In the guts of the hallowed MCG turf, a little guy named Hayden Kennedy ruled supreme. He couldn’t cut it as a footballer so he did the next best thing and became an umpire, living out his boyhood dreams through the deeds of AFL heroes. Robert Fedele reports.
Hayden Kennedy used to be the guy everyone loved to hate. A distant figure with no name, decked in white, then yellow and green, fronting up each week to tackle perhaps football’s most difficult job.
The former AFL umpire hung up the boots and whistle last year, falling five games shy of the 500 mark he had set himself and was doggedly chugging along towards.
‘‘I just got an injury at the wrong time,’’ he says with a tinge of regret. “I could have come back and umpired three or four more. But I just thought ... I’ve had enough.’’
After more than two decades adjudicating in the VFL/AFL, Kennedy has taken on the role of mentor, becoming an assistant coach with the AFL where he oversees the performance of the league’s 32 umpires nationwide.
It’s a full-on gig, involving training twice and a week and watching countless games of football.
In a typical week this year Kennedy flew to the Gabba to watch Brisbane play Carlton on a Thursday night, then to Hobart’s Blundstone Arena for the North v GWS fixture on Sunday.
The following Friday he turned up for the Collingwood v Carlton blockbuster at the G, before flying to Sydney on Sunday for another clash.
Some might argue he’s never left the game. But you won’t hear a complaint from the man himself.
‘‘I retired at the right time by the looks of things,’’ he says smiling. ‘‘It’s fantastic. I’m getting some really good feedback from the guys and that’s a confidence-builder. It’s a different type of role. There’s a lot of young guys, probably nine first-year or second-year guys, and I’m mainly responsible for them.’’
Which immediately draws the question: who in their right frame of mind would want to become an umpire?
For Kennedy, the journey dates from junior footy where he developed his love of the game.
Born in Airport West, he went to St Christopher’s Primary and played in underage teams in the then Oak Park Social Football League.
Later he would venture to Doutta Stars and play in the Essendon District Football League.
A small man with a big personality, Kennedy describes himself as a nippy rover, an ‘‘all right’’ player but not in the class of his brother Ross.
He gave up footy for a year for fear of being knocked about and turned his hand to tennis.
When he decided to become an umpire his football nous stood him in good stead.
Kennedy’s first game was on the boundary in an under 18 match between East Keilor and Moonee Valley, which he recalls being called off midway through the last quarter due to the ‘‘activity’’ of the footballers.
The next day he took on the role of field umpire in an under 10s match.
In 1983 he umpired the entire season in the EDFL before being sounded out for the VFL cadets squad, which he graduated to the following year.
By 1986 he was umpiring the under 19 VFL grand final and the following year he became a fully-fledged member of the senior ranks.
‘‘It was really quick at the time,’’ he says looking back. ‘‘Because of the footy I played I had a good feel for what was a free kick and what wasn’t.
“I never was striving for it or anything like that. It all happened so quickly and I was just going with the flow. I had no real idea that I wanted to become an AFL umpire.’’
Listening in on the conversation is Kennedy’s wife Maree. They met in 1990 and have three children – Harrison, 16, Molly, 14, and Finn, 10.
Maree has watched her husband’s career blossom from the stands, admitting she’s bitten her tongue more often than not.
‘‘Going to games was always a challenge, especially as the kids got older and they became aware of what people were saying. I had to explain to them that it wasn’t personal.
‘‘In the early days when you were out at some of the smaller grounds it could be quite full on. I can remember walking back to the car a few times and having people heckle us. But as the years went on they became more protected.
‘‘Sometimes if you say I’m the umpire’s wife or these are his children they’ll stop what they’re saying because they’ll realise, ‘Oh, he is human’.’’
While there were obvious drawbacks to the position, Kennedy speaks about his time as an umpire fondly.
The 46 year old umpired five grand finals, the first in 1995 between Carlton and Geelong, after umpiring all 21 weeks of the home and away season and four weeks of finals.
He was the first man in white to achieve the feat in 38 years.
‘‘It was huge. It was unexpected. I was probably a 120-gamer or something like that and I just had a really good end to the year,’’ he says about leapfrogging colleagues to the holy grail.
‘‘In those days you’d umpire the first week, second week, and then they’d give you a rest before the grand final. I umpired the first week, the second week, and got the third week, which is the prelim, and then I umpired the grand final and no one had done that for quite a while.
Kennedy concedes that at least in part, he lived vicariously through the job, rubbing shoulders with football’s immortals. And he loved every minute of it.
The best he saw?
‘‘You really can’t split a Wayne Carey, a Tony Lockett, a Jason Dunstall, Greg Williams out of the centre, Michael Long on a wing, a guy called Garry Ablett senior,’’ he says, piecing together a makebelieve team in his head.
‘‘I know it doesn’t sound tough but a guy like Robert Harvey. He was an onballer but he used to get tagged just about every week.
He used to just run and run and get belted and pick himself back up again.’’
For the most part Kennedy is happy with his record and believes umpires are unfairly maligned.
‘‘You’re always gonna have games which are fantastic and games which are crappy,’’ he says.
‘‘All our decisions are assessed as correct or incorrect. It’s such a difficult job. When you think about it, it’s four by 30 minute quarters of dynamic movement by the players with physical contact just about at every opportunity. To be able to see everything that happens in one quarter, let alone multiplying that by four, is an enormous and difficult job to do.’’
And then there’s the other can of worms – the AFL’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal.
‘‘Nahhhhh, no controversy,’’ Kennedy says, tongue firmly in cheek. ‘‘It’s a big thing. A huge thing. I think we’ve generally done pretty well.’’
He says umpires take the Brownlow seriously and rules and guidelines are reiterated during an annual pre-season camp.
Letting in on the process, he reveals how umpires sit down at the end of each game and go through the best players, about seven or eight, and whittle it down to three, with no statistics or outside interference.
The process normally takes from five to 15 minutes.
He uses an anecdote involving the famous triple dead heat between Mark Ricciuto, Nathan Buckley, and Adam Goodes in 2003, to illustrate the fine line between winning and losing.
It was round 22, and he was officiating at the MCG.
‘‘We had Goodes for three votes and then we talked about it and it took us 20 to 25 minutes before we came to a conclusion and we actually dropped Goodes from three votes to two and some other guy got the three. His two votes meant he tied. Buckley got one vote in that round. That could have meant Buckley or Ricciuto would never have won a Brownlow. That’s how important it can become.’’
Away from football, Kennedy’s day job was as a teacher at his former high school, St Bernard’s College in Essendon.
Life after footy has been promising so far, even if he admits getting itchy feet sometimes, like that first visit to Blundstone Arena this year.
‘‘I got out there and it was the first time [I’d been in the middle] since and I thought, Gee whiz. I’d love the opportunity to be out here.’’