Matty Blair: Doncaster Rovers midfielder dealing with grief and giving back to community

Brothers Ross and Matty Blair
"Looking back over the 28 years I had with him, he did so much for me" - Matty Blair talking of his older brother Ross

"Matty, are you alright? You alright? You alright?"

Looking up at the sky, with a concerned friend bent over him repeating the frenzied question, it was the first time Matty Blair began to acknowledge the death of his older brother Ross.

It was a few months after Ross had died that Blair fainted while walking his dog.

Having lost his "hero", the grief was something the Doncaster Rovers midfielder was not dealing with. Not that he knew it at the time.

"I didn't realise what I was going through and just carried on," the 28-year-old told BBC Sport.

"The mental side was taking me over, physically. I wasn't able to understand my own feelings. I'd put them on the backburner and all of a sudden they caught up with me and I ended up fainting. To put it in a blunt way, I basically became a bit of a pudding.

"I felt light-headed and didn't know anything about it because, the next thing I know, I'm looking at my friend who's asking if I'm alright.

"I didn't have a clue. I stood up, walked home, got myself ready for training and then my wife grabbed my car keys and said 'you are not going anywhere'. She had just got a phone call from friends who said I was all over the place.

"That was the turning point, when I realised 'hang on mate, something's not right'. A couple of weeks later, I went to seek help.

It was then that Blair says "he learned about the importance of people".

'I want to improve myself'

Doncaster Rovers' English midfielder Matty Blair (L) vies with Arsenal's Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez
Blair has made 37 appearances for Doncaster in all competitions this season, which included starting against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup in September

With the support of family and team-mates, along with "guidance" from manager Darren Ferguson - who encouraged him to take time away from the game - Blair began to grapple with his emotions and better understand his grief.

And from the community around him, supporters of Doncaster and his previous clubs, Blair was "overwhelmed" by the response to his very public struggle.

"I had a lot of people, especially from the football club and its fans, saying if I ever needed help they would just be a phone call away," Blair said.

"It made me feel very proud because I had such a big community of people, as well as my family, around me."

Now almost six months on, Blair knows more than ever the value of giving back.

On the English Football League's Day of Action - in which all 72 clubs from across the Championship, League One and League Two demonstrate the positive impact football can have in the community - the midfielder will make a special appearance at Keepmoat Stadium where the club are running a host of activities.

Doncaster's Matty Blair coaching some youngsters
Blair hopes youngsters can find "inspiration" from his own football story, having made a career in the game after starting as a non-league player in Coventry

But it is no one-off for a player who has been nominated for the PFA Player in the Community Award, as he is a regular on school visits and is heavily involved with the club's walking football and Fit Rovers programmes.

And in December, Blair fronted the club's mental health charity partnership with the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm).

"Work that football clubs do in the community is massive," said Blair.

"I've always found it quite interesting. I talk to people and learn from them and hopefully they learn a little bit from me as well. I want to improve myself more as a person rather than just focus on football."

'Maybe, just maybe I'll be helping'

Matty Blair in action for Doncaster in their mental-health charity kit
Blair fronted the club's efforts to raise awareness of mental health when the club wore a specially designed shirts in support of the Campaign Against Living Miserably

As the son of Andy Blair - who was part of the Aston Villa squad which beat Bayern Munich to win the 1982 European Cup and the team that went on to beat Barcelona to claim the European Super Cup in 1983 - the much-travelled former England non-league international has long understood the importance of community involvement.

"I look up to my dad and he was very much about giving back and helping those clubs that looked after him. That has been instilled in me since I was a youngster," said Blair.

"I've said to team-mates that they don't know how much they helped me without them even knowing it. Now, I don't know if I will be helping people in the community, but if I can be the best person I can be then maybe, just maybe, I will be helping.

"I'm lucky to be in the position that I'm in, and I'll try to give back as much as I can."

As a player who has risen from non-league football in Coventry, scored in a cup final at Wembley and won promotion three times with three different clubs, the former Fleetwood, Mansfield Town and York City player stresses the importance of tenacity whenever he runs a coaching session or is asked to speak on a community visit.

"Hard graft" and "putting a shift in" are terms that have defined a career which has seen Blair feature for 12 different clubs in 10 years.

'Ross is still my hero'

Matty Blair swimming with his son Archie
Matty's son Archie was born before his brother Ross passed away

Now he carries with him cherished memories of his older brother and lessons learned from heartache.

"I'll always take a little bit of him wherever I go," Blair said of Ross, who died at the age of 32 in July 2017, more than three years after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

"My brother was my hero and still is. He was a very good man and I'm just trying to be the best person I can be.

"It's probably been the biggest learning year of of my life. I've learned about myself and about people around me. For me, the biggest thing was learning that it is okay to have bad days and it is okay not to be okay."

Blair says he is turning a corner and acknowledges that he still isn't "100%" and is "still improving".

But with a voice through football and in an industry that he feels is "starting to wake up" to the importance of mental health, the League One player says he feels compelled to share his story.

"The way I have been handled by those people around me and the way I'm now handling myself, I don't think I could be in a better place," he said.

"It's not easy to go out and talk about it, I'm not a professional on mental health, but I can go out, express my experiences and try to help that way.

"I know how small things can have a massive influence. I appreciate that more now than I ever have."

Doncaster's Andy Butler (l) and Matty Blair speak to youngsters
Doncaster's Andy Butler (left) won the PFA Player in the Community Award in 2017, with Andy Blair now nominated by Rovers for the same award

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