Now wearing the black and white of Derby County, Chris Baird’s passion for the game remains undimmed. Having started out at Southampton, he later served Fulham with distinction….
Chris Baird is the epitome of an unsung hero. While flashier teammates have stolen the headlines down the years, the Northern Irishman has been working diligently and without fuss, admired greatly by both Southampton and Fulham fans. He turns 36 next month, but his stellar performances for current club Derby County suggest there’s no reason for him to hang up his boots.
Baird’s big break came in 1998 when, at 16, he left the comforts of home and Ballymena United for Hampshire.
“I didn’t know what to expect going to a different country,” he says. “I know it’s only across the water, but it’s still very strange for a 16-year-old. Once I got to know the rest of the players in the academy, I settled in really well. They looked after me brilliantly. I’ll never forget it, because it was my first club and it just took off from there.”
As a defender, he was in good company. He continues: “I cleaned Jason Dodd’s boots, along with Francis Benali and Claus Lundekvam. I always looked at them and how they would perform week in, week out. They would always have a chat if I had any problems and gave good advice about how to improve my game.”
The fixture Baird is perhaps most well-known for during his time at Saints is the 1-0 FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal in 2003. It was just his second start for the club, but he acquitted himself superbly and was singled out for praise.
“One of the best days of my career,” he states. “I was just delighted to be in the squad, so then to be named in the team was overwhelming really.”
After a sustained period of nearly 30 years in the top flight, Saints men dropped into the second tier in 2005. Although it was a devastating blow for the South-Coast club, it did allow Baird to establish himself as a regular fixture in the team.
Two years later, Baird opted to make the move to SW6, but looks back on his time at Southampton with pride and a tinge of regret after the side fell at the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final stage to Derby.
“I really wanted to get promoted with the club,” he reflects. “It wasn’t to be. I was just grateful for the opportunity they gave me.”
Lawrie Sanchez brought his fellow countryman to the Cottage as part of a Northern Irish influx that included Aaron Hughes and one of today’s opponents, Steven Davis, but it was under Roy Hodgson when Baird really blossomed.
Many argue the ‘Great Escape’ began with the astonishing second-half comeback against Man City. Trudging back to the changing rooms at the interval, Fulham’s relegation seemed pretty much certain. For Baird, it underlined the potential in the squad.
“Anything can happen when you show a bit of fight about you and that set us up for the rest of the games,” he says. “We knew we could do so much more and it showed in the second half.”
The transformation was remarkable. Having conceded 60 goals in the 2007/08 campaign, they nearly halved that figure the following season. Baird was to quick lavish praise on his former boss.
“Roy made us such a hard team to play against,” says Chris. “We never really had any massive players in the squad. We were just a really organised, hard-working, hard-to-beat team. That was all down to Roy.
“We had a fantastic record at home [from 2008/09]. Even against the big teams coming to the Cottage, we turned them over. You could just sense they didn’t want to be there.”
The incredible improvement was topped off by qualification to the Europa League. Of the many highlights during an extraordinary journey, the Juventus home leg stands out.
“We lost away 3-1 and Dickson [Etuhu] scored,” remembers Baird. “It was a big goal for us. Bringing them back to the Cottage, we knew we had a good chance.
“In the first minute, Trezeguet scores and you’re down 4-1. Looking back, it made the achievement even more amazing. To come back against a team like that was truly unbelievable.
“The fans still got behind us right up until the 94th, 95th minute. The Cottage only holds 25,000, compared to Man United or Liverpool which can take 60,000 or 70,000, but it did sound like that, because the fans generated so much atmosphere. It was a big help to us.”
There were so many firsts for Fulham that season. Was it the most enjoyable of Baird’s career?
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he agrees. “Just for what we achieved. We played 63 games that season and I played 52 of those. It was non-stop, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday for a long, long time, but it was really enjoyable.”
That said, Baird is keen to highlight the brand of football played by the team during the season under Mark Hughes, a period often overlooked. Despite languishing dangerously close to the bottom three in December, the team rallied to finish eighth. The managerial change also saw a more expansive style of football compared to the conservative approach adopted by Hodgson.
“Players have asked me who the best manager I played under was and I keep mentioning Mark,” Chris reveals. “I wish he had stayed on for another year.”
Baird spent much of his time on the banks of the Thames at right-back and it comes as little surprise that one of his favourite players was Damien Duff.
“I did like playing with Damien because his work rate was fantastic,” smiles Chris. “He would always help me out to double up, but when I had the ball, he would give me so many great options. He would go long, he would come short, he’d be inside, he’d be outside. It made it easier for me.”
This was not the only position Baird occupied during his time at the club and the reason he’s held in such high regard by the supporters was his ability to adapt, with his pinpoint passing and excellent positional sense proving to be major assets. He sees this versatility as both a blessing and a curse.
“Whether it’s right-back, centre-half, left-back, holding midfielder or central midfielder as part of a two, I’m not really fussed,” says Baird, who returned briefly to Fulham on loan in the 2015/16 campaign. “I really enjoy football. Sometimes being versatile can be a bad thing. For example, when John Pantsil’s playing and he’s playing well and we had a fully fit team, then I have to wait for someone to get suspended or injured to get my chance.
“Sometimes I wish I had just held down the right-back position, but on the other hand, I was happy to play in midfield. I got to know the position well.”
Featured image: PA