Chris Baird humbled by Rory McIlroy's support for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016
Published 30/05/2016 | 15:01
Rory McIlroy will not be the only Northern Irishman flying his country's flag at a major sporting event this summer, a fact that defender Chris Baird believes epitomises the football team's achievements.
The titles accrued by golfer McIlroy, currently number three in the world, and fellow major-winning compatriots Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke have provided Northern Ireland with plenty of sporting success in recent years.
Patriotic supporters had to toast glory on the links, though, as their football team had failed to reach a major international tournament for 30 years until Michael O'Neill's team qualified for Euro 2016 next month.
McIlroy intends to be there in Paris when Northern Ireland face world champions Germany in their final group game on June 21 and he gave the team a pre-tournament pep talk in Dublin last week after winning the Irish Open.
"He was just saying that him and the whole nation are fully behind us, supporting us and that we've done amazingly to qualify," Baird revealed to Press Association Sport.
"He said to go out and enjoy it. He's going to be coming to one of the games and he was at the Greece game when we finally qualified.
"You look back and think Rory McIlroy is supporting us, he's one of the biggest names in sport and it's fantastic to have. It's nice to have those people supporting us for a change.
"When the golf's on I like to watch it and watch him. For him to then come and watch us and finally see a team qualify for the European Championships is fantastic for all of us and for him personally, I'm sure."
McIlroy was not even born when Northern Ireland last went to a major tournament in 1986 for a World Cup that even 34-year-old Baird admits he has no recollection of.
He has experienced many of the disappointing times in the intervening period and won his 77th cap on Friday in the 3-0 victory over Belarus.
Baird never gave up hope of one day pulling on the green jersey at a finals, even if it took O'Neill's arrival in 2011 to change the entire mentality of a group of players accustomed to coming up short.
"I've always had somewhere inside that belief," Baird added of qualifying.
"Previous campaigns we've always finished fifth and sixth and you're way off it. You're travelling to these countries and you lose and I think that was our expectation. Not just from ourselves but probably the fans; it was, 'Here we go again'.
"Since Michael's come in, things have completely turned on their head, he's given us confidence, belief and freedom."