Tomorrow’s trip to Pride Park was supposed to offer Fulham fans another reunion with Chris Baird, a man whose versatility proved pivotal to the unparallelled achievements of the club’s finest ever side. But Baird, now in his third season with the Rams, was harshly red carded at Reading last weekend and will have to take the acclaim of the visiting fans as a spectator himself. ‘I’m disappointed to miss the game, of course. I’ve really enjoyed the last few seasons with Derby, I’ve been playing a lot of games and working hard. I think we’re still in the mix for promotion – like Fulham – and, hopefully, I can play a part, if I can get back in the team.’
Baird, who turned 36 last Sunday, remains every inch the model professional – as his scepticism about returning to Gary Rowett’s side, even though he’s played 38 games for Derby this year, indicates. He passion for the game hasn’t abated and he’s eager to ‘play for as long as possible’. With Baird’s versatility covering positions right across the back four or in midfield, few would bet against him cruising past the 400 appearance milestone he’s now nearing. Bairdinio needs no introduction to the Fulham faithful after two spells at Craven Cottage, the first of which saw the boy from Ballymena reach a European final with the unheralded Whites.
None of that was on the horizon when Lawrie Sanchez went about reshaping a Fulham squad that had barely escaped relegation in 2007 with some of his most trusted lieutenants from the Northern Ireland side that he had guided to famous wins over England, Spain and Sweden. Baird had little hesitation in teaming up with former international manager, even though Sunderland were also interested in signing him after five years with Southampton.
‘I thought it was the right move for me,’ he explained. ‘I knew Lawrie, the staff and some of the players he had brought it. It wasn’t too far to move from Southampton. Knowing the people that were already there at the club, I thought it would be easy to go there and get settled in at the club and it was.’
Baird’s early months at Craven Cottage weren’t as idyllic as what followed, though, as he struggled for consistency at right back before Sanchez was sacked with Fulham in the relegation zone in mid-December. The tough baptism didn’t faze Baird, though. ‘Wherever I’ve been it has been exactly the same,’ he revealed. ‘I had a tough start at Fulham, a tough start at Derby and some tough times at Southampton early on. I seem to get through it by playing games. The more games you play, the more confident you become – and that’s a big part of my game. When you can get that run of five or six games, your confidence is raised and you’re on a high.’
The appointment of Roy Hodgson as Sanchez’s successor took plenty of people by surprise, but it is now lauded as a masterstroke. Baird had to be patient, not playing much of a part during the Great Escape, as Hodgson ‘had his team in mind and knew what he wanted,’ but eventually got an opening when injuries and suspensions had decimated the Fulham midfield. ‘I got into the side alongside Danny Murphy and had a really good game. Roy and I spoke about what I could do and what he wanted from me. He was a great man manager. You could speak to Roy at any time about football, about family or just about anything in general. He was that nice a man. What he did for me was great, but what he did for the club was fantastic. It was an unbelievable achievement.’
Baird outlines just how meticulous Hodgson’s training methods were in describing the set up at Motspur Park. ‘We would go out in the mornings and there would be nothing set up. They were no cones, no goals or nothing. We just did 11 v 11. We were so well drilled. Every player knew exactly where to be and what to do in certain circumstances and it wasn’t just the team that was going to be playing on the Saturday – he would mix the teams up, so everyone would be thinking, ‘right, I’ve got the chance of playing’. When they got into the team, they knew exactly what to do. That’s how good he was. The finer details were spot on and it showed in the performances and where we finished in the league.
Finishing seventh in the top flight by beating the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United at home opened up an unlikely tilt at European competition, although Baird admits the Fulham squad ‘didn’t know what to expect’ at the outset. ‘We started in the very first qualifying round,’ he recalls. ‘We were delighted to get out of the group stages – from a really tough group with Roma and Basel. That gave us real confidence and because of the performances we’d put in the past, we knew we were going to hard to play against, especially at the Cottage. I knew we had the players to play good football – we just kept going and our confidence was sky high. Once we beat Shakhtar we had great belief in our ourselves. We had nothing to lose and it was the whole experience was incredible.
Baird had demonstrated the versatility Hodgson had come to value in the early stages of the competition, starting in central midfield in Vetra and lining up at centre back in Fulham’s opening group game at CSKA Sofia, but he stepped into central midfield on that unforgettable night when Fulham roared back from a 4-1 aggregate deficit to knock out Juventus at Craven Cottage. ‘You looked at Trezeguet, Cannavaro and del Piero and thought, ‘wow, these are top international players,’ he admitted. ‘We’d got an away goal in Turin, but when Trezeguet scored in the first minute, you thought ‘that’s the end of the Europa League for us’. But, we got two goals back in the first half and Cannavaro got sent off. You’re 2-1 up against ten men and suddenly you felt, ‘we only need two goals against ten men. We can do this’. The boys believed in it. The fans were right behind us because they believed that we could do it. The atmosphere was incredible. Fortunately, we got the third goal quite quickly and then there was Clint’s cheeky chip to win it. From that, we knew we could do special things.’
Baird’s early experience of the big occasion – he lined up in the 2003 FA Cup final against Arsenal for Southampton as a 21 year-old – held in good stead for the magic of that European run, especially when he was preferred to John Pantsil for the final against Atletico Madrid. The memory is too painful for me to raise it directly with him, but Baird felt that defeat ‘was really cruel’ and echoes the sentiments of other members of that side in suggesting Fulham could have had a chance in a penalty shoot-out with Mark Schwarzer in goal. ‘The whole experience of playing against some top teams – Roma, Juventus, Hamburg, Wolfsburg – and travelling to some great places was brilliant. Roy and his staff prepared us so well and we were so confident by the end of the run. I think that showed in the football we played’. It certainly did.
Baird called time on his international career after a magical summer with Northern Ireland in France two years ago, having helped Michael O’Neill’s men to their first major championships. ‘I played for Northern Ireland for a long time and I was delighted to finally qualify. We finished tough of a top group with Greece, Finland and Romania. For a small country like us to finish top of that group was fantastic. It was similar to what we did with Fulham in a way – we were hard to play against, we hadn’t got big names, but we worked well together, everyone got on with everyone. It showed through the whole campaign. We were successful because everyone was tuned into what we were trying to do.’
Baird’s joy at reaching the finals wasn’t merely personal. He was delighted for the loyal members of the green and white army, who had followed their country around the world in great numbers during less auspicious times. ‘To go to the European Championships was so special, he says. ‘The atmosphere was amazing. I was delighted for our fans. They’d been through so many bad times – there was a stage when we went fourteen games and we didn’t even score a goal. The next game we lost 4-1, but we scored a goal and they were over the moon with that!’ He felt France provided the perfect moment to end his own international career. ‘We got to the last sixteen and I just thought it was the right time to call it a day. I wanted to carry on playing at club level, so felt like the right moment’.
Baird’s been too busy contemplating the gruelling prospect of the Championship run-in to consider what might come after his playing career – concentrating instead on giving his best for the Rams in the remainder of the season. ‘To be fair, I haven’t really thought about the next step,’ he admits. ‘I’d want to stay in the game and give something back, but I’m not sure about coaching just yet. I’d like to spend some time with my family and maybe do a bit of travelling too’. When he does hang up those trusty boots, the Baird family’s first stop on that retirement tour should be Craven Cottage. He’ll be assured of a rapturous reception.
HammyEnd.com would like to thank Chris Baird, Paul Tyrell and Derby County FC for their time and kind assistance in arranging this interview