Matty Blair knows the value of giving back more than ever. The Doncaster Rovers midfielder is the face of Club Doncaster’s work in the community, an ambassador for multiple programmes and a shining example to follow.
The recent EFL Day of Action is as good an example as any. A day where EFL Clubs up and down the country showcase the best of their community work to highlight the positive impact football has in changing people’s lives, some of the most unique projects and programmes were recognised across England and Wales for their impact on local communities.
In South Yorkshire, the Keepmoat Stadium welcome more than 70 participants from Bradford City’s ‘Fit Bantams’, Sheffield Wednesday’s ‘Fit Owls’ and Rotherham United’s ‘Fit Millers’, who joined up with ‘Fit Rovers’ to take part in a day of activities.
Fit Rovers is Club Doncaster Foundation’s pioneering adult fitness course - generically known as ‘Fit Fans’ - aimed at men and women who want to work towards a healthier lifestyle. A series of eight week fitness courses are conducted throughout the year and consist of activities including circuit training, football, cycling and much more, as well as an interactive workshop that looks at managing portion sizes.
Since its launch in 2017, Doncaster Rovers player Matty Blair has been an ambassador for the project, regularly attending sessions and supporting participants on their fitness journey.
“Originally I was just asked to attend a session, which is something we as footballers do on a regular basis,” Blair said, speaking on the EFL’s annual Day of Action earlier this month.
"But I went along to see what it was all about and it just gripped me as it has gripped everyone else to be totally honest with you - it's a phenomenal programme.
"It starts off as something you can just turn up to to have a conversation with the aim of losing weight, but it goes way beyond that. Some people that I've spoken to on the programme have actually described it as life changing for them. It’s gone beyond the levels that anyone could have originally anticipated and it’s fantastic to be a part of. I genuinely enjoy coming down regularly to see how everyone’s getting on and being kept up to date on people’s progress."
Blair’s work in the community has been, and continues to be, very well documented. His Keepmoat Stadium appearance on the EFL Day of Action was not a one-off. Last season’s League One Player in the Community winner has completed more player visits than anyone else during his time at Doncaster Rovers and as well as his involvement with Fit Rovers, he continues to spearhead the club’s mental health efforts, regularly attending events held in partnership with the EFL’s charity partner Mind.
So why does he do it? The answer is simple.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “There’s no other reason.”
"It gets me out to see different people and speak to different people that I may not get the chance to speak to in my normal day-to-day work as a footballer, because naturally we’d never cross paths. So I do it because I enjoy it but also because I’m always trying to learn from people and adapt everything I learn into my day-to-day life as well.”
After dealing with a personal loss in 2017, Blair received an overwhelming amount of support from the community around him, as well as Doncaster Rovers supporters, and whilst he openly admits his work in the community is not in response to the help he received during his public struggle, he understands the value of giving back more than ever.
“I don’t see it as giving back because I’m a footballer," he continued. "I do these things because I enjoy it, because I learn from it and because I see it as education for myself. But it’s definitely important for us as players to know and appreciate what football clubs do for their fans. They support us on a Saturday, we support them whenever they may need it as well. It’s give and take.
“Clubs all over the country do some amazing work with people in their community and it's so important to remind people of the impact football clubs actually have in their local areas and society generally. We’re constantly hearing stories of how programmes run by Clubs have changed lives, or saved lives and I think it’s really important to remind people of that every now and then.
"We’re giving people opportunities that they may never have had before and giving them an opportunity to be active, or to express their emotions or to interact with people, something they may never have done before. It’s just amazing.
"The benefits go beyond what the title suggests, what it’s doing for some people’s mental wellbeing is great and that's just as important. I’ve spoken to people who have said how much more positive they feel about life; they have more energy, they’re interacting with people when they never normally leave the house - you just can’t put a price on that. I know someone from Doncaster who hadn’t left the house for 30 years, but he came here to take part in Fit Rovers and now he attends every week and never misses a session."
The impact of work carried out by EFL Clubs and Club Community Organisations (CCOs) remains unparalleled, with more than half a million hours of group activity delivered and over 40 million hours of participation each season.
During the 2018/19 season, almost 900,000 people took part in a wide range of activities across key areas, with Clubs and CCOs receiving over £60 million of direct project funding.
"Football clubs within the EFL are so important. Doing what they’re doing, with the network that they’ve got, they're having a huge impact in their societies and on the people they interact with, it’s brilliant for everybody."