Belfast Telegraph

Chris Baird: Even in the bad times I never wanted to quit Northern Ireland

And now he is relishing loyalty reward in France

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Chris Baird's loyalty has finally been rewarded. For 13 years he has played through thick and mostly thin at international level and now finds himself preparing for a major tournament.

No wonder he calls the experience surreal. The 34-year-old is loving it though and feeling a great sense of pride that at last he has arrived at his dream destination.

Inside the media centre beside Northern Ireland's training ground, which is 40 minutes from the centre of Lyon, Baird spoke about the spirit in the camp, the inspiring influence of manager Michael O'Neill and how despite going through rough times why he never wanted to quit the international scene.

It was the type of assured performance Northern Ireland fans have grown used to since 2003 when he made his debut.

"When you're travelling to these places and losing and you're thinking 'here we go again', it could have been easy to chuck it in but I didn't want to. It never crossed my mind," said the Derby County ace.

"The new manager (Michael O'Neill) was coming in before the last World Cup campaign and I thought 'we'll see how we get on' but then we finished fifth!

"So then I thought I'd go one more and I'm glad I did.

"At the end of the day I'm here now at the European Championships, our first major tournament for 30 years, and I can tick that off and say I've been there - finally."

Baird has high praise for O'Neill, who took Northern Ireland from fifth in his first qualifying series to first in the next one to reach Euro 2016.

"We always believed in Michael's methods," said the ex-Southampton and Fulham holding midfielder.

"If we didn't do that we wouldn't have done this and made it to France. We are behind him and believe in what he does in training and what he does off it.

"It's the little details that he gets right and those little details can make such a big difference like giving us days off at the right time and doing things when you don't expect it like saying we'll be training in the evening and relax and enjoy yourselves until then.

"That makes a big difference. Maybe we've not had that in the past but he certainly knows how to look after players.

"He is a good one to one manager as well who can pull you aside and put an arm round you away from the pitch and try to help your game."

Long gone are the days when Baird was part of a national team that made players privately question the travel and accommodation arrangements for games.

Everything is at a high standard now, including the team hotel and training facilities chosen by the manager.

And when they arrived in their rooms on Sunday, they were greeted by some familiar faces in what was a lovely touch by O'Neill and the IFA staff.

"When you walk into your bedroom, just above the television, you've got the final group from the qualifying campaign with us on top and a picture of yourself beside it," revealed Baird.

"And then there is another picture of your family, so my wife and two kids are in the bedside picture which I really appreciated.

"Seeing your family in the picture was really nice because I haven't seen them in a long time. It just makes it seem a bit more homely. Also, your name is on towels - just nice touches like that.

"I'm delighted with everything from travel arrangements, facilities, hotel and training ground," added Baird.

"Around the hotel there's so many things for us to do. Some people might like to be by themselves but the majority of us like to be in the games room, where there are pool tables and dart boards.

"I don't think boredom is going to be a factor for us. We're just taking everything in at the minute.

"We're here now and can enjoy this week. Everything's in preparation for Poland now."

On the Poles, who are first up on Sunday in Nice, Baird stated: "We've done our homework already on Poland and we're expecting a tough game.

"It was a difficult game against Slovakia on Saturday night and we're expecting similar things from Poland. To be honest we're expecting more from ourselves as well.

"We are on a run of 12 matches without defeat and work so hard for each other. We're going into every game thinking we can get a result now. It's a good feeling to have."

Belfast Telegraph