Return of the Saint but now he's Bairdinho
Fulham's Mr Versatile is the first of those highly prized academy starlets to return to St Mary's
One bittersweet aspect of Southampton's return to the Premier League was always going to be the chance to welcome back the academy graduates who had to be sold while the Saints were out of the top flight. Today, ahead of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and the rest, Chris Baird becomes the first of the old boys to return, making his first appearance at St Mary's since leaving for Fulham in 2007.
Saints supporters who remember the young right-back will now see an experienced Premier League player with a Europa League final under his belt. They may be bemused to hear the Fulham fans sing "We've got Bairdinho" – the chants and a Facebook page a tribute to the likeable Ulsterman who won over the crowd after a difficult start at Craven Cottage.
"I think it came from two goals at Stoke," he said of the Roberto Carlos-style strikes in December 2010. "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."
Baird, 30, was signed from Southampton by Lawrie Sanchez, who managed him in a Northern Ireland team that had taken some notable scalps, including Sven Goran Eriksson's England in 2005. He had been Saints' player of the season, and though he had experienced relegation, he had good memories, such as the 2003 FA Cup final against Arsenal. "It was only my second start," he said. "I was happy just to be in the squad in Cardiff, 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.
"It was a hard decision to leave Saints but I'm happy to be here [at Fulham], although I didn't think I still would be after that first season. I played only 20 games, and the majority of them weren't good. The fans got on my back, and I can under-stand 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."
Baird is Fulham's third longest-serving player, and arguably the most versatile. He has played in central defence as well as at full-back, and is now a holding midfielder in Martin Jol's entertainingly remodelled side.
"It all started when Roy came in and we had injuries and suspensions. He was looking at the fringe players, 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."
Baird has had plenty of managers to impress – six at Southampton, four at Fulham. But while the turnover at St Mary's led to relegation, Baird praises Hodgson – who tried to sign him for West Bromwich Albion in January – Mark Hughes and Jol for maintaining stability at Fulham. "We were doing well at Southampton, consistent in the League, but there were manager changes and players coming and going, and relegation happened, then administration.
"Whoever has come in at Fulham has seen the good things we can do and stuck with them. Mark was terrific, and Martin is similar. Training is good, we're playing well, we fin-ished ninth, in the top half again."
He hopes Fulham will be in the top half after today's game. "I had a fantastic time at Southampton and I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "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 don't know what the reception is going to be like today – OK, I hope. 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 wants a Saints win but me to score. But I'm a Fulham player now and I want the three points."
Southampton v Fulham is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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