Chris Baird returns to Southampton on Sunday for the first time since his exit from the club in 2007.
The dependable Northern Irishman, who has performed solidly in midfield for the Whites this term, joined Southampton’s fabled academy in 1998.
Utilised mainly at right-back, the youngster would go on to play 68 times in the league for the Saints. Incredibly, his second start for the club came in the 2003 FA Cup Final against Arsenal.
“I was happy just to be in the squad in Cardiff,” the 30-year-old mused. “And when Gordon Strachan named the team, I couldn’t believe it. I was disappointed we lost, obviously, but with 30,000 Saints fans, the scene was amazing. Thierry Henry just beat me to Man of the Match – but I think I got it from our players and fans.”
Southampton were relegated at the end of the 2004/05 season, but Baird stuck with the South Coast club until Fulham came calling in July 2007.
He returns to St Mary’s an established Barclays Premier League star, with over 100 appearances for the Whites to his name.
It took him a while to find his feet in SW6, however.
“It was a hard decision to leave Saints, but I’m happy to be here, although I didn’t think I still would be after that first season,” said Baird. “I played only 20 games, and the majority of them weren’t good. The fans got on my back, and I can understand that. But I’m not one to give up. I wanted to show them, and prove to Roy [Hodgson], the new manager, that I could make it in the Premier League. I got my head down, worked hard and turned things around.”
He certainly did, and is now a firm favourite with the Cottage fans, who gave him the nickname ‘Bairdinho’.
“I think it came from two goals at Stoke City [in December 2010],” he said. “I was walking off down the tunnel and I heard ‘We’ve got Bairdinho’ and I thought: ‘Fair enough, I’ll take that.’ It’s nice to hear the fans shouting for me. They’ve been terrific for us and we want to reward them with another good season.”
Now Fulham’s third longest-serving player, Baird has been deployed in central defence, full-back and midfield during his time at the Cottage,
“It all started when Roy came in and we had injuries and suspensions,” said Baird. “He was looking at the fringe players on the bench, which included me at the time, and seeing if they could do a job. Luckily I could step into roles across the back four and in central midfield - even at Southampton injuries forced me to play at centre-half, so I got to know the position.
“It’s just nice to play, to be honest. We’ve got players who can hurt teams – Dimitar Berbatov is one of the best I’ve played with - and I’m glad to be part of it.”
On his return to St Mary’s, he added: “I had a fantastic time at Southampton, and I’m really looking forward to it. I always followed them, even when they were down in League One and I was glad to see them coming back up to where they should be.
“I’ve still got friends there, my wife’s a Southampton girl, I had my first daughter there, her Mum and Dad are big fans. He’s going for a Saints win but for me to score. But I’m a Fulham player now and I want the three points.”
Baird was talking to the Independent on Sunday’s Nick Szczepanik.