Robert Blair got a lot of grief from his friends during his nine years playing for England. And he admits even he wasn’t too comfortable with the situation.
“I did wish I was wearing a different shirt and there was a different flag flying,” said the 32-year-old, who was born in Edinburgh and raised in Longniddry. “My friends gave me a hard time.”
But now he can joke about it because, at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, friends and family will no longer be burying their heads in their hands when Blair steps on court.
A silver medallist for Team England in Melbourne 2006, this time he will be wrapped in the Saltire and hoping to earn the gold medal that would be accompanied to the strains of Flower of Scotland.
If Blair does finish among the medals, then it will complete the remarkable turnaround for one of Britain’s most successful badminton players. During his period in exile, he not only won two Commonwealth Games medals – the team silver was followed by bronze in the individual men’s doubles eight years ago – but he also played for Team GB at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and was a World Championship silver medallist in the men’s doubles in Madrid in 2006.
His catalogue of success justified the tricky matter of a change of allegiance. And, as he is keen to point out, it wasn’t planned. “When I left school I went to Loughborough University and was asked to train with the English squad,” he explained. One thing led to another and eventually he gave up his Maths degree to become a full-time player. The opportunities opened up by playing for England with an English partner were too good to dismiss and he accepted the chance to switch to a new country on residential grounds.
But, a few years down the line, the Scot-turned-Englishman was rankled by some caustic and uncalled for comments, most notably by 2008 Olympic medallist Nathan Robertson, and it was in 2010 that Blair realised his time was up at Milton Keynes and he retraced his steps north to join the Scottish squad.
He was delighted to train under National coach Yvette Yun Luo and it was a win-win for Scotland. A truly world-class player was on hand to play and train with the young up-and-coming players and, after a couple of years biding his time, the rules allowed him to return to swap white for blue at the 2012 Scottish International Championships. Having earned three caps between 1999-2000, he finally added to the tally at last year’s Sudirman Cup. “The first time back playing for Scotland was just amazing,” he reflects.
So, for Blair, Glasgow 2014 will be special in so many ways. He will be a key member of the team and will be one of the strong medal contenders with Imogen Bankier in the mixed doubles. In the men’s doubles, there will be even more nostalgia. He will be playing with Paul Van Rietvelde – they were both brought up in Longniddry and they both had Blair’s mum, Irene, as their initial coach.
Coincidentally, they were both born on 7 August – ten years apart – and Blair is proud of the youngster’s achievement. “To see Paul do so well is great,” he said. “It’s quite amazing to have two players in the team from such a small town. I remember him playing as a wee lad with my mum but you could never predict that he would go on and play for Scotland.”
The next few weeks, and then the Games themselves, promise to be one of the happiest periods of Blair’s career. “It’s been a long year battling for selection,” he said. “But we’ve done well and are assured of a seeding position in the mixed doubles. Imogen and I won the mixed doubles at the Scottish International at The Emirates Arena in November and the crowd and atmosphere was fantastic. I’m sure it will be even better in the summer. Badminton is a high standard at the Games. There isn’t the hotbed of China but the Malaysians are strong – and, of course, England.”
It will certainly be a proud moment for one of East Lothian’s finest sportsmen when he steps out in a Scotland shirt for the first team match on 24 July at The Emirates – and mum Irene and his mates will be delighted to be there to cheer him on.