A YEAR is a long time in life let alone football as Matty Blair can attest.
It is almost exactly 12 months to the day since the Doncaster Rovers midfielder, physically and emotionally drained and struggling to adapt following the tragic passing of his older brother Ross, sought counselling and so the road to recovery began.
Blair remembers well what proved a watershed moment. It was on the day of Rovers’ match at Charlton Athletic on October 13, 2017 – a game that felt like an eternity for him after coming on as a 62nd-minute substitute.
The move towards breaking point had been slowly gathering pace. Soon after the death of his beloved sibling in July 2017 – following a long battle with brain cancer – the 2017-18 season began for Rovers and Blair.
The daily commitments of working life and caring for his own young family without having sufficient time to grieve for his brother became more and more burdensome.
Rovers were alerted to Blair’s problems after he had fainted while out walking his dog, with then manager Darren Ferguson – after allowing him the weekend off to miss one game against Bradford City at the end of September 2017 – then telling him to take a few weeks off to go on holiday and completely shut off.
His ordeal at Charlton shortly before he was due to head overseas crystallised the need to address his problems fully.
Thankfully after a period of rest, grieving time and counselling, Blair is in a much better place again as opposed to this time last year.
Blair, part of the Rovers squad who visit Rochdale this afternoon, said: “I feel like I am smiling again and happy around the place. It is my own personal feelings on it and it is probably making me play better football as well.
It was a big spiral for me at that time. But now, coming out of it the other side, I am more experienced for it and getting everything I need ready for my football side and thoroughly enjoying my family life as well.Doncaster Rovers’ Matty Blair
“It is all going hand in hand with each other at the moment. Long may that continue.
“From a year ago to now I have massively enjoyed it. The pre-season I had was one I enjoyed along with the start of the season and the spell of games I am getting now.”
Reflecting on his altered sense of well-being to 12 months ago, he recalled: “I remember playing a game at Charlton for twenty-odd minutes and felt like I had played four or five games. I was that deflated from it all and did not know why.
“Even my recovery side of it for the next game was terrible and I was not getting the rest I needed or doing the things I needed to do.
“It was a big spiral for me at that time. But now, coming out of it the other side, I am more experienced for it and getting everything I need ready for my football side and thoroughly enjoying my family life as well.”
In a week in which the importance of understanding mental health issues has been raised through publicity surrounding World Mental Health Day, Blair is thankful for the help that he received in his time of need from his employers.
The understanding of former Rovers manager Ferguson is something he will never forget, and the support of club officials was also unstinting.
For many previous decades – certainly when Blair’s father Andy played in the late Seventies and Eighties, the subject of mental health was taboo among the footballing fraternity and across all clubs.
Thankfully, things have changed for the better since. Although more needs to be done across football, the duty of care that managers now show towards their squad extends beyond just being solely concerned about their capabilities as footballers.
Blair added: “My issues were obviously from a grieving point of view for my brother.
“But grieving is just one part of mental health and there are a lot of different things that go on in people’s lives.
“I think it is important that players do have that relationship and encouragement to be able to go to your manager, who should be a bit of a father figure to you.
“Managers will be father figures to most lads, and if you have that relationship where you feel you can go and express your feelings to a manager it can only make your relationship better with himself and the football club.
“It will also make you perform better. It is massively important and starting to come into effect more from a generational point of view.
“It is not just one or two players having a relationship with a manager, but a squad of players feeling they can approach a manager, assistant manager and fitness coach and express their concerns.
“I was very fortunate to have Darren in the way he treated and looked after me last season and protected me.
“This gaffer here now (Grant McCann) is just the same as well and the new managers are really learning the importance of the relationships they have with their players.”