Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Latvia: Euro delight has ended all our previous pain says Chris Baird

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Chris Baird has revealed that qualification for the Euro 2016 finals has eased his pain of previous disappointments at international level.

The 32-year-old has been playing for his country since 2003 and while enjoying the highs of defeating England and Spain at Windsor Park, there were many more lows to endure such as the infamous 1,298 minutes without scoring and a series of crushing and embarrassing defeats.

Having made it to France, though, Derby County ace Baird feels all those hard yards were worthwhile.

"It makes it well worth it. It took me 75 caps to reach a major tournament and someone like Conor McLaughlin has got there in 13. That's just the way it has happened," said Baird, set to win cap number 76 in tomorrow's home friendly with Latvia.

"Some of the previous campaigns were really tough. We've been close a couple of times, but never made it. This time it's done and dusted, we're there and we can relax until the tournament. It's a fantastic achievement for the team and the country.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet. When the draw comes next month, I think that's when it'll kick in.

"It'll be great whether we get England, Spain, Germany or whoever. When we go to the tournament, we'll enjoy it and give everything we've got. We want to make it hard for whoever we play."

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Baird, who featured in nine of the 10 qualifiers - he was suspended for last month's victory over Greece - and was a highly influential figure in the holding midfield role, added: "To be fifth seeds and win our group was incredible. We did it in style.

"Everyone involved deserves great credit, not just the manager Michael O'Neill and the players but the backroom staff and fans who have travelled to support us. It's just magnificent to have made it to France."

The former Southampton and Fulham star believes togetherness has been the key to the side's stunning success.

"That has always been there. We have a great laugh together. We do things properly both on and off the pitch, but around the hotel and so on we have a good laugh together," he said.

"There is also great belief in the group. Our belief levels were high at the start of the campaign and we never looked back. We took it into each game and we got rewards for it. Togetherness has been 100% for us.

"We won our first three games in the campaign and two of those wins came away from home against two of the top seeds (Hungary and Greece). To get the start we did was fantastic.

"At the moment we are unbeaten in seven games and want to stay unbeaten for as long as possible. We want to keep the run going and keep our confidence up. We don't want to go into the friendlies coming up and mess about. We have delivered so far up to this point and we want to continue that heading into France."

Baird has had a fine club career from the moment he was a surprise choice as a youngster to play in the 2003 FA Cup final for Southampton against Arsenal, but recognises that playing in the finals of the Euro 2016 finals is likely to top all that he has achieved in the game.

He stated: "I've played in a couple of finals - the FA Cup final for Southampton and Europa League final for Fulham - but to play for your national team in a major tournament has to be right up there."

Belfast Telegraph