CHRIS BAIRD'S remarkable rise from reserve player to full international in under a month will be completed tonight.

As revealed in the Daily Echo on May 20, Baird is set to make his senior Northern Ireland debut in tonight's friendly in Italy.

And if the 21-year-old right back impresses tonight, he could well keep his place in Sammy McIlroy's side for next week's Euro 2004 qualifier against Spain in Belfast.

"If Chris Baird can play in an FA Cup final I think he can handle anything," said McIlroy ahead of the friendly in Campobasso.

"Anyone who saw it will know he was absolutely superb.

"I've got no qualms about him. He has been in the squad before. I know all about the boy and he has got a big future.

"Nothing fazes him. He was told he would play in the final only the day before and the way he played just shows what he is all about."

Baird's appearance tonight will mean that in his last three matches he will have made his full Premiership debut against Manchester City, played in an FA Cup final, and won his first senior international cap!

Tonight's match is a goodwill gesture from the Italian FA after the town was hit by an earthquake last autumn. Campobasso, which is located around 250 kilometres east of Rome, was close to the epicentre of the quake which killed over 20 people, most of whom were children, as a school building collapsed.

Mcllroy is happy to have received the invitation to take on Giovanni Trapattoni's team but admitted the fixture had come at the wrong time with a lot of key players nursing injuries.

"I was frightened to death when I was asked 'do you want to play Italy before you play Spain'.

"But we are doing it for the people, who gave us a great welcome. It's for a good cause.

"The players can learn a lot from this experience, playing against a top team with top players. It's good for their long-term future.

"But the players should be on the beach and on holiday. Even in our heyday when we were qualifying for World Cups and European Championships we never won a game in June, no matter who we played.

"The players have been off for two or three weeks and then playing a game in June is hard for them to come to terms with.

"But it's a great opportunity for certain players to make their mark and put themselves in the frame for next week against Spain."