A milestone match in navy blue, calling Carlton home for the next three years and a whirring midfield machine: Matthew Kennedy couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to the season.
Carlton’s Matthew Kennedy has pieced together a career-best start to the 2022 AFL season.
Yet when the 25-year-old midfielder was offered a three-year contract extension, it still came as a shock.
Having lived a football life on one-year deals, the Giant turned Blue will now have the comfort of calling IKON Park home until 2025, the deal coinciding with his 50th game in navy blue a fortnight ago.
Announced to the playing group in their team meeting, midfield coach Tim Clarke recognised that the emotion in the room was testament to Kennedy’s character.
“To see the energy that the other people had – they really love him as a person and they really appreciate the work that he does – he’s a tough player and he gives everything to the group,” Clarke said.
“When a player like that gets rewarded with a contract, or a game of footy, the boys really get around them and you could feel that energy in the room.”
Clarke was an assistant coach during Kennedy’s first year at the Blues – and though the coach shifted to Gold Coast before returning to Carlton this year – he saw firsthand the initial toils the Collingullie product endured.
The Blues traded pick No.28 to lure Kennedy from GWS, however inconsistencies plagued the former Giant who struggled to establish himself as a consistent fixture in the team’s midfield rotation.
He eventually broke into the senior side as a forward in the backend of the 2019 season, before gradually earning more midfield minutes in 2020.
He was delisted at the end of that season but showed enough to be granted a lifeline and was re-drafted as a rookie.
The tide began to turn in the back half of the 2021 season, as a stint in the VFL set the wheels in motion for Kennedy’s return to form. Recalled to the senior side on the back of the bye, he featured in the final ten games for the Blues and began to string together personal best numbers.
Fast forward to the current season and it was Kennedy who set the tone in a blistering opening round performance against Richmond, recording 33 disposals, 14 contested possessions and a goal as the Blues stormed to their first Round 1 win in ten years.
It would become just one of three consecutive 30-plus disposal performances to start the season, with Kennedy now averaging 25 disposals (11 of those contested), five clearances and six score involvements per game.
For Clarke, there was no quick fix that led to Kennedy’s form, but a steady body of work which he’d put together over several years.
“He made a commitment a couple of years ago to invest a lot of time and energy,” Clarke said.
“He transformed his body to be able to run harder and get to more contests. There’s been a lot of work that he’s put in and a lot of time that he’s invested into his running patterns and how he sets up around the ball, which has led to the improvement in his footy.
“It’s not something that’s happened over the last few weeks, this has been a couple of years that he’s put in to his footy.”
While the physical work is clear, what may not be visible to the naked eye are the gains that Kennedy has made in his mental fortitude, leaning heavily on club psychologist, Tarah Kavanagh, who has helped him find perspective in life and football.
“Tarah’s a fantastic resource that we’ve got at our footy club that the players use,” Clarke said.
“It’s really helped him narrow his focus around what’s important to him and his life – she’s played a big part in that. He’s outstanding in the way he utilises the resources at the club – Tarah’s just one of those resources.”
A surprise packet this season, Carlton are currently entrenched in the top eight, with their midfield group humming – jumping from 16th in the league in total clearances to fifth overall. Kennedy is but one important cog in the machine, which Clarke has spent his return to the club developing.
Kennedy’s career-best form has complemented the return of skipper Patrick Cripps to his dominant best, and the addition of Sydney’s George Hewett and Fremantle’s Adam Cerra in last year’s player exchange period.
“They’re a terrific group of guys to work with. They’re all really strong characters, they invest a lot into their own games. They’re constantly working on extra craft – whether it be contest craft, stoppage craft, watching vision – they’re heavily invested,” he said.
A competitive edge sets them apart, with Clarke crediting their drive to make one another better as a major key in their success thus far.
“They’re super competitive – every time we’re doing a training drill, they’re very competitive amongst each other and they don’t like losing. They carry that competitiveness out into games so what they do when they roll out against opposition is what they do against each other at training.
“They set such a high standard that they’re constantly making each other better.”
A fresh face in the coaching box has also provided an added spark not only for Kennedy, but the playing group as a whole.
“Vossy’s [Michael Voss] a fantastic leader, he really connects well with the players. He gives autonomy to the people that work with him,” Clarke said.
“He’s got the players, they’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
For Kennedy and the Blues, the goals ahead are simple and team-focused, according to Clarke.
“As individuals and as a team we’re looking to build upon the framework that we’ve set out so far this year,” Clarke said.
“That’s our yardstick, to keep testing our system against the best teams. We know if we can keep working on the basics of what we’re trying to do, we’ll put together some pretty competitive performances.”