Tony Blair at Boro's Eston centre - Photo by North News

FORMER Prime Minister Tony Blair today declared Boro's contribution to the community is "as good if not better than" any in the country as he gave an exclusive interview to mfc.co.uk.

Making a rare public appearance since he stepped down earlier this year, he came to see the facilities at Middlesbrough Football Club in the Community's Eston centre as he looks for ideas for the newly-launched Tony Blair Sports Foundation.

Wearing a black tracksuit and white trainers, Mr Blair joined youngsters from Caldicotes School in football skills training exercises, including keepy-uppy.

The foundation, backed by more than £100,000 of donations from businesses, will initially focus on tennis, rowing, athletics and football and aims to encourage young people from across the North East to take up sport.

It also aims to inspire more adults to become trained coaches and to match coaches with schools and sports that need them.

"Middlesbrough is a market leader for this type of activity," said Mr Blair. "There are thousands of kids in this area who in one way or another get touched by what Middlesbrough is doing and that's fantastic.

"I'm really here to learn from Middlesbrough and help some of the clubs and communities that don't have a big name around which everything can be based."

Middlesbrough Football Club in the Community is the largest community-based football scheme in the UK, involving 34,000 children and adults last year.

Using the Boro badge to engage young people, the scheme has 50 full-time employees and 20 to 30 part-time staff delivering programmes in primary and secondary schools.

"What Middlesbrough Football Club is doing here is amazing - probably as good if not better than anything else in the country," said Mr Blair.

"The thing about the big clubs today is they are a huge resource for the community and they're a big business as well as being a football club.

"If they are prepared, as under Steve Gibson's leadership Middlesbrough is, there's a lot they can contribute because they have a brand name that people want to be associated with."

However, Mr Blair says that while he was hugely impressed by what he saw, the visit has not persuaded him to switch allegiance from Newcastle United to Boro.

"Your football club has to stay what it is but I'm always pleased when the clubs in the region do well," he smiled.

"Middlesbrough have come a long way in the last few years and I'm sure they will be hugely successful in the years to come."

The three main areas of the project are health and wellbeing, entry to employment through Football First and encouraging entrepreneurial and business skills through the MFC Enterprise Academy.

Funding comes from the Primary Care Trusts, One North East, the Premier League and the local authorities in Middlesbrough, Stockton and Redcar and Cleveland.

Click here to see a high resolution video of the visit.

Click here to see a low resolution video of the visit.