ONE of John Baird's most cherished moments in football occurred at a match in which he never played.
Baird will line up for Raith Rovers in Sunday's Ramsdens Cup final against Rangers looking to pick up his second winner's medal in the competition. This time, though, he wants to earn it.
The then sponsorless tournament was known simply as the Challenge Cup when St Mirren and Hamilton Academical lined up in the 2005 final. Baird had not long turned 20 years old and was on the fringes of the St Mirren squad. When Gus MacPherson named his matchday squad of 16, Baird didn't make the cut. "I was probably 17th man," he says now with a smile.
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Goals from Simon Lappin and John Sutton either side of a Scott Tunbridge strike saw St Mirren run out 2-1 winners to lift the trophy for the first time. Baird was joining in the celebrations somewhat half-heartedly when Mark 'Mavis' Reilly, the veteran former Kilmarnock midfielder, sidled over to have a word. Baird will never forget what happened next.
"Mavis asked how many games I had been involved in before the final," he recalled. "I think I had played them all, certainly three out of the four anyway. I told him and he said, 'right, take this,' and gave me his medal. I was crying. For a second I thought about giving it back, but then I ran up the stand and gave it to my mum.
"I didn't feel I earned it, definitely, because I wasn't playing, but for Mavis to give it to me was a big thing. I was only 20 and he didn't need to do that. He was 36 years old and it was his last season and his last cup final, so for him to make that gesture meant a lot to me. I still have the medal in a cabinet at home.
"Mavis had played in a Scottish Cup final for Kilmarnock and it meant a lot him giving it to me, because it showed what he thought of me. I know how Mavis is and he wouldn't have given it to just anyone, so that medal means more because of that."
Baird has been around the block a bit since then. From St Mirren, where he had pitched up after starting out at Clyde, there were stints with Stenhousemuir, Montrose, Brechin City, Airdrie United, his first spell at Raith, Dundee and then Partick Thistle.
The last year has been particularly tumultuous. Relegated with Dundee and unsure if a new contract was coming his way, the striker elected to sign a two-year deal with Thistle. It meant a move home for the Glaswegian, but it would prove a brief stay. Unable to force his way into manager Alan Archibald's plans, the player was cut loose in January, allowing him to return to Stark's Park. He is philosophical about it all.
"I've got no regrets at all," he added. "I thought at the time it was the right decision to stay in the [top division] and I was a Glasgow boy. Partick Thistle was 10 minutes along the road. Dundee had been relegated and there was the uncertainty with the Americans coming in to take over, so there was no contract offer on the table for me. It was a case of 'wait and see if this or that comes through'. I couldn't take that chance and when Partick Thistle offered me a two-year contract it was a no-brainer.
"I wouldn't say I didn't get a chance at Thistle. I had two starts in the league but the manager thought I couldn't fit into his system. When the manager says that, there is not much you can do about it - it wasn't about my ability. I would maybe disagree, so might some other managers, but the game is all about opinions. They then brought in another striker in January - and I want to play football. I'm not interested in sitting about. This move worked out for both parties."
Sunday's final is being played at Easter Road, a venue of personal significance to Baird. After a decade playing in the lower leagues, it was only when he signed for Dundee in the summer of 2012 that he finally got to play among the elite. Even then it took a while for him to make his mark, but on January 19, in a 1-1 draw with Hibernian, the player finally scored his first top-flight goal.
"My family were at that game and I knew how much it would mean to them," he added. "Over the years my aim was always to play at the highest level possible in Scotland and there were a few times I was close and the moves didn't happen. Sometimes I felt like I would never get there. I know that day means a lot to my family."