TO some Chris Baird might seem like a virtual overnight success story but the truth is very different.

The 24-year-old has had to go through sustained periods in the wilderness, even to the point of virtually quitting the club he loves, to get to where he is today.

Baird may now be George Burley's first name on the teamsheet and a man who is shaping up to become a long-term idol of the Saints' supporters but it has taken a long time, a lot of patience, determination and above all belief to get him where he is.

"It was frustrating," reflected the man from Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

"I've had nine managers - I was a youngster for a few but four or five where I was always waiting for my chance and training hard and playing well in the reserves and before that at youth level, going out on loan to get games and show I could do it.

"Maybe they all wanted experienced players to play and not throw in a young lad.

"It was frustrating and I'm glad things have changed.

"I love the club to bits.

"It's my first club and has always been great to me but there was in the back of my mind after two or three managers not giving me a chance a thought I might have to move on.

"I came very close a couple of times but it didn't happen because I wanted to stay and show I could do it."

Baird's love affair with Saints has been a long one.

He rose through the academy ranks and into the reserves and it seemed only a matter of time before he got a first team call-up. That was underlined by him becoming a regular for his country on the international stage.

But instead of being a normal international footballer, he was playing at the highest level and then going back and waiting on the sidelines for his club.

It's only this season's consistent run of games that has seen him finally notch up more club appearances than international ones.

Baird is as in the dark as anyone as to why a succession of managers before George Burley overlooked him.

"I knew it would happen eventually - it was just a case of waiting for the right man to come in," he said.

"I never thought it would be at centre half but it's happened that way and I'm glad the gaffer has put me there.

"All the other managers before have never really given me that chance.

"George came in and it was a fresh start for everyone and I knew this was a chance for me again.

"With so many previous managers it had not worked out but he gave me that chance and I'm grateful for him doing that.

"I don't know why it didn't happen before.

"They never really said why they didn't play me, I was in the dark about that but I'm grateful I have the chance and I'm making the most of it.

"I haven't a clue why other managers didn't give me a go. I knew I deserved a chance and obviously I didn't get it but I came in every day and it was disappointing to train hard and turn up at the games just to watch and not to play.

"Other people have said to me they've noticed how well I'm doing and can't work out why I didn't play before. They ask me for the reason but I can't give them an answer."

It seemed Baird's big breakthrough had finally come in 2003 when, after a couple of league starts, he was handed a shock place in Saints' FA Cup final team where he turned in a brilliant performance - but again it proved a false dawn.

"I played a couple of games before the FA Cup final and was thrown in with little experience of the FA Cup or Premiership football or the big players.

"Obviously I was very surprised to be selected but I went out there and gave it my best shot and did well.

"After that I thought I would have a nice summer, keep fit and start afresh under Strachan and hope to get a few more games in that season.

"Strachan left and I ended up back at the start again which was very frustrating and they were hard times for me training and not getting the games and I didn't know if I'd done anything wrong."

But now things have come full circle and Baird's effort and commitment is paying off.

"It's been absolutely fantastic for myself personally - it couldn't have gone any better," said Baird of the first half of his season.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed it even though I've been out of position playing at centre half but so far it has been amazing for me and hopefully it will continue for the rest of the season.

"I've taken to the role of centre back very well.

"Right back is my first position but I found myself filling in at centre half after just two minutes of the season.

"I was surprised to be asked but I've enjoyed it very much.

"It's been fantastic and I would stay there if I had to.

"The strange thing has been that a lot of people probably don't know I'm a right back. I'll probably finish there but at the moment I don't want to move.

"Of course it's up to the manager whether he wants to keep me there and whether he brings in players for that position but the first half of the season has been amazing."

He added: "Playing this run of games has done me the world of good for Southampton and the international team as well.

"I used to play internationals without playing club games.

"I've never had this before and I'm trying my best to make the most of it and even my mates are going to matches and saying they hear supporters say how well I have been doing and that's amazing."

Baird, who is settled in the area with his wife and two-year-old daughter, now has his eyes fixed on a domestic and international double that would cap off an incredible year.

"It's nice to get away and go with the international team. I've got 25 caps already which is quite a lot for me being so young without that many games in the league but it's great times for us," he said.

"Our aim is to get in the European Championships in 2008.

"We've started this qualifying campaign very well and we're playing some good stuff.

"We're looking to keep the form going and achieve great things.

"It would round off an amazing year for me if Southampton could get promoted back to the Premiership and Northern Ireland qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1982.

"I dream of playing in the Premiership like every boy and we've got the chance to get there this season."