Ever since he joined the club, Chris Baird has been a figure of ridicule and, quite often, abuse from Fulham supporters. It is only recently that he has gained their respect as a centre-back, an excellent performance against CSKA Sofia in that position following an equally impressive match on Boxing Day at White Hart Lane. How has such a transformation occurred in a player who, even this summer, many fans wanted the club to simply dispense with, whatever the fee?
Perhaps the signs were there all along. As a 21-year-old, he was named Man-of-the-Match in the 2003 FA Cup Final, when Southampton lost 1-0 to Arsenal. He has 33 caps for Northern Ireland. In the 2006-7 season, playing mostly at centre-back, he was the winner of the Saints Player of the Season award. Lawrie Sanchez, who also bought the likes of Aaron Hughes, Paul Konchesky, Danny Murphy and Diomansy Kamara to the club, brought him to Craven Cottage for a fee in excess of £3m, and beat Sunderland to his signature.
However, as we all know, his Fulham career did not get off to the best of starts. Deployed at right-back, his lack of pace was horribly exposed by the likes of Ashley Young, and he was often left in one-on-one or even two-on-one situations. Criticism of Simon Davies’ reluctance to track back was aired as a potential reason for the problems Baird was facing, but despite the rare good performance (one against Chelsea stands in the memory), Baird was frequently dreadful at right-back. With the team playing poorly, and as a Sanchez signing who looked out of his depth, Baird was quickly made a scapegoat for the team’s problems, and seemed to epitomise everything that was wrong with Lawrie Sanchez’s reign. Hodgson came in, dropped Baird, brought in Stalteri, then Stoor and Panstil, and Baird’s days at Fulham looked numbered.
Then came the turning point. I, like many others, groaned at White Hart Lane when the line-ups were announced. Hangeland, one of our better players, was out with the flu; Baird was his replacement. How he showed us, making crucial blocks, excellent last-ditch tackles, and winning almost every header. He was a revelation. His confidence too had returned, as he even played impressively as a right-back at the Emirates, before going off injured at half-time. Despite these performances, fans on boards still declared him as “a waste of oxygen” along with Seol. Some supported him, now viewing him as valuable and capable back-up for a number of positions. Whilst Hodgson’s failure to sign a back-up centre-back has been derided, the man himself said that he sees Baird as a “ready-made back-up for Aaron Hughes”. He even entrusted him with the No.6 shirt – quite a promotion from 34. Although this shirt was given to the absent Andranik last season, it is still a sign that Hodgson rates him.
Did Baird at last achieve redemption in Sofia? His excellent performance was allied with the fact that he kept advising Smalling on what to do, and marshalled a fairly unfamiliar back-line with an inexperienced GK behind him. Certainly Hodgson seems to have got the best out of him, instilling him with confidence. Hodgson’s system also suits Baird’s game: under Sanchez, he was often left exposed, with pacey wingers and strikers running at him. CCN has an excellent article highlighting the difference:
Now, the midfield gives much more protection to the back four, who need to be able to keep their shape, read the game, and deal with any crosses that come into the area. Baird is adept at all of this. The full back role requires a certain amount of roaming forward – unfortunately, whenever the ball was lost, Baird’s lack of pace meant that he was often horribly out of position. As a centre-back, he remains where he should be, and deals with whatever comes his way admirably.Baird, too, deserves credit for coming back strongly. Unlike a certain Bobby Zamora, he never commented or gestured when fans got on his back and booed him. He has never given less than 100%, even when performances were disappointing. He stayed and fought on, determined to show that he was a better player than the one that we all saw when he started at the club. He seems to be an important and valued member of the squad, not only for his versatility. We all saw how he looked after Smalling in Sofia, constantly communicating with him and making sure a new-look defence kept its shape. Indeed, in an interview, Clint Dempsey described Baird as being one of the best guys at the club: the same Baird who whacked the fun-loving Jimmy Bullard.
We ought to have known then what sort of character he is: professional, but one not afraid to fight on in the face of adversity. Traits that are essential for any centre-back. And hey, he recognised before all of us that Bullard wasn’t as great a bloke as Soccer AM would like us to think.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t have a complete mare at the City of Manchester Stadium tonight….