Whilst he may have retired from international football almost two-and-a-half years ago, it may have escaped the attention of many that Chris Baird, quietly and unobtrusively as you might expect, retired from professional football a couple of weeks ago. Just like the man himself when it came to playing it was simple, to the point and effective. He deserves a mention.
79 caps is some achievement especially with a non-tournament team like Northern Ireland. Until Gareth McAuley overtook him recently, he was the tenth highest capped player for Northern Ireland. That put him ahead of the likes of Martin O’Neill, Gerry Armstrong, Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Nicholl and Michael Hughes. Serious NI heavyweights, I think you’ll agree. He played for four international managers and alongside Aaron Hughes and Steve Davis, witnessed and played in some of the country’s absolute highs and lows. 79 caps by and large tends to accompany that range when you play for Northern Ireland, though the present times are reasonably steady.
Rasharkin-born, he moved from Ballymena to Southampton and was playing for them in the FA Cup final of 2003 where he got Man of the Match against Robert Pires. Sammy McIlroy gave have him his first cap vs Italy a month later. He was a more than a capable utility man and could be found at right or left-back and occasionally centre-back but it was at right-back he played most often for Northern Ireland. This allowed Aaron Hughes to go into the centre of defence where for many years, he and Stephen Craigan locked the defensive doors.
2003 was not the easiest time to arrive in a Northern Ireland team as it was well into the infamous goal drought that lasted over a few years. Still, he only had to wait six months before Lawrie Sanchez breathed new life into the side in 2004 and he was a major part of the ‘Healy’ era for want of a better title. That helps to identify that mid-noughties period when the goals just flew in for the side. Indeed many will remember Baird’s battle with a temperamental and out-of-sorts Wayne Rooney that famous night in September 2005 when both he and Keith Gillespie gave him a night to forget.
He was solidity itself and must have been a manager’s dream. Always turning up with no fuss irrespective of team morale or state, he could be relied upon to give a consistent performance. He had his own bad moments, namely own-goals against England and Latvia but like quite a few alongside him, he had a strong core of mental steel through him that an own-goal or two wouldn’t shear.
He covered quite a few clubs in his time moving around to places like Fulham, Derby and West Brom but was always considered a good solid pro. Manager Nigel Worthington’s habit of flooding every back-four position with centre-backs eventually moved him out into defensive midfield; a position for which he was ably-equipped. He had a great sense of anticipatory danger and he settled into this position with relish. His best years, like a few others’, came under Michael O’Neill.
The Euro 2016 qualifying series saw him at his absolute minesweeping finest. He quietly and without fuss snuffed attacks out and moved the ball onto the ball-players in the team. He could almost have passed off invisibly such was the quiet but critical work he got through and I would argue was as important a player in that team beside Lafferty, McAuley and Davis. He even almost scored with a disallowed header against Finland in March 2015 and that would have been a collector’s piece.
His most famous moment is probably not something he would care to remember but again shows his team before himself ethos. As Hungary broke in the critical September 2015 game at Windsor, he committed a foul with the referee allowing advantage. It was a booking but this was unknown to Baird who put a second foul in and amidst unique scenes was then sent off. It could have been a massive dent for the NI team but despite Lafferty’s injury-time equaliser, it was the talking point of the night.
It meant he was suspended for the final home game v Greece which qualified the team for France and he was one very recognisable hole in the team. Having soldiered through 13 years of Northern Ireland matches, it was fitting that his last appearance for the team was against Poland in the heat of Nice the following June. It was almost as if he played 13 years to play in that symbolic game, and it has to be said there is something about going out at the top.
His quiet but determined playing was a huge part of Northern Ireland for many years and his contribution was immense. Many a player will wax lyrical about the job he did. His anchoring allowed Steve Davis to lead the team forward with such aplomb. He was particularly missed when his deputy Corry Evans has been out with injury. Chris Brunt was another retiree from that team though he played on until November 2017. They both though have left a massive hole in the NI side due to experience as much as anything.
He was the sort of player that was typical of many in the Northern Ireland set-up that enabled many teams to seriously underestimate the team. Players like himself and Stephen Craigan could do you a whole lot of damage in that respect. He once scored a couple of flamboyant goals in his club career and the fans started calling him ‘Bairdinho.’ If there was one chap who would have been dismissive of any sort of attention it would have been Baird. He was just not really interested in the idea of self in a football team. That, in a nutshell, was why he was so well-suited to being a Northern Ireland footballer. Enjoy your retirement, Chris.