Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Hungary: Unsung hero Chris Baird has big part to play in match

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign has been overflowing with heroic deeds.

Manager Michael O'Neill has deservedly taken plaudits for transforming the country's fortunes. Kyle Lafferty's goals have hit the headlines, Gareth McAuley, too, has put himself up in lights, some of the performances of skipper Steven Davis have been exceptional, the emergence of young right back Conor McLaughlin has been a joy to watch and the Fermanagh goalkeeping double act of Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern have passed any tests put in front of them.

Let's not forget the unsung heroes though.

Aaron Hughes started out as McAuley's central defensive partner in the campaign before Jonny Evans took over in the last few games. Both have produced steady displays while Chris Brunt and Shane Ferguson have performed satisfactorily at left-back.

Oliver Norwood's set piece taking ability and eye for a pass doesn't always get the credit it deserves and Jamie Ward's work-rate has been a key, if often unnoticed factor, in Northern Ireland's ability to unsettle the opposition.

Niall McGinn, as well, merits a mention. If it had not been for his goal and assist in Budapest at the start of the qualifying campaign last year when Northern Ireland came from behind to defeat Hungary 2-1, O'Neill's side would not have gained the momentum that has taken them to the verge of qualification. Corry Evans, Craig Cathcart and Josh Magennis have also played their part in the success of this campaign.

Northern Ireland's ultimate unsung hero, though, has been Chris Baird.

He is the only squad member to have played every minute of every game in the qualifiers so far. That's seven times 90 minutes plus injury time. You do the math.

And the 32-year-old from Rasharkin has not wasted one second.

He started his international career way back in 2003 as a right back. He was a consistent performer in that position, but has become far more influential as the team's holding midfielder. You need to be a shrewd reader of the game in that role otherwise you will be quickly found out.

Baird has not been found wanting throughout this campaign. In the three away wins for Northern Ireland in Group F his positional sense when danger threatened has been superb. The former Southampton and Fulham star has put out more blazes than Fireman Sam!

He may have to do the same tonight with Hungary going all out for a win.

While never considered the star turn for any of the teams he has played for, managers know his value.

And boy is Baird, who has won 73 caps, important to the current Northern Ireland set up. Watch him and, while his main job is to thwart the opposition, his intelligent use of the ball starts quite a few attacks too.

He still hasn't scored in international football yet.

Perhaps he is saving his first Northern Ireland strike for tonight.

Goal or not from Baird, I fancy a home win...2-1 to Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph