There was a moment earlier in the season – probably around the time when Fulham fluffed so many chances in that incredible home defeat by QPR – that the fans began to question whether the Whites had enough bottle to last the pace in the Championship. Slavisa Jokanovic had packed his new-look side with a whole host of easy-on-the eye ball players, but their failure to turn possession into victories and an absence of both experience and leadership suggested that a promotion push might be beyond them.
Tom Cairney, although clearly one of the club’s most gifted footballers, has always had a couple of question marks about him. One surrounds the fact that his right foot seems to be solely for standing on – something he disarmingly admits himself – and the other is that he isn’t necessarily the same player in a losing side that he is when things are going well. Jokanovic himself put it nicely after Cairney’s victory in the Championship player of the year category at last week’s London Football Awards:
He’s improved and grown up with us and this Fulham team have grown up with him too – he helped myself and my staff to develop this style we play football with.
Cairney has clearly thrived on the leadership role he has assumed from Scott Parker over the course of the season and, although he is not the archetypal English captain full of shouted commands and waving his arms about, the classy midfielder has began to lead by example. In the last three home games, he has advanced into more forward positions of his own accord as the opposition has began to assert themselves and, last night in the dying embers of an absorbing encounter with play-off rivals Leeds, Cairney took it upon himself to change the course of the evening.
Never mind that Fulham were behind to the sort of freakish own goal that can knock the stuffing out of you or the fact that Neeskens Kebano’s perfectly good goal was ruled not to have crossed the line by the officials. Forget too about the pressure that a defeat to Garry Monk’s side would have ended Fulham’s fine recent run and perhaps fatally shrunken their path towards the play-offs. Cairney, who had been shackled effectively by his boyhood club all evening, saved his customary goal against Leeds for the last possible moment – a sumptuous curler from distance of precisely the quality necessary to beat Rob Green after he had been inexplicably allowed to cut inside on his left foot.
That patch of grass outside the right angle of the penalty area at the Hammersmith End has delivered some memorable moments in recent years. It was from there that Chris David unleashed an unstoppable shot to ensure Fulham didn’t leave the top flight defeated by Crystal Palace three years ago and Cairney’s own dramatic intervention was from around the same spot that Clint Dempsey unforgettably chipped Fulham to that incredible victory over Juventus back in 2010.
The delirious celebrations were perhaps some of the most frenzied at the famous old ground since the night the Old Lady was brought so staggeringly to her knees. Cairney’s delight was to be expected but to see Ryan Sessegnon and Ryan Fredericks clambering on top of the goalscorer in joyous exaltation showed just how much the rescued point meant to a Fulham side who might just be believing they can extend their season by a couple of weeks. Certainly Jokanovic has instilled a never-say-die attitude into a team that would have rolled over only eight months ago and this was typified by another tempo-altering cameo from Parker, who galvanised Fulham for one last push when he came off the bench.
The season still has plenty of chapters to be written yet. The tantalising nature of some of Fulham’s fixtures, starting on Saturday at Newcastle but also including trips to Huddersfield, Derby and Norwich, means that it might still all be up for grabs when the Whites head to Hillsborough for a final day showdown with Sheffield Wednesday. Fulham are no longer a fair weather football time – they are schooled in the special Serbian art of street fighting and can’t be counted out any longer.