Baird goes from firing blanks to contender for 'goal of the season'

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The Independent Football

Mark Hughes, the Fulham manager, rated the first of Chris Baird's double strike against Stoke City on Tuesday as a contender for goal of the season – and was surprised to learn how long it had been since the Northern Ireland international had last hit the back of the net.

Baird was the unlikely hero in Fulham's 2-0 Premier League win at the Britannia Stadium, netting twice from outside the area in the opening 10 minutes. In the fourth minute he unleashed a bullet of a shot the Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic could not prevent from crashing in off the post. The 28-year-old swiftly followed it up by beating Begovic with a low drive, having been teed up by a free-kick.

Baird, who had been brought into the Fulham side by Hughes for the game in place of Carlos Salcido, had not scored for the London club before and his last goal had come for Southampton against Cardiff City in a Championship fixture in March 2007.

When told it had been almost four years since Baird's previous goal, Hughes said: "Is it? Well, that surprises me, because arguably he is one of the best strikers of the ball that we have at the club, so he has that capacity to produce what he did.

"With the first one, as soon as it sat up – I have seen him do that in training and it is a fantastic strike, arguably goal of the season, I would suggest.

"The second one from the free-kick, as soon as it left his foot it was goal-bound. I'm pleased for him. He has had to be patient and wait his time, but fully deserved his selection and justified it," the manager added.

Hughes' opposite number, Tony Pulis, felt Begovic might have done more to keep Baird at bay.

"I think Asmir will look at the goals and think he could have done better with both of them," Pulis said. "I think Asmir is going to be a top goalkeeper and he can make saves like that.

"If I didn't think he could, I wouldn't be saying it, but I think he is going to be that good. He will be disappointed with both of them."

Pulis was left perplexed as his players failed to build upon their 2-0 win at Blackburn on Boxing Day.

"We have given Fulham a two-goal lead in the first few minutes and it is very, very difficult then to chase the game," he said.

"We did really well at Blackburn and they have been really bubbly the last couple of days. We had really prepared them, but like all human beings, they let you down sometimes – or let themselves down.

"After the first 20 minutes I thought we got more into the game, but we needed a goal. If we had got one, it might have been a different game."

Pulis has revealed that talks are progressing well with Real Zaragoza over Jermaine Pennant's future and that Stoke are close to securing a permanent deal for the winger, whose loan spell with the Staffordshire club is now complete.

"As we move closer to the deadline, Real Zaragoza have become more receptive to doing a deal," Pulis said. "They have come to accept that, while we are very keen to keep Jermaine, we are not prepared to break the bank in order make it happen.

"It would be fantastic if we could reach an agreement to keep him here because he has made a big impact and he loves it here."