This may go down as the year of the improbable in the history of Fulham Football Club but few things - the 4-1 defeat of Juventus, their first, and perhaps last, appearance in a European final - were quite as strange as their final match of 2010.
Baird is the surprise hero as pressure on Hughes lifts
STOKE // This may go down as the year of the improbable in the history of Fulham Football Club but few things - the 4-1 defeat of Juventus, their first, and perhaps last, appearance in a European final - were quite as strange as their final match of 2010.
It was not merely the fact that Mark Hughes' team ended their long wait for an away win in the Premier League although, after 16 months and 27 matches, that was noteworthy enough. It was the identity of their match-winner that was the most surreal element.
Chris Baird's Fulham career had encompassed 93 games without a single goal. Yesterday he struck a decisive double in the space of eight minutes, ending a personal drought that stretched back to March 2007. The ultimate utility man at Craven Cottage made a timely transformation into a surprise scorer.
With Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele sidelined, Hughes had been bemoaning Fulham's lack of a clinical touch. When losing to West Ham two days earlier, a section of supporters had started to call for the manager's head. And with Fulham having gone eight games without a win, they propped up the form table. This result meant that unwanted honour now goes to their neighbours, Chelsea.
Both the result itself and the manner of it encouraged Hughes. "I felt we were immense," he said. "Everyone on the field of play was exceptional.
"There were big performances in every part of the team. Maybe that's been lacking in away games, that real resolute mindset and it could be a season-defining win."
His own contribution came before kick-off. If Baird's inclusion at Carlos Salcido's expense was designed to reinforce a defence that was breached three times by West Ham two days earlier, he proved an unexpected attacking asset.
He struck first in the fourth minute, turning a half-chance into a memorable goal. Simon Davies' cross was headed out of the penalty area by Danny Collins to Baird. The Ulsterman's first-time shot was struck terrifically, clipped the inside of the near post and nestled in the side netting near the other upright.
That was unusual enough. Seven minutes later, the man who had waited 45 months for a goal had a second. It came from a similar position. Danny Murphy rolled a free kick to Andrew Johnson who teed up Baird and, improbably, he drilled a second shot past Asmir Begovic.
"He is one of the best strikers of a ball we have at the club," insisted Hughes. His own position is now more secure although the Welshman had not looked for reassurances about his future.
"I don't feel I need to," he said. "I've got great support from [chief executive] Alistair Mackintosh. I spoke to the chairman [Mohamed Al Fayed] and he's very supportive. When we play as well as we did today, we'll have no problems this season."
Their performance incorporated a fine defensive effort. Murphy cleared a Ryan Shawcross header off his own line and, while there were potentially goal-saving interventions from Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland, Mark Schwarzer only had to make one save of note, thwarting Robert Huth.
"Our start was very, very poor," said Tony Pulis. "Asmir will look at the goals and think he could have done better with both of them."
Baird, in contrast, has never done better.