly of the view that one Saint was able to elevate his performance above his fellow star team-mates. Hayes was St Kilda’s highest polling player at both the 2009 and 2010 Brownlow Medal, finishing in the top eight at both counts. In 2009 and 2010 Hayes played 40 home and away games, polling Brownlow Medal votes 15 times including a phenomenal 11 best on ground performances, representing 27.5% of his games, an extraordinarily high percentage. Four other St Kilda players were judged best afield by the umpires at least twice during 2009-2010, combining for 18 best afield performances, Brendon Goddard (6), Nick Dal Santo (5), Leigh Montagna (4) and Nick Riewoldt (3).

Lenny Hayes commenced the 2011 season in the same sublime form he displayed throughout 2010, having 17 kicks, 12 handballs and laying five tackles against Geelong in Round 1 to be one of the Saints best players. Hayes displayed great composure, operating at a disposal efficiency of 79% and kicked a brilliant goal at the 22 minute mark of the last quarter to put St Kilda five points in front. Hayes had a team-high 14 contested disposals, five clearances and also laid five tackles in the one point loss.

The following week Hayes was playing well in a tight contest against Richmond at the MCG when he suffered a knee injury in the second minute of the third quarter during a centre clearance contest. It was immediately apparent that Hayes was in serious trouble and although he bravely got back to his feet two trainers were required to carry him off the ground.

The day after the Friday night Round 2 match against Richmond the worst fears of the St Kilda Football Club were realised with the news that Hayes had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and partially torn his medial ligament, Lenny required a reconstruction of his left knee, prematurely ending his 2011 season. When it was confirmed that Hayes would require a knee reconstruction Lenny said “obviously it’s really disappointing but I have been through this before and I know what to expect.” Hayes went on to say “This is just another challenge that I will tackle head on. This is not career ending, I still feel like I have a lot of footy left in me.”15

Due to his left knee injury Hayes was restricted to two games in 2011, averaging 75 minutes, 12.5 kicks, 10.0 handballs, 2.0 marks and 4.6 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 75.6%. 2011 was only the second time in his career that Hayes played less than 13 AFL games in a season, both times being due to knee reconstructions, having previously played nine games in 2006.

Lenny’s experience of coming back, and the knowledge he had acquired during the rehabilitation process from his right knee reconstruction in 2006 made the recovery from his left knee reconstruction in 2011 easier to manage. Whilst Hayes was able to return from his first knee reconstruction in Round 1 2007, this was only 44 weeks after injuring his knee in Round 9 2006 and it took him a couple of months to build his form and match conditioning. After the injury Lenny took a glass half-full approach and said that as a result of his knee injury at least the rest of his body was able to freshen up in 2011 without the rigours of AFL football.

A major advantage Lenny had second time around was that due to sustaining the injury in Round 2 2011 Hayes had almost a full year before the start of the 2012 season, giving him the opportunity to do most of the pre-season training with St Kilda and regain his confidence and build up his match conditioning before the 2012 home and away season commenced.

A comment in Lenny’s profile in AFL Prospectus 2012 highlighted the outstanding level of performance he had maintained for a decade, saying “He has been a consistent performer since 2002, ranking third in the league for tackles, fourth for disposals, fifth in handball receives, and sixth in clearances and uncontested possessions.”16

Whilst he was injured in 2011 Hayes did some media work, started doing a weekly ‘Lunch with Lenny’ segment on Saints.com.au and some more coaching with the Oakleigh Chargers under 18s.  

In November 2011 Lenny married Tara Cheslin, many past and present St Kilda team-mates attended the wedding including Stephen Milne who was the Master of Ceremonies (MC).

In Round 1 2012 against Port Adelaide Hayes played his first AFL game in 51 weeks, had 16 disposals and laid a team-high 11 tackles, in 14 consecutive games after Round 1 Hayes had at least 22 disposals, only dropping below this mark again in Round 17 against Sydney.  

Against the Western Bulldogs in Round 3 Hayes earned the 3 Brownlow Medal votes with 14 kicks, 16 handballs, seven marks, seven clearances, eight tackles and had a disposal efficiency of 77% in the 63 point victory. During the third quarter Easton Wood attempted a side-step on Hayes but was unsuccessful, being met with a ferocious Hayes tackle that resulted in a turnover and a goal to Jack Steven.

Throughout his career one of Lenny’s strengths has been his ability to sell candy and evade opponents with his sidestep, and he did this to great effect many times during 2012. The most important of these instances was in Round 5 against Melbourne, with eight minutes to go and the Saints having a slender five point lead, Lenny sold some candy brilliantly to evade two Melbourne players and kick a crucial goal on his preferred right foot. As well as kicking the match winner Hayes had 18 kicks, seven handballs, 10 clearances and laid eight tackles.

In the Saturday evening Round 9 match against the Sydney Swans at Etihad Stadium champion midfielder Hayes played his 250th game for the St Kilda Football Club, becoming the eighth player to reach this milestone for the Saints, joining four ex-teammates, Robert Harvey (383 games), Nathan Burke (323), Stewart Loewe (321) and Justin Peckett (252) in this group along with three Saints who made their debuts between 1965 and 1968, Barry Breen (300), Gary Colling (265) and Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale (256).

Throughout his career Hayes made a habit of playing milestone games in Round 9 whilst he was in red hot form. In Round 9 2004 Hayes played his 100th match against West Coast, having been best afield in Round 7 and Round 8, he then polled a further two Brownlow Medal votes in Round 10 to make it eight votes from four matches.

At the time of reaching 200 career matches exactly five years later, in Round 9 2009 Hayes was the form player of the AFL, being best afield in his 198th and 199th matches, receiving one Brownlow vote in his 200th, and then having back to back three vote games in round 10 and 11 to poll 13 votes in this blistering five game period.

The pattern of Hayes being in fantastic form for a milestone game in Round 9 continued for his 250th game on Saturday 26 May 2012 at 32 years of age. In game number 248 against Carlton Hayes received the three Brownlow Medal votes whilst in games 249 against West Coast and game 250 against Sydney in Round 9 2012 he received the two Brownlow Medal votes in each game, to make it seven votes from three games.

Lenny played a pivotal role in the 28 point Round 9 victory against Sydney with 12 kicks, 15 handballs, six inside 50s, an equal game-high 13 contested possessions and nine clearances – four more than the second ranked player in the game. Hayes was able to celebrate the last milestone game of his career in style with his team-mates after arguably St Kilda’s best performance of the 2012 season. Four months later St Kilda’s opponent in Lenny’s 250th game Sydney, won the 2012 AFL Premiership, defeating Hawthorn by 10 points. In all five of Lenny’s milestone games during his career, 50th, 100th, 150th, 200th and 250th St Kilda won with the margins ranging from 10 to 101 points, in four of these games Lenny was in the top three disposal winners for St Kilda, the exception being his 150th game in Round 1 2007, his comeback game after his first knee reconstruction.

In Round 16 Hayes was instrumental in St Kilda defeating Brisbane by 13 points at the Gabba, having 15 kicks, 14 handballs, 13 contested possessions, six tackles and five inside 50’s to be judged best afield by the umpires.

As well as playing his customary role as an inside midfielder brilliantly throughout 2012, in some matches Hayes was utilised predominantly as a half-forward. Playing as a half-forward in Round 18 against the Western Bulldogs Lenny kicked an equal career-best three goals, ranked second for the game behind Nick Riewoldt with four. Despite not playing in the midfield Hayes had 13 kicks, 15 handballs, laid seven tackle and was the Saints equal third highest disposal getter for the game. Hayes polled 2 Brownlow Medal votes, remarkably it was the fourth consecutive home and away game against the Western Bulldogs that Hayes had received Brownlow votes, having received the maximum 3 votes in the clubs previous three home and away games, starting in Round 17, 2009. During this period Hayes also played a key role in St Kilda defeating the Western Bulldogs in both the 2009 and 2010 Preliminary Finals.   

Hayes was very consistent throughout 2012, having at least 22 disposals in 19 of his 22 games with his third game below this mark being against GWS in Round 22 when he had 11 disposals, being substituted out of the game at half-time with St Kilda thrashing the Giants to lead by 93 points at the main break, the Saints went on to win by 128 points, the third greatest winning margin in the history of the St Kilda Football Club. Lenny also played against Brisbane in Round 22, 2005 at Etihad Stadium when St Kilda recorded their greatest ever winning margin, 139 points, with small forward Stephen Milne having a night out to kick 11 goals straight.   

Hayes played all 22 games for St Kilda in 2012, averaging 96 minutes, 11.6 kicks, 12.9 handballs, 3.2 marks and 5.9 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 71.7%. Hayes was ranked first at St Kilda for handballs, hard-ball gets, handballs received and tackles, second for inside 50s and fourth for loose-ball gets. Hayes ranked third in the AFL for tackles and in the top 15 for handballs, hardball gets and clearances.

At the 2012 St Kilda best and fairest Hayes won his third Trevor Barker award as best and fairest, polling 124 votes, three votes ahead of Leigh Montagna and 12 votes ahead of Sean Dempster in third place. Hayes became just the ninth player in the history of the St Kilda Football Club to win at least three best and fairest awards, joining five players with three, Wels Eicke, Jack Davis, Jim Ross, Darrel Baldock, and former team-mate Nathan Burke.

Lenny had the third top 10 Brownlow Medal finish of his career, finishing equal eighth overall in 2012 with 19 votes to be the highest ranked St Kilda player, nine votes ahead of Nick Dal Santo. In four out of five seasons from 2008 to 2012 Lenny Hayes finished in the top 15 Brownlow Medal vote-getters, the exception being 2011 when his knee reconstruction restricted him to just two games. Highlighting the outstanding level of performance that Hayes was able to consistently deliver over this five-year period he was one of only six players in the AFL to have at least four finishes in the top 15 vote-getters during this time, with the other players in this elite group being Gary Ablett, Joel Selwood and Sam Mitchell with five top 15 finishes each, Chris Judd and Scott Pendlebury joined Hayes with four top 15 finishes each during this five year period.

Lenny’s return to AFL football in 2012 after a left knee reconstruction early in 2011 was phenomenal, with Hayes continuing in superb form, just as he displayed at the start of 2011 and throughout 2010. Players returning from knee reconstructions to the field after close to 12 months on the sidelines are expected to take some time to regain their match conditioning and form, however Hayes was the exception rather than the rule to play scintillating football during 2012 to be one of the form players of not just St Kilda but the entire AFL. In the 2012 Age Player of the Year Award Hayes finished 11th overall and was the highest ranked St Kilda player.

For most of his career Hayes was regarded as one of the most courageous players in the competition and in 2009, 2010 and 2012 Hayes finished third in the AFL Player’s Association most courageous player award.

The profile for Hayes in AFL Prospectus 2013 said about his 2012 season “He was the No. 1 pressure player at the club and generated the second-most points of any midfielder in the competition from turnovers caused by his pressure. Hayes also ranked No. 1 at St Kilda for clearances, generating 143 points from these takeaways – ranked eighth in the league.”17

In January 2013 Lenny spoke to afl.com.au about the heart surgery he had in September 2012, “I did a test in pre-season and found out I had a hole in my heart and when you hear that you think the worst. But, they reassured me, I’ve had it my whole life. I haven’t had any symptoms or anything like that, but they said look you’re better to get it fixed now rather than wait another year or two. I’m glad they’ve found it, it feels really good, fingers crossed I don’t have any lingering effects from it.”18

The hole in Lenny’s heart was discovered just before Christmas 2011, however Lenny opted to play for St Kilda in 2012 and have surgery shortly after the Saints season concluded which meant that he was unable to attend the Saints best and fairest and a video message of Hayes accepting his third best and fairest was played at the count.

On his 2013 pre-season training program Lenny went on to say “I’ve been back in full training probably about three months now. I had a modified program for probably the first month, but since then I’ve been doing everything and all the contact drills, all the grappling, every session I’ve pretty much done.”19

Hayes played the first five games of 2013, getting between 23 and 28 disposals in each game, he received the single Brownlow Medal vote in Round 2 against Richmond and in Round 3 against Greater Western Sydney, having 24 disposals in each game. Against Richmond he had a game-high 15 contested possessions and six clearances whilst against GWS he had 12 contested possessions and a team-high six clearances.

Hayes was a late withdrawal in Round 6 with a calf injury, he missed three games, returning to the St Kilda side in Round 9 against the Western Bulldogs, starting as the substitute Hayes had 13 disposals four inside 50’s, a goal assist and laid seven tackles in 62% game-time. Hayes had further problems with his calf which kept him on the sidelines for four more games. Lenny played in the VFL in Round 14 and returned to the St Kilda side in Round 15, he overcame his calf problems in the last third of the 2013 season to play eight of St Kilda’s last nine games, missing Round 21 with soreness.   

Hayes played 14 games in 2013, averaging 89 minutes, 11.2 kicks, 11.9 handballs, 3.6 marks and 4.6 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 72.8%. In 12 of his 14 games Hayes had at least 22 disposals, recording a season best of 28 disposals in Round 5 against Sydney and Round 16 against Carlton. 

In late August 2013 Lenny Hayes signed a one-year contract extension with St Kilda, taking his AFL career into a 16th season. After signing the contract Lenny said “I love the hard work, I love being around the place and I can see so many exciting signs in some of these young guys. It just reminds me of when I started. In my second or third year we were in a similar position.” Lenny went on to say “The club needed to be happy for me to play on, that was always a big part of it. I didn’t want to be taking anyone’s spot or holding back any young guys from developing. I also had to feel that I could do the work over pre-season. I think that’s what cost me this season with a bit of injury.”20

From Lenny’s fifth AFL season in 2003, to 2012 St Kilda were the only club in the AFL to win at least 11 of their 22 home and away games in every season, however in 2013 the Saints experienced a rapid fall to finish 16th on the ladder out of 18 clubs, with five wins and 17 losses.

Due to a one week suspension for striking Greater Western Sydney’s Stephen Coniglio in a NAB Challenge game Lenny missed Round 1, 2014 against Melbourne, he played the next 13 games in a row before missing Round 16 against Carlton with a groin injury. In eight consecutive games from Round 4 onwards Hayes had at least 24 disposals in each game, including a season best of 34 disposals against Brisbane in Round 6 at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand.

During Round 8 against Carlton Hayes had a team-high 30 disposals comprised of 12 kicks and 18 handballs, he excelled when the ball was in dispute to win a team-high 15 contested possessions and a game-high 11 clearances – three more than the second ranked player in the game.       

In round 11 against Collingwood Lenny had 25 disposals and led St Kilda for contested possessions and tackles with 11 and seven respectively, whilst in Round 12 against Port Adelaide he had 26 disposals and again led St Kilda in contested possessions and tackles, this time with 12 and seven respectively.

Between Round 17 and 18 in a press conference at the Linen House Centre in Seaford on 15 July Lenny Hayes announced his retirement from AFL football, effective at the conclusion of St Kilda’s 2014 season. At the time of announcing his retirement Hayes was leading St Kilda in several key statistical categories and was in the top 25 of the Age 2014 Player of the Year Award.

At the press conference Lenny said “I want to thank the St Kilda Football Club for everything they have done for me over the last 16 years, they have been a massive part of my life. I feel very fortunate to have been able to play a sport that I love and do it professionally for such a long time.” He went on to say “I am enormously grateful for experiences I have had and the lifelong friends I have made in my time playing for St Kilda.”  

When asked about his toughest opponent Lenny responded “Toughest tagger was probably Brett Kirk, just incredible endurance, really disciplined, really hard to get a kick on. But the one guy I probably looked up to was Simon Black, really respected and admired the way he went about it, just his level of consistency over a long period of time, he was really hard to play on and I really admired him.” 

During the press conference Lenny commented “I asked the club if this could be fairly low-key, and it didn’t really turn out that way did it?” Lenny was greeted by a press conference packed with journalists, club staff, as well as St Kilda team-mates, several of whom were wearing ‘I love Lenny’ t-shirts. The press conference at the Linen House Centre went for approximately 15 minutes, at the conclusion Lenny posed for photographs with his wife Tara and seven month old son Hunter.    

Later that day when asked on Fox Footy program ‘AFL 360’ ‘Did you ever imagine you would be the subject of merchandise Lenny with the t-shirts that have been released today, the ‘I love Lenny’ t-shirts, Hayes commented, “Ah no, I was pretty embarrassed about that… I never thought, when you start out you just want to play one game, and then you want to play 20 or 30 and feel part of the team, so I never thought that I would be able to play professionally for 16 years and have such a good time doing it.” 

On the day that Hayes announced his retirement his former coach Ross Lyon commented on his five seasons coaching Hayes, “He played without restraint, he wasn’t defined by the scoreboard or his opponent, and never kept anything in reserve so he could give himself an alibi. Lenny didn’t save anything to protect himself emotionally. He put it all out there. Most of us are conditioned to protect ourselves a bit – not him.”21

After Hayes announced his retirement in 2014 AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan commented on Hayes, “He, I think is universally loved by supporters of all 18 clubs and there are very few players who (can say) that. So I think he transcends his playing ability in terms of the integrity he radiates. The way that he’s gone about his football means that he’s revered by all football supporters and he’ll be a great loss.”

On the day of Hayes’ retirement, long-term team-mate and St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt offered the highest praise for Lenny Hayes, saying “He’s just the ultimate teammate and the ultimate player. As a friend off the field, he’s just the nicest and best bloke you could ever meet. He’s fiercely loyal too. Of all the people I’ve met in football, he’s the best person and the best player as well. It doesn’t really matter who you support, everyone loves him. He’s so popular because of the style of game he plays – how competitive he is and how hard and tough he is. He’s really fair as well as modest and he’s just the ultimate team player. I think everyone who follows football can recognise that.”

On telling his St Kilda team-mates of his decision to retire Lenny said “I think I probably cried more when Harves retired than I did when I was telling the boys that I was finishing up. I think that was probably a sign that I was really comfortable with the decision.”

When Hayes announced his retirement he hadn’t decided what he was doing the following year, however an involvement in football appeared likely, at his retirement press conference Lenny said “I’ve done a few courses and I’ve obviously worked closely with a few of the young guys here, but I’m under no illusions that I need to improve in a lot of areas if I am to become even an assistant coach. I think I still need to learn and tick off a couple of things before I throw myself into that. But its certainly something I can see myself doing in the future.”

When asked at his retirement press conference “you are one of the most loved, universally amongst all players and fans, how does that sit with you?” Lenny responded “It is not something that sits all that comfortably with me.” He went on to say “I guess over my career I have just tried to treat people the way I would like to be treated, and that’s respectfully, and if people sort of warm to me through that, then that’s nice. I guess as a player I have always wanted to be respected by my team-mates and the club, and I feel like I’ve got that.”  

During his final season in 2014 Hayes at 34 years of age was the fifth oldest player on an AFL list, behind Dustin Fletcher (39 years old), Brent Harvey (36), Ben Hudson (35) and Adam Goodes (34) who is just six days older than Lenny. Given that Lenny has played a very physical, contested brand of football throughout his career and was in the oldest handful of players in the competition it would have been understandable and maybe even expected for his form in 2014 to drop significantly below that of his last two injury free-seasons, 2010 and 2012 when he won the Trevor Barker award as St Kilda best and fairest. Not for the first time in his career, Lenny proved to be the exception rather than the rule in his final season to play superb football.

At the press conference announcing his retirement on 15 July 2014 Lenny Hayes said “As a player and as a person, I’ve always liked to set the example on the training track and on the field, and I just feel that I’m probably on the edge of the cliff, in terms of my body and things like that, and I just feel that the time’s right to finish up at the end of the year.” Hayes’ on-field performances in the lead up to announcing his retirement, certainly didn’t look like he was on the edge of the cliff as he continued to be one of the Saints best players just as he had done from 2002 onwards.

In the game after Lenny announced his retirement, St Kilda on the bottom of the ladder and having lost 11 consecutive games hosted Fremantle, on an eight-game winning streak and second on the ladder. St Kilda, inspired by Hayes turned expectations on their head to play skilful, intense football, limiting the time and space that Fremantle players had when in possession to totally outclass the Dockers and record a comprehensive 58 point victory. Hayes was instrumental in the midfield, having 14 kicks, 10 handballs, five marks, two goal assists, six inside 50s an equal season best nine tackles, seven clearances and 11 contested possessions, setting equal team-highs in the last two categories. Fittingly the St Kilda team let the courageous Hayes lead them from the field after the Round 18 victory over Fremantle at Etihad Stadium and the Saints theme song was sung with gusto in the change-rooms.

Hayes featured on the cover of the AFL Record for Round 20, the weekend of his final home game at Docklands, the Lenny Hayes tribute game against the Western Bulldogs, the heading of the article was simply ‘Saint Lenny.’ In the article Lenny made special mention of his mum Elizabeth, saying “More than anything she’s the one who shaped me as a person before football. She’s also given me some pretty honest feedback at times when I’ve needed it.”22

Late in the third quarter against the Western Bulldogs Hayes laid a tackle and received a free kick for his opponent holding the ball, he kicked the set-shot goal and received a massive reception from the crowd. The Hayes goal reduced the Bulldogs lead to 21 points and whilst St Kilda were able to close the margin to 11 points with five minutes remaining the Bulldogs responded and won by 23 points. As he was leaving the ground Hayes received a guard of honour from the Western Bulldogs players and in his games after announcing his retirement Hayes regularly received a guard of honour from the opposition players underlining the respect the entire competition had for him.

On Fox Footy program ‘On the Couch’ in August 2014 Hayes said “I think when I look back over my career, when I first got to the club, we weren’t doing so well. We had a few coach changes early in my career and we got a really good group of young players together and I felt we really stood for something over a long period of time. When you look back, the end result is a premiership and unfortunately we didn’t get that. For a club that has been starved of success, I still think we had quite a successful era – that I am really proud of.”

In Round 21 2014, for the last time Hayes played in his old hometown Sydney, at the SCG against Sydney, both of Sydney’s co-captains, Jarrad McVeigh and Kieran Jack played for the same junior club as Hayes, Pennant Hills. Jude Bolton meanwhile was part of the Channel 7 commentary team and a couple of weeks before Lenny’s last game in Sydney commented “He’s universally respected. I was lucky enough to be there for his last home game for the Saints against the Bulldogs last week. We go back a long way, I played against him as an under-18 when I was in Victoria and he was playing for the (NSW) Rams. He was always stepping guys and had so much time and the ability to make good decisions and execute so well. But he’s very humble and down to earth.”23

Hayes’ final game of his career in Melbourne, against Richmond at the MCG in Round 22 was the 50th game of his career at the MCG. Lenny played at 17 venues during his AFL career, playing 152 games at St Kilda’s home ground since 2000, Etihad Stadium for a record of 90 wins, four draws and 58 losses. When Lenny made his debut in 1999 St Kilda’s home ground was Waverley Park in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs, he played seven games at this stadium and was the only player on St Kilda’s 2014 list that played an AFL game at Waverley Park.    

Hayes finished his career by playing seven consecutive games from Round 17 to Round 23. Hayes entered the final game of his career with 1,483 tackles, in second place on the VFL/AFL all-time list behind Jude Bolton with 1,491, during the third quarter against Adelaide at Adelaide Oval Hayes laid his ninth tackle of the game to break Bolton’s record, Lenny finished the game with a game-high 13 tackles the equal second highest tally of his career and the 20th time that he had laid at least 10 tackles in a game. In his final AFL game against Adelaide Hayes had nine kicks, 12 handballs, six clearances and 12 contested possessions to set game-highs in the latter two categories.

Hayes played 20 of St Kilda’s 22 games in 2014, averaging 79% game-time, 10.4 kicks, 13.0 handballs, 3.7 marks and 6.6 tackles per game with a disposal efficiency of 70.8%. In 2014 Lenny led St Kilda for  handballs, tackles, contested possessions and clearances, he ranked second for disposals, sixth for kicks, third for inside 50’s, equal third for goal assists and fourth for uncontested possessions. During the 2014 home and away season Hayes ranked ninth in the AFL for tackles, 20th for handballs, equal 31st for clearances and 35th for contested possessions. 

Exceeding all expectations, Hayes did not miss a beat in 2014 to play brilliant football and poll 126 votes at St Kilda’s 2014 best and fairest to finish second, 11 votes behind Riewoldt and 25 votes ahead of Sean Dempster in third place. It was the eighth time in his career that Hayes had a top three finish in a Saints best and fairest.

Throughout the brilliant career of Lenny Hayes, the fortunes of the St Kilda Football Club and Hayes were very closely aligned, with Hayes being a barometer of the Saints, perhaps more so than any other player during his career. In 2003 just as Hayes was emerging as an elite midfielder a young St Kilda side improved rapidly to indicate that in the years ahead the Saints would challenge strongly for the premiership. In eight seasons from 2004 to 2011 St Kilda made the finals seven times, including five top four finishes in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

During this successful eight season period St Kilda proved that they were able to remain one of the best teams in the AFL even when they were missing key players for a third of the season or longer, most notably six-time St Kilda best and fairest winner Nick Riewoldt in 2005 and 2010 for at least eight games in each season. In both seasons the Saints remained resilient and stuck to the team structures, maintaining an outstanding level of performance which resulted in St Kilda finishing in the top four and playing deep into the finals.

From 2004 to 2011 the only seasons that St Kilda did not make at least the preliminary final were 2006 and 2011 when Hayes missed most of the seasons due to a knee reconstruction and 2007 when Hayes in his return from injury, understandably could not quite recapture his best form in the first half of the season.

The player that St Kilda had the most difficulty replacing when they were unavailable during this time was without question Lenny Hayes, and it is no coincidence that the five seasons from 2004 to 2011 that St Kilda finished in the top four and made at least the preliminary final were seasons in which Hayes did not suffer a long-term injury or was not hampered by returning from a long-term injury. In five seasons, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010 with Hayes fit and in great form St Kilda made the preliminary final in the first three seasons listed and the Grand Final in the last two seasons listed to challenge strongly for the premiership in four of these seasons, with 2008 being the exception.

From 2007 until his final season in 2014 Hayes’ game time was consistently around 93 minutes per game, which was 20 minutes down on his average of 113 minutes per game from 2003 to 2006, the first four seasons that an AFL players minutes per game were recorded. Despite the significantly reduced game time Hayes actually increased his average number of disposals and tackles per game from 24.0 and 5.1 respectively in 78 games from 2003 to 2006 to 24.9 disposals and 6.1 tackles per game in his 148 games from 2007 to 2014. Hayes played predominantly as an inside midfielder and with the increased rotations in the last eight seasons of his career it would have been impossible for him to sustain his immense pressure, work-rate and intensity for 113 minutes each game. The additional time Hayes spent recuperating on the bench during 2007-2014 allowed him to actually make a greater impact on the game in only 93 minutes on the ground than he previously made during 113 minutes from 2003 to 2006.

Although Lenny was only captain of St Kilda for one season, 2004, and co-captain for another season in 2007, he spent several seasons as vice captain, and for much of his career was considered St Kilda’s spiritual leader. Hayes provided tremendous leadership and support to his teammates regardless of whether he had an official leadership title or not and it was this way throughout his entire career. Former teammate Aussie Jones recalls “When Lenny arrived at the club I was probably going through my most ordinary period of footy. But when I started to find a bit of form and started contributing positively it was Lenny Hayes who came up to me more than anyone and said” ‘That’s what we want, that’s the Aussie we know.’”  Jones went onto say “The kid was only 19 at the time and I still remember it. It’s something a lot of supporters don’t see, but his leadership is exceptional.”’23

Hayes became just the second player in VFL/AFL history to finish their career with between 295 and 299 games, joining Wayne Campbell who played 297 games for Richmond between 1992 and 2005. Hayes was positive that he had no regrets about finishing his career just short of 300 games, saying “I’m really comfortable that I’ve given it absolutely everything I possibly could. To get a bit short, my mum’s probably a bit more disappointed than anyone. It is just one of those things, that unfortunately it didn’t happen, but I also feel very fortunate that I have been able to play for as long as I have, I have had some pretty serious injuries and I feel like the club’s always really supported me through those.” 

From 1 December 2014 Hayes worked for the AFL in Administration as a result of receiving the Ron Evans Scholarship, previous recipients included Brad Johnson and Scott Lucas. An article on the AFL website about said the role would see Hayes “involved in a number of key initiatives across a range of portfolios, including player education and welfare programs, national umpiring and talent programs, supporting the Laws of the Game Committee, commercial and strategic initiatives and developing content for AFL Media.”24 

On receiving the Ron Evans Scholarship Hayes commented “I appreciate the opportunity provided by the Evans family to continue my involvement in Australian Football. I want to learn as much as I can across the various parts of our game’s administration as I work out where I want to direct my energies now that my playing time has come to an end.”25

After spending some time in Administration with the AFL Hayes decided that he wanted to pursue coaching further and in September 2015 it was announced that Hayes would be joining the GWS Giants as an Assistant coach in November 2015. When Hayes was growing up he could not have envisioned that there would be no AFL club’s based in Sydney including one in the western suburbs  not far from his old home-town of Pennant Hills. In May 2019 Hayes commented “If you told me when I was a kid that I’d be working at an AFL club that is based 15 minutes from where I grew up, I would have laughed. I’m pretty proud of that and that’s one of the reasons I came back to Sydney to be involved in footy.”26

In an interview with Fox Footy in April 2016 Hayes said “It is fantastic to be back (in Sydney) and be part of a really good club in GWS, but I’ve got a lot of family here in Sydney and after 16 years it is good to be home.” On deciding to go into coaching after spending time with the AFL in Administration as part of the Ron Evans Scholarship Hayes commented “I think I just needed 10-12 months to do something different just to see if that passion was really there and when I was at the AFL I worked with their talent Academy throughout the year and that probably ignited the fire in me to get back involved at club land and I am loving it, its great.”  

On the lessons from his playing career that he took into his coaching Hayes said “Well I think for me when I was playing I used to spend a lot of time in how you prepared and I think coaching is no different. You need to do the hours and you need to spend the time to make sure that you prepare the players in the best possible way so then they can go out there and do their thing on the weekend so I think that is probably the thing, just be thorough and do the work.”

As the Giants midfield coach Hayes worked closely with Giants players including Callan Ward, Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio and Jacob Hopper. Hayes commented to Fox Footy on the Giants “We want to be known as a team that is really good defensively, I think everyone sees how well we can move the ball but it is a real area that has been a focus for us to be able to win your own footy but then put pressure on the opposition so I think we need to get better in that area, that’s an area that we need to improve if we are going to make some steps up the ladder.”

In 2015 the GWS Giants finished 11th on the ladder and significantly improved in Hayes’ first year at the club to make the finals for the first time. The Giants were the only AFL club to win at least one final in all four seasons from 2016 to 2019. After losing preliminary finals in 2016 and 2017 to the Western Bulldogs and Richmond respectively the Giants won a thriller in the 2019 preliminary final against Collingwood but were no match for Richmond in the Grand Final.

In the COVID-19 effected 2020 season the Giants missed the finals, finishing in 10th position, six premiership points and percentage behind Collingwood in eighth place. In September 2020 it was announced that Hayes and another Giants Assistant Coach would be leaving the Giants at the end of the 2020 AFL season and moving away from the AFL Industry. GWS Giants General Manager Jason McCartney commented on the departures “It’s a lifestyle change and ultimately a move out of the AFL industry. It’s been brought to a head with the COVID shutdown period this year. Both have young families and that time away from football led to the realisation that the industry is pretty ruthless and the work-life balance isn’t great at the best of times. That time with their families has brought forward the decision that they want to look at other opportunities away from football.”27 Lenny and his wife Tara have two young sons, Hunter and Jacob.

On 7 March 2019 Hayes was inducted into the St Kilda Football Club’s Hall of Fame with Nick Riewoldt giving the speech to introduce Hayes, another former team-mate in Nathan Burke presented Hayes with his St Kilda Hall of Fame Medal on stage.

In his acceptance speech Hayes said “I am incredibly humbled to be up here. I received an email the other day and it had the details about tonight’s function, you know, usual stuff, the date, the time, the venue, dress code which it is good to see Steven Baker the first time in 15 years at a Saints function he has actually adhered to it so well done mate. Near the bottom of the email it mentioned that it wasn’t going to be a q & a, I had to make a speech tonight. So I thought OK, I can do that, in five minutes I should be fine. So I went down and grabbed a coffee just down in Concord near where I live in Sydney and I said to Tara I should be back in about half an hour. Well about three and a half hours later and having experienced the whole range of emotions. The main thing I kept coming back to was that this Football Club is a great club made up of great people. I have always been really grateful for the opportunity to pull on the red, white and black and look everyone who has been up here tonight has spoken about John Beveridge and you know I am no different. I want to thank you mate for taking a chance on a skinny, pale, freckly faced, slow inside midfielder from the suburbs of Sydney. It was a childhood dream of mine to play at the highest level and hopefully I repaid that faith you showed in me back in 1998, so thank you.”

Later in his speech Hayes said “I knew the history (of the club), but for me that was something I thrived on. It was always something that really motivate me. It was part of the challenge and I wanted to me part of the next group that could stand up there next to those boys from ’66 and hopefully give all our supporters and the people that love our club something to be really proud of. Unfortunately for us we weren’t able to achieve the ultimate goal but I feel really lucky to have played in the era that I did. I feel like tonight my acknowledgement should be just about as much about my teammates as it is mine because I truly believe that if you are going to fulfil your potential as a player you need people around you, you need the support around you, you can’t do it on your own and I certainly had that in spades. To all my teammates, I just really want to thank you the years of friendship, the years of support and for making a pretty tough uncompromising game a lot of fun , a hell of a lot of fun, so thank you.”

In May 2019 Hayes was named as the centreman in New South Wales Greatest Australian Rules Football Team of All-Time and was one of three Pennant Hills players named in the team along with former Sydney Swans co-captains Jarrad McVeigh and Keiren Jack. Two of Lenny’s idols in Paul Kelly and John Longmire were also selected in the team. In the week before the team was announced Hayes commented “Paul Kelly was my idol when I was growing up so if I was named in the team alongside him that would be pretty big for me. You never set out to achieve those sorts of things, but it would be something I’d look back on with plenty of pride. Those guys that came before me like Kelly and John Longmire and some of those really famous names, they paved the way in those State of Origin games. I remember watching those games when I was really young.”28

Hayes was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame as soon as he became eligible in 2020, however due to COVID-19  a formal was not held and seven people were inducted and one person was elevated to a Legend remotely over four nights from 1 to 4 June. Hayes was inducted on the first night, Monday 1 June.

During his speech Hayes said “Obviously so many people have helped me along my football journey and it did start with the Pennant Hills Football Club, junior coaches there and then at the NSW/ACT Rams, David Noble was my first coach, Stevie Wright, just some great mentors and then onto St Kilda with Ross Lyon and Grant Thomas. The coaches and mentors in my life have always been really strong so definitely have to thank them, I have touched on my teammates and they were a big motivating factor for me so without them I certainly wouldn’t be getting this recognition. My family, obviously a huge part of any footballers journey, my wife and two young boys are the motivation these days, we came up together from Melbourne to work at the Giants and obviously my immediate family in Mum and Dad. I touched on dad before, he is the one who introduced me to the game, taught me how to kick but mum was probably the real role model for me. Learnt so much from mum whether that be the importance of hard work, you know she taught me how to be resilient, she showed me how to care and have empathy for others so I would have to say that mum has been the biggest influence on my life and thank her from the bottom of my heart.”

On the 2 June episode of Fox Footy Live Jonathon Brown asked Hayes “There is usually a moment in someone’s career or a figure that helped them where you felt as if your career either turned or you felt as if you have gone from a good player or a bit-part player to a very good to great player like you did. Was there one moment you can look back on early in your career?” Lenny responded “Browny, it probably wasn’t until my third or fourth year that I felt like I belonged at the elite level and I put that down to Grant Thomas. When he took over as coach I was out injured, I had a shoulder reconstruction, and one of the first things he said, I was helping out at a training session, I think Alan Jeans had come down to help Thommo out and he just pulled me aside and said mate you are going to have a great year next year. I think that was the moment, instilled a bit of belief, I knew I still had to work a little bit harder, get a little bit stronger to play that midfield role and Thommo persisted with me in that role even though there was a couple more senior guys at the club still at the same time. That was probably it, that was the moment where I think the penny dropped moment.”

Throughout his 297 game AFL career Hayes averaged 11.5 kicks, 11.0 handballs, 3.7 marks, 0.32 goals and 0.46 Brownlow votes per game. The number of kicks, marks and handballs a player has in each VFL/AFL game has been recorded for every game since 1965, in this 55 year period Hayes ranks fourth on St Kilda’s list of total disposals with 6,688, behind former team-mates Robert Harvey (9,656), Nathan Burke (6,943) and Leigh Montagna (6,845), he ranks eighth for total kicks with 3,414, only 116 behind fifth ranked Barry Breen, and second for handballs with 3,274, 734 behind Harvey and 681 ahead of third ranked Montagna.

During his career Hayes had played 282 home and away games and received Brownlow Medal votes in 60 games, representing 21.28% of his games, equating to receiving votes in just over one in every five games. Hayes has an excellent strike rate of three vote games, receiving the maximum votes 25 times, equating to 41.7% of his vote-getting games. Lenny received the two votes 19 times and a single vote on 16 occasions. Hayes is ranked third for Brownlow Medal votes polled as a St Kilda player with 129, behind former teammates Robert Harvey (215) and Nick Riewoldt (153), and just ahead of former teammates Nick Dal Santo (127) and Stewart Loewe (126).

The general expectation for AFL footballers is that once they are in their 30s their influence starts to wane and they are unable to have the same impact on the game as they did during their 20s and in particular the period from the age of 25 to 28 when AFL footballers are generally considered to be at the peak of their powers.

Given the hard at it uncompromising physical style that Hayes played with throughout his career, in terms of winning the contested ball and tackling you would have thought there was an even stronger case for Lenny’s output to drop after turning 30 in January 2010. In five subsequent seasons he played a total of 83 games and in each season apart from the injury affected 2011 he exceeded his career average for disposals, clearances and contested possessions.

In 2010, arguably his most influential season for the Saints Hayes was 30 years and eight months old when he won the best and fairest, making him the oldest St Kilda player to win this award for more than 30 years.

After suffering a season ending knee injury early in 2011 Hayes commented, that once he came back one more serious injury could finish his career. Hearing this, St Kilda fans cherished the opportunity to watch him on the football field again in 2012, not knowing how much longer the wonderful career of Hayes would continue for. Although Lenny’s 2011 season-ending knee injury led to an unplanned intermission, thankfully he was able to play for another three seasons and not just be a valuable contributor, but clearly be in St Kilda’s best three players in two of these three seasons, providing much joy to football fans and enhancing the legacy of Lenny.

Upon his return in 2012 Hayes defied the odds to play sublime football, finishing in the top 15 at the Brownlow Medal and winning the third best and fairest award of his career in a St Kilda side that won 12 games during the home and away season and featured a high-quality cast of team-mates including Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Nick Dal Santo, Brendon Goddard, Sam Fisher, Sean Dempster and Stephen Milne.

After courageously playing on in 2013 for St Kilda following heart surgery in the off-season and being hampered by a limited pre-season due to this, Hayes suffered repeated calf injuries, restricted to 14 games understandably Hayes was unable to have his usual impact on games and considered retiring at the end of the season, before deciding to play on in 2014 confident that with a full pre-season he could be a key player and leader for St Kilda in 2014.   

Exceeding all expectations, Hayes did not miss a beat in 2014 to play brilliant football and recorded his eighth top three finish at the Saints best and fairest and ranked in the league’s top 20 for tackles and handballs.

Exceeding all expectations, Hayes did not miss a beat in 2014 to play brilliant football and recorded his eighth top three finish at the Saints best and fairest and ranked in the league’s top 20 for tackles and handballs.

Hayes was a three-time All-Australian, being selected in 2003, 2005 and 2009, during Hayes’ career only two other St Kilda players made at least three All Australian teams, Nick Riewoldt with five and Nick Dal Santo with three, highlighting how difficult this achievement is. From 2007 onwards the All-Australian selection committee have named an initial squad of 40 players before naming a final 22 man-team. Hayes was named an All-Australian nominee in the initial 40 man squad three times without making the final 22 man team, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

In the official AFL records Hayes was named in St Kilda’s half-dozen best players a phenomenal 11 times from his 15 finals, in eight of these games Hayes was listed in the top three Saints. In six of his last seven finals, all in 2009 and 2010 Hayes was one of St Kilda’s best four players, the exception being the 2010 Grand Final Replay against Collingwood which turned out to be Hayes’ last ever AFL final. With 15 finals during his decorated career Hayes is equal eighth on St Kilda’s all-time list for most finals played, former team-mates Dal Santo, Harvey, and Riewoldt are equal first with 17 finals. Given the quantity, and more importantly the quality of his finals games few players in St Kilda’s history have made a greater contribution over the duration of their career when the stakes are at their highest, during finals than the inspirational Lenny Hayes.

The effectiveness and quantity of Lenny’s tackling was a strength throughout his career, and in 10 out of 13 seasons from 2002 to 2014 Hayes ranked in the top 13 of the AFL for total tackles, the exceptions being three injury affected seasons, 2006 (9 games), 2013 (14 games) and 2011 (2 games). Hayes was in the top 10 of the AFL for tackles per game in 11 seasons, including eight times in the top five, 2002 (equal first), 2003 (fourth), 2004 (first), 2005 (fourth), 2006 (third), 2007 (fourth), 2008 (third) and 2010 (fifth).

One of Hayes’ greatest achievements during his career was the ability to perform at a high level consistently, not just quarter after quarter or game after game but also season after season. From his fourth season in 2002 to his last in 2014 Hayes was a model of consistency to finish in the top five of every St Kilda best and fairest apart from his three injury affected seasons in 2006, 2011 and 2013. Given the competition Hayes has had from his team-mates and the obstacles he faced in overcoming several serious injuries to maintain this outstanding level of performance for such an extended period of time is a sterling achievement.

During his 16 year AFL career the St Kilda Football Club couldn’t have asked for anything more from Lenny Hayes, he was skilful, tough, a great leader, the ultimate team man, courageous and provided a great example to team-mates and supporters alike, both on and off the field. St Kilda and indeed the entire football industry are all the more richer for the contribution that Hayes made during his magnificent AFL career and the wonderful legacy he left.

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

References

1 Bas Publishing, The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers,  Ninth edition, page 365

2 Inside Football, The New Winmar! By Russell Holmesby, 1 March 2000

3 The Age, Even Harvey looked up to Hayes by Jesse Hogan, page 54, 16 July 2014

4 The Age, A shy Saint shows he has leadership qualities by Linda Pearce, 2 April 2003

5 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2014-07-16/tributes-flood-for-hayes

6 Australian Football League, The Official statistical history of the AFL 2001, page 213

7 Pan Macmillian Australia Pty Limited, Harves Strength through loyalty by Robert Harvey, 2008, page 235

8 Australian Football League, AFL Record Guide to Season 2005, page 261.

9 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2006, 1st Edition, page 234

10 Hardie Grant Books, Lenny My Story, Lenny Hayes, 2014, page 111

11 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2007, 2nd Edition, page 256

12 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2009, 4th Edition, page 238

13 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2010, 5th Edition, page 7

14 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2011, 6th Edition, page 251

15 St Kilda Football Club, Hayes stays positive by Vanessa Gigliotti, 2 April 2011, Saints.com.au

16 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2012, 7th Edition, page 279

17 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2013, 8th Edition, page 292

18 http://www.afl.com.au/news/2013-01-27/lenny-opens-up

19 http://www.afl.com.au/news/2013-01-27/lenny-opens-up

20  http://www.afl.com.au/news/2013-08-25/hayes-to-go-again

21 Herald Sun, Heart of class by Mark Robinson, Page 69, 16 July 2014

22 AFL Record, Saint Lenny by Ben Guthrie, Round 20, page 20, August 8-10, 2014

23 Daily Telegraph, Lenny Hayes to play his final game in Sydney for St Kilda, one that got away for Swans by Neil Cordy, 15 August 2014

24 https://www.afl.com.au/news/445178/lenny-hayes-wins-ron-evans-scholarship

25 https://www.afl.com.au/news/445178/lenny-hayes-wins-ron-evans-scholarship

26  https://aflnswact.com.au/greatest-team-lenny-hayes/

27 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/news/810893/hayes-and-miller-to-depart

28 https://aflnswact.com.au/greatest-team-lenny-hayes/

Milestones and Misses

Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) and the Australian Football League (AFL). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey, such as a player  playing minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey the sportspeople have had during their career.

A link to the Milestones and Misses homepage is below:

https://milestonesandmisses.com/

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