Featured interview with Stags' winger Matty BlairIt’s an experience that can evoke the kind of nerves normally reserved for a youngster making his debut in senior professional football, so Stags’ winger Matty Blair can consider himself to be very fortunate – in most men’s eyes at least – that he was spared any such tense moments.
The winger admits he had been thinking about proposing to his girlfriend, Xanthe, for some time, but, last month, he had the matter taken out of his hands when she popped the question to him on February 29 – the leap year day that women are entitled to break with tradition and ask their partners to wed.
Blair, of course, said yes, meaning that off the field he could not be happier. Living in the picturesque West Midlands town of Kenilworth he is ‘looking forward to settling down.’
On the field, though, he insists that he still has some unfinished business, not just in terms of trying to help Mansfield keep alive hopes of securing a League 2 play-off berth, but also securing his own future as well.
It is at this time of year that a whole host of footballers are playing for contracts and Blair – having recovered from a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury, which ruled him out between February 2015 and September 2015 – is no different.
“We had talked about getting married and I had been joking by asking why should it always be the man’s job to propose,” laughs the Warwick-born player. “So when leap year day came around, Xanthe didn’t waste any time!
“I had an inkling because we had spoken about it a couple of weeks before and it is great to be engaged. It won’t change too much because we will still be the same as before, but it is nice for her to have the ring now and have the wedding to plan for.
“From a footballing point of view, it’s a relief that I’m over the bad injury I had and I’m pleased with the way it has gone, scoring a couple of goals and gradually getting better. The team has done well too, probably punching above its weight in most people’s eyes even if, within the squad, we have expected a lot of ourselves.
“Playing for a contract is a side of the footballer’s job that isn’t so appealing, because it is not as secure as some other professions, but you can take it one of two ways, and either be positive or negative about it.
“I have always chosen to try and be positive about it because those are the players who are usually the ones who end up getting offered contracts. They are the ones who forget about that sort of stuff and concentrate on delivering on the pitch, so the rest looks after itself.
“A lot of credit must go to the gaffer (Adam Murray) who backed me all the way while I was out injured and said a lot of nice things to me during that time, so I have a lot of respect for him, but we will just have to see what happens for next season.
“I have no intention of going anywhere, but it is up to the club and the manager to decide my future. In the meantime, I will continue to give everything in the closing weeks of the season and hope I can get a good run in the side.”
Blair’s engagement delight comes at the end of a tough last 12 months when he has not only had to contend with the lengthy rehab on his damaged knee but also the shock of discovering his brother, Ross, was fighting a brain tumour.
Not surprisingly, that gave him a sense of perspective at a time when he could have been down in the dumps, frustrated at sitting in the One Call Stadium stands rather than being out on the pitch doing his bit for the team.
He says: “It was a bad injury for me to deal with, but there are worse things going on in the world and one of them was obviously very close to me, so you have to deal with it as best you can.
“Of course it gets you thinking about what is important. You can hate the world for getting injured, but at the end of the day it was just an injury that would heal, where my brother was fighting something that could take his life. He was so positive about it all, so I had to take a step back and do the same.”
Despite being born into a footballing family – his dad Andy played for the likes of Aston Villa, Coventry City and Sheffield Wednesday – Blair has got into the game the hard way and has long since appreciated how lucky he is to be earning his living from something he loves.
Akin to the likes of fellow Stags Jamie McGuire and Scott Shearer, it has been a steady rather than spectacular rise in the professional game. Having played Sunday League football and worked his way from the youth team to first team at Racing Club Warwick, he then played for teams like Stratford, Bedworth, Redditch and Kidderminster to work his way up through the football pyramid.
“I’m not the biggest of players, so I think getting kicked up in the air by some big bruisers in those early days really toughened me up as a player,” explains Blair. “Fortunately, I had enough pace to get around most of them.
“But it also made me more determined to make it as a professional – and enjoy it when I did. I worked as an electrician and did some promotions work while I was playing in non-league, which was geared around still being able to train on Tuesday and Thursday nights and being able to travel for games.”
It was upon signing for York that Blair’s career really started to take off as he enjoyed a golden 2011-12 season, scoring a number of crucial goals, including one that Mansfield fans remember for all the wrong reasons.
After the Stags had stormed into the Football Conference play-off places under then-boss Paul Cox, they drew 1-1 with the Minstermen at Bootham Crescent before Blair nodded in the decisive goal in the return leg in North Nottinghamshire.
That formed part of a remarkable sequence of strikes for the West Midlander, who also scored the aggregate winner in the FA Trophy semi-final at Luton Town – ensuring a 1-1 draw after a 1-0 first-leg success – before netting in the FA Trophy Final victory (2-0 against Newport) followed by the Football Conference Play-off Final (2-1 against Luton).
He recalls: “I always say that if you were going to write a story or a script of that season for me, you could not do it any better than what actually happened. To get to Wembley twice, win on both occasions and score on both too was very special. I know some players never ever get to play at Wembley even once.
“Scoring in that first game, the FA Trophy Final, was probably the best moment for me because I had around 130 people who had come down to watch me from the Coventry area, so it was great to do it for them, not just myself.
“I also remember the winner at Luton in the semi-final of that run because my dad was behind the goal and had an aisle seat. When I scored, he jumped up and came running down to the front towards me but got pushed over in the surge from behind and twisted his ankle.
“He walked back to his car and it was only later that he realised he’d broken it. Needless to say he has had plenty of stick about it from my uncle – his brother – and my brother as well!”
Blair then joined Fleetwood and experienced another promotion in helping the Cod Army into League 1 for the first time. Towards the end of his time at Highbury, he had a loan spell at today’s opponents Northampton Town, as well as Cambridge, before linking up with Mansfield in January last year.
The fleet-of-foot attacker is looking forward to locking horns with the Cobblers, who had gone 15 league games unbeaten prior to Good Friday’s game with Newport, including a 10-game winning streak from just after Christmas until late February.
“I was at Northampton when Chis Wilder came in for his first game in charge at Cheltenham,” says Blair. “He’s someone who’s very organised and keeps things controlled and disciplined, he’s doing very well at what is a big club.
“The run they’ve been on going into the Easter weekend makes it a very tough game for us, but these are the type of matches you enjoy. You want to test yourselves against the best in the league.
“We turn up to every game believing we can win it – even if results don’t always go our way – and this is no different. I think we play better when teams come here looking to win, rather than sitting back, so it might suit us.”
A victory for Mansfield thanks to a winner from their number 17? That really would be a marriage made in heaven for home supporters.