- Robert Harvey lauds retiring Lenny Hayes
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- Why everyone loves St Lenny
While Lenny Hayes argued his impending retirement would not be "leaving a massive void or anything like that", a horde of St Kilda players, supporters and even rival football supporters would vehemently disagree.
The 34-year-old confirmed publicly on Tuesday morning, not long after informing his teammates, that he would end his decorated 16-year career at the end of the season.
"As a player and 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," he said .
That sentiment about falling off the cliff was countered - performance-wise, at least - by long-time teammate Nick Riewoldt.
"He's probably leading our best and fairest ... he's had a great year," said the Saints captain, who praised the three-time club champion and three-time All-Australian, and not just for his on-field contributions.
"He's just the ultimate teammate, the ultimate player and ... off the field he's the nicest, best guy and most fiercely loyal guy that you would ever meet," he said. "Of all the people I've ever met in football, he's the best person and the best player as well."
Hayes' announcement was made at the club's Linen House Centre headquarters in Seaford, in a room packed bulging with more than 100 journalists, players and club staff, many of themwhom were clad in "I (heart) Lenny" commemorative T-shirts.
"I asked the club if this could be fairly low-key, and it didn't really turn out that way, did it?" Hayes quipped, watched by his wife Tara and infant son Hunter.
St Kilda coach Alan Richardson had vast experience at rival clubs before taking the helm in the off-season, but said he had never known of a player to be as universally respected and admired as Hayes.
"He's admired throughout the industry. I spoke really briefly [to the players] after Lenny did today and mentioned exactly that," he said.
"My take on Lenny [before arriving] was incredible competitor, fantastic person, and then to have the privilege to work with him, albeit for a short period, has just been an honour. He's an outstanding fella."
Riewoldt said the widespread affection for Hayes was a by-product of "the way he approaches the game, the style of player he is, how hard and tough and competitive he is, but really fair as well - and just the modesty".
"He's pretty flat with the T-shirts and flat with the fanfare, but that's Lenny, [a sign of] the modesty of the man. I think that just makes him even more attractive as a person and as a teammate, and [with] general footy fans as well. It doesn't matter who you barrack for ... everyone's really admired him for the way he's gone about it," Riewoldt said.
"He's just the ultimate team player, and I think that everyone who follows football can recognise and see that ... that's why he's universally loved."
Hayes was reluctant to reflect on his standing in the sport.
"Over my career I've just tried to treat people the way I'd like to be treated, and that's respectfully. If people sort of warm to me through that, then that's nice."
Hayes cited teammates David Armitage, Jack Steven, Seb Ross, Luke Dunstan and Maverick Weller among those capable of stepping into the midfield after his departure.
Richardson praised the veteran for the guidance he had given the club to help it prepare for "life after Lenny".
Sydney's Brett Kirk was described by Hayes as the toughest tagger he had to contend with, while Hayes rated Brisbane's three-time premiership player Simon Black as the opponent he admired the most.
Hayes insisted he had no regrets that, even if he played all six of the Saints' remaining matches, he would finish his career three matches short of the 300 milestone.
"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," he said, expressing his satisfaction at deciding to play on after last season, when injuries pushed him to the brink of retirement.
"I did my knee when I was over 30, and obviously had the open-heart surgery as well, but the club never mentioned ... finishing up to me. They always backed me in and I feel really thankful for that."
Hayes hopes to remain in football as a coach, possibly starting as early as next season.
Hayes smiled when asked about a "baptism of fire" incident during his debut in 1999 when he was met heavily by North Melbourne's Glenn Archer, one of the toughest players of the modern era.
"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," he said.
"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."
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan described Hayes as "an all-time great of our modern game".
Launching multicultural round on Tuesday, he said: "Hayes has ... been an extraordinary player. I think he’s universally loved by supporters of all 18 clubs and there are few players who do that.
"He transcends his playing ability in terms of the general integrity that he radiates and the way he’s gone about his football."