STEPPING on to the podium in Melbourne wasn’t exactly perfunctory for Robert Blair, but it wasn’t a moment awash with the level of emotion one would expect at a Commonwealth Games medal ceremony either.
It was the English flag that was being hoisted in his honour, having won the badminton men’s doubles with his partner Anthony Clark. That in itself wasn’t a surprise given that the Edinburgh born star had defected to the Auld Enemy half a decade earlier, but what was surprising was just how mixed his emotions were at that moment as a consequence.
“Of course, there was mixed feelings. It wasn’t an ideal situation for me,” says the 32-year-old prodigal son, who returned to the Scottish fold in 2010 and is now eligible to represent his home nation at next summer’s Commonwealth Games.
“The friends and family are all Scottish and there was me playing for England. It was good in badminton terms and it was good to do it for yourself and the coaches and my team-mate, but it’s not the same as representing the country of your birth. I think I will definitely feel a lot more pride inside me if I can do well in these Games.”
If, as expected, he meets the selection requirements and makes Team Scotland, his family and friends can support him wholeheartedly this time around.
“Yeah, they were maybe a bit torn in the past. It wasn’t the best situation to put everyone in. It’s a bit nicer being back home and being able to represent Scotland and it would be nice to win some medals for everyone.”
That thought has reinvigorated the doubles player, who will partner Imogen Bankier in the mixed doubles at next week’s Scottish Open. That event is being staged at the Emirates Arena, the venue for the badminton at Glasgow 2014, which has only ramped up the excitement.
“It’s a fantastic venue we get to play in and it’s really nice when it’s a big venue and you have a good crowd supporting you. You see all the stadiums getting ready and all the stuff going on in Glasgow, so the games are in the back of everybody’s mind. We are lucky that this isn’t one of the big stadiums built for a one-off use, just for the Games, and that’s good because even after the Games we will be left with great facilities.”
It was the better facilities, the support network and the opportunity to turn professional which all lured Blair to England all those years ago. He doesn’t talk about regrets but neither does he mask his delight that he might turn out for Scotland at a major event before he considers retiring. That’s a decision he will only make after the Commonwealths but bowing out with a medal at a home Games would be a perfect way to finish a career and embark on the next stage of his life.
“I’ve never really been one with huge direction in my life. I just expected it to be the usual path: badminton through university then find a proper job, settle down, get married and have a family. But then I did quite well at badminton and had the opportunity of making my living so I decided to give it the best shot I could and it’s worked out better than I could have imagined.
“I have got a bit of stick from my friends and other people for the decisions I made and I can understand from an outsider’s view what their perceptions might be, but when you are in the system, you play by the rules and make decisions based on what is available or possible.
“Badminton is not like tennis which is an individual sport, where you can go and support yourself and it’s very rare that you represent your country. Badminton is very different. It’s very country-dominated and if you didn’t have the right support from your country then it is very difficult. Playing for England, it wasn’t as though it was a lifelong plan for me. I know some people do it for different reasons, I just kind of fell into it because I wasn’t even thinking about playing badminton for a living but then they offered me a chance, and the support to allow me to be able to do that.”
Even then the maths graduate from Loughborough University didn’t look too far ahead, believing he would have to find himself a “proper job”. He managed to stave off that reality for longer than envisaged and the longer it went on, the more the internal politics at Team England took its toll and in the wake of being snubbed for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, the more he hankered for a return north.
“For quite a long time I thought I would like to come back and then there were problems within Team England and their programme was in a bit of a mess and I just knew I didn’t want to stay, whether or not that meant stopping. But I wanted to keep playing if I could, so when I asked about coming back and playing here, I was happy when they said ‘yes’.
“I never really imagined that the opportunity to play for Scotland would come again. And I’m very grateful that it has. It would be nice if I could repeat or even better some of the achievements I had for England while playing for Scotland because this is where I’m from and I don’t think you ever lose that,” says the player who grew up in Longniddry.
He says he has encountered no resentment following his return to the Scotland ranks and is now focused on getting into peak form to initially secure selection and then vie for another podium finish next summer. Next week is the perfect platform to impress, although having battled back from a couple of foot injuries earlier in the year, his partner Bankier is now the one trying to shrug off an ankle injury.
“I’m just getting back to proper fitness and training and in recent tournaments she has had to help me out a bit because I’ve not been in the best form, but I’m a bit more capable of running about and performing closer to my best now, so hopefully we can do well in front of our home crowd. We’re hoping everything is going to be fine.”
If it is, he says they are realistic prospects for the title. It would give him a huge sense of pride, but it’d be nothing close to how he would feel if they repeat the feat next summer as part of Team Scotland.