The Bairdinho was nowhere to be found. It was the beginning of the 2012/2013 season, and Martin Jol had made some decisions. Certain players benefited from it, some didn’t. Baird certainly fell into the “didn’t” category. Left out of match after match, he was losing his place at the back, supplanted by in-form fullback John Arne Riise, young star Matthew Briggs, and new addition Sascha Riether. Barely making the bench as an unused substitute in 2 of Fulham’s first 3 matches of the season, and coming on in the 82nd minute in the third, Baird was at the fringe at best.
But time has a funny way of sorting these things out.
Just as the transfer window arrived, an opening presented itself. Panic had gripped the Fulham faithful. The midfield was a disaster, ripped by injury woes and hungry Premier League rivals. Dembele was gone. Dempsey was gone. Murphy was long gone. Etuhu was, as well. Diarra was injured. The midfield consisted of Steve Sidwell and, well, Steve Sidwell.
And if that wasn’t enough, the midfield was now more important than ever, with new signing Dimitar Berbatov the face of the franchise; a superstar doesn’t operate too well, if you can’t get him the ball.
So Jol turned to an unlikely option, which most fans hadn’t even considered. A versatile defender who was once known for his midfield abilities, but hadn’t showcased them consistently in years. One, who was waiting patiently for his opportunity.
The manager said on his versatile abilities:
“When I came (to Fulham), they said he was a defensive full back and then six months later, someone told me he was a midfield player. Then they said he was probably a typical centre back, and then you get this split identity,”
And boy, has Chris Baird delivered.
First and foremost, he scored the winner against Aston Villa last week in a brilliant set piece move executed to perfection. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Baird.
Let’s take a closer look at the most important aspect of a midfielder: passing. Baird made his 2012 starting lineup debut against West Brom at home on September 15. All he did was complete 82 of 88 passes (93%), including 30/33 in the attacking third, was perfect square or backwards, and won 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, and went 2/2 in the air. I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.
But Baird wasn’t back yet. He slipped a bit the next two weeks. En route to the win at Wigan, he completed just 34 of 44 passes, and at home against Manchester City, Baird didn’t have many touches. However, in the 2-2 draw with Southampton, Baird was again in top form. He completed 83% of his passes (62/75). Again, the bad mistakes were at a minimum, hitting all his back passes and missing just one square. He was just 4/10 from long range, but then again, that’s not exactly his game. A link-up man isn’t expected to slice the defences open with cracking long balls. All Fulham need Baird to do now, is to be solid in the link-up between the defence and Ruiz/Berbatov/Petric, and play adequately while the opponent has the ball.
Martin explains what the club is expecting from that position:
“My midfield must be good because I need to get the ball to my quality players. Sometimes you see that it was probably a bit better last year, no mention of names, but that is a matter of practising, exercising, but we have to play the ball forward. We have to be confident to link up. That is what we want, and as soon as we don’t do that, we start to drop our style and drop our quality. I’m happy that Chris understands that and he wants to play.”
And he’s done just that. If there’s one word to describe how Fulham need Chris Baird to be going forward, it’s this: Solid. Keep up the good work, Bairdhino, and you’ll continue to get good results. Even with Diarra back, it’s hard right now for Jol to take out Chris Baird, and it will be interesting to see what happens, come January, if this keeps up.
Published with permission from Fulham's Finest.