The cancellation of the Australian Football League’s season launch in March 2003 also put on hold the presentation of AFL Life Memberships. Hayden Kennedy was one of those due to receive that award having umpired more than 300 senior matches in all competitions. At the time, 294 of those matches were in either the AFL Premiership season or Finals Series. This week Hayden umpires his 300th AFL senior match in Friday night’s Kangaroos versus Adelaide match.
“I have only thought about 300 games in the last 3 or 4 years. I always thought I had the ability to get there, but I got a fright last year when I missed 10 games with injury. It would have been great to get it last year, as my goal had been to reach it in 2002.”
However, there is a lot of work before any umpire debuts at AFL level. Hayden began with the Essendon District Football League in 1983 and, after showing immediate promise, was recruited to the VFL cadet squad the following year. An early career influence in the Under 19s was Glenn James. Kennedy recalls that, “Jamesy ran a half shadowing me and taught me how to run and where to run to. I also spent a year in the Northern Territory in 1987 / 88 and that helped me significantly.”
The lessons were well learned and, after umpiring the 1986 VFL Under 19s Grand Final, Kennedy was promoted to the VFL senior list the following year and began umpiring VFL Reserve Grade and country football fixtures.
The road to 300 began in August 1988 with a high scoring thriller at Princes Park. Carlton pipped North Melbourne by four points – 147-131. Kennedy’s partner on the day was a fellow 300 game umpire Peter Cameron.
Early in his senior career Kennedy received more assistance from another AFL Life Member.
“Kevin Smith sat down with me after a Sydney and Carlton game and we worked through the first half of the game off the video looking for ways to improve.”
For the next four seasons Kennedy did improve, toiled hard building experience and, in 1992, was appointed to his first AFL Finals Series. He umpired the Qualifying Final between Geelong and North Melbourne and more finals over the ensuing seasons led to a remarkable finals campaign in 1995.
After 21 home and away games, Kennedy officiated in all four weeks of the finals. He was only the 11th field umpire to accomplish this and, perhaps more remarkably, the first since Alan Nash in 1957, 38 years earlier. His first Grand Final, Carlton versus Geelong, was shared with boundary umpire Allan Cook. Both had been field umpires together on the cadet squad at the beginnings of their careers and both reached the pinnacle of achievement on the same day having followed very different paths.
Since that first Grand Final breakthrough, Kennedy went from strength to strength, umpiring Grand Finals in 1997, 1998 and 2000 as well as taking part in every finals series. Other prestige appointments and honours have also been attained, including three State of Origin appointments and being named All Australian Umpire in 1997. He attained Life Membership of the AFL Umpires’ Association in 1993. Having been involved in the VFL/AFL arena for a decade and a half, Hayden is very aware of the differences in umpiring since he began.
“Umpiring has changed heaps since I debuted in 1988. Although we don’t run as far in games, scrutiny from the media has increased. Our list size has decreased, and I back that the average age of umpires has decreased. We are required to provide a greater commitment with interstate travel, training and other responsibilities such as media and club functions. We are now better bouncers of the ball and, I believe, we have reduced the number of major errors we make in a game.” Throughout his career, Kennedy has faced any number of set backs ranging from injury to lapses of form, but has always had great support.
“There have been many obstacles and to tell you the truth I don’t know what the best method of getting over them is. I know that we have a certain group of friends and family who support us through the tough times and, I suppose, as long as you enjoy their company, the obstacles shouldn’t appear as big. I have many influences on my career, none more so than my parents and my wife who have been constant and loyal supporters.”
As one of the most experienced AFL field umpires, Hayden has the respect of all his team mates. “Hayden’s work ethic is an example to the rest of the group,” notes one current umpire.
Recent colleague and AFLUA President, David Howlett recalls, “Hayden’s athletic ability provided him with the base for what has been an outstanding career, achieving every honour in AFL umpiring. While he had the base, Hayden has worked tirelessly on the decision making component of his game allowing him to be among the best umpires of recent years.”
Now that he has 300 matches under his belt, Kennedy will have much pleasure in accepting the AFL’s recognition of his service.
“I am tickled pink about the Life Membership – it has really hit home now that I have passed the milestone. I feel rewarded for the work and effort you put into umpiring – it is obviously a great honour.”