It’s a long way from Rasharkin to Hamburg but as Stuart McKinley found out Fulham’ ace Chris will have plenty of support in Germany
At the start of the season Chris Baird was more concerned with trying to turn around his Fulham career than any kind of European run.
Now, after a thrilling adventure, he stands 90 minutes away from picking up a Europa League medal with the competitions surprise package.
Fulham were never meant to get this far. Drawing the holders, at Shakhtar Donetsk, then facing the mighty Juventus, German champions Wolfsburg and finally Hamburg, who will be hosting the final meant a tough route to navigate.
They negotiated every hurdle that was put in their way and now the talk of the continent.
And deservedly so. In the most amazing game of their run, at home to Juventus in the second-leg of the last 16. Already 3-1 down from the first-leg, Juve scored early in the return, but Fulham hit back with four goals to claim a quarter-final berth.
Volcanic ash meant a trip by road and sea to Hamburg for the semi-final, but it was well worth it to come back with a 0-0 draw and a 2-1 win in the return means they are heading back again to face Atletico Madrid in tomorrow night’s final — with a plane journey this time.
“As far as the Europa League was concerned I never thought that we would get to the final,” said Baird.
“We’ve surprised a lot of people, ourselves too and we’re delighted to make the final. It’s no fluke that we’ve got this far. We’ve worked hard and played well.
“Hopefully there is one more surprise up our sleeves because we’ve done the hard work in getting to the final and we’d love to finish the job.”
As far as jobs go it looked for a long time that Baird was going to have to look for a new one.
Taken to Fulham by Lawrie Sanchez he struggled to make an impact and when Roy Hodgson took over he found himself frozen out of the first-team.
This season, however, Baird has been excellent and proved worth the £3million Sanchez paid to Southampton.
“I had a very frustrating time. I was on the fringes of the first-team, but was travelling with the squad and not making the bench.
“The manager was always fair to me though and said that if I got in it was then up to me.
“Injuries and suspensions gave me my chance this season and I have taken it.
“I’m happy with how I have played and Europe has been a great experience.
Tomorrow night’s final will be the second of Baird’s career, after he was thrown into the 2003 FA Cup decider when Southampton lost to Arsenal.
“Although I played in the FA Cup final with Southampton that was seven years ago and I was nervous because I’d only played two or three games before that,” said Baird.
“Although we lost that day I loved every minute of it, but this is a European final and that means it’s bigger.”
No matter how edgy Baird and his team-mates are ahead of the game, it will be nothing compared to how he felt when having to sit through the second-leg of the semi-final, as Fulham beat Hamburg.
He picked up a yellow card in the first leg, ruling him out of the return and watching as Fulham came from behind wasn’t an enjoyable experience.
“I was more nervous watching the second leg of the semi-final than if I’d been playing in it,” said Baird.
“At least when you are out there you are focused and the nerves go, but it’s totally nerve-wracking watching.
“It wasn’t much of a consolation, but I suppose the fact that I couldn’t then be suspended for the final was the one good thing to come out of that
“The team showed real grit and determination that night to come from a goal down to win the game and I don’t think anyone can say we didn’t deserve it.”
Baird will be backed in Hamburg by a number of travelling fans from County Antrim.
“There’s eight or nine people, family and friends, coming over from Rasharkin,” said Baird.
“I hope when I see them after the match that I have a winners’ medal to show off to them.”