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At the end of the season, the game will lose a champion.

It was always expected that this season would be his last, but Lenny Hayes’ announcement on Tuesday that he will retire at season’s end was still met with sadness by the football community.

It’s rare that a player is universally liked and respected by players and fans of all 18 clubs, but Hayes was one such player. He was the ultimate professional, both on and off the field, and he endeared himself to the football public as a whole.

Ever the humble gentleman, Hayes typically played down his achievements at his press conference, eager to place the focus instead on all those who had helped him achieve all his success.

It is a career of which he can be proud – spanning 291 games (to date), three Best and Fairest awards, Norm Smith Medallist in the 2010 drawn Grand Final, and three All-Australian awards: the only glaring omission from Hayes’ CV is a Premiership.

It is a shame that one of the Saints’ champions will finish his career without tasting the ultimate success – I’m sure everyone in the football world would say that if ever a player ‘deserved’ a premiership, it was Hayes.

Lenny was the ultimate team player, always putting his heart and soul on the line for the club. In the club’s days of success from 2004-2010 (when the Saints made the finals in all but two years), Hayes was one of the best inside midfielders in the game, feeding the ball out to the likes of Montagna, Dal Santo and Goddard.

Since then, with the Saints in rebuilding mode, Hayes has been his same bullocking self, while also becoming a mentor to the younger players around him. He has led by example and is setting the standard expected of professional footballers.

As a life long Saints fan, I feel Lenny’s loss more keenly than others. Throughout the roller-coaster that has been the last ten years, Lenny’s professionalism and enthusiasm has been one constant on which we could always rely.

Despite never being a permanent captain of the club (although he has held the role at various intervals), Lenny has always been, more so than any other player, the heart and soul of our club.

I was indoctrinated into Saints’ life by family: I still remember, as a young girl, watching games with my family, and being struck by both Lenny’s ability to win the ball and his professional attitude. Along with Harvey, Riewoldt and Lowe, Hayes is among my handful of all-time favourite St Kilda players.

So great was his effect on me that his number seven has long adorned the back of my Saints jumper. I can only hope that the club gives his number to its first draft pick next year – at this stage, that looks to be pick one, hopefully a player worthy of Lenny’s legacy.

Lenny has signalled an intent to move into coaching next year, and given the impact he has had on the young Saints’ midfielders, keeping him as an assistant coach would be invaluable for the development of the Saints over the next few years. Having lost another favourite son in Robert Harvey to Collingwood, it’s vital that the Saints try and hang on to Hayes in a coaching capacity.

Ever selfless, Hayes suggested that one reason for his retirement has been the positive development of some of the Saints’ new nucleus of youngsters, and that if he were to continue, he would be depriving one of these players of opportunities. The Saints do have a roster of talented youngsters, but the loss of Lenny in the Saints’ midfield will be keenly felt.

It will leave David Armitage and Jack Steven – along with veterans Farren Ray and Leigh Montagna – as the most senior members of the Saints’ midfield. A player of Lenny’s calibre cannot easily be replaced and he will leave a void, both in leadership and talent.

It will be up to the Saints’ younger players like Jack Newnes, Seb Ross, Tom Curren and Josh Saunders to step up and set the example for their younger teammates. However, having Lenny around in an assistant coaching role would go some way to mitigating this loss, and the guidance he can provide to the Saints’ youngsters will be invaluable in their development.

The final six games of the season will be bittersweet, especially for Saints fans thinking ‘what might have been’ in 2009 and 2010. All I can hope is that Lenny’s announcement galvanises the Saints into some good form in the next six weeks, and give him the send off he deserves – that of a true champion.