Regular readers remember that I rarely say nice things about the Evening Standard. My neighbours always used to call it the ‘Sub’ and, reading through David Lloyd’s ‘Near Enough Is Good Enough’ column in TOOFIF, it was clear why. My reasons for being positive about London’s only serious paper diminished when it switched over from being the Evening Boris to the Evening Osborne, after the elevation of the architect of Tory austerity to the editor’s chair despite him having precisely no journalistic experience.
However, the Standard does possess one of the finest football correspondents in the country in Giuseppe Muro, who has always been fair to Fulham and tried to squeeze as much Cottagers’ coverage into the Premier League-focused paper as possible. Yesterday, Giuseppe did himself proud with a feature that captured the Tom Cairney we have all come to love over the last couple of years at Fulham. Many of the salient points of the interview will probably already having been covered whilst I was spending a lot of time in various hospitals yesterday, but Cairney comes across exactly as those of us who have the pleasure of meeting him would tell you – and that’s one of the hardest things to achieve in journalism.
My only encounter with the Scottish midfielder, who really should become the fulcrum of the Tartan Army’s midfield when they finally get around to saying goodbye to Gordon Strachan, came on the platform at Preston Station as he walked from the Subway towards the train. I sensed he was about to get mobbed and, he flashed that shy smile, saying that ‘I’m just pleased the fans want to talk to me’. I was nearly flabbergasted. Of course they wanted to chat to you, Tom, after you’d surged through the Preston midfield on a mazy run to set up the winner for Matt Smith. He smiled again and I quickly thanked him, shook his hand and moved on. Sure enough, seconds later, a crowd of young fans appeared, singing his name and asking for autographs and selfies. Cairney chatted to them all, posed for every picture and signed each scrap of paper.
We all know about Cairney the footballer – the magical left foot, an ability to play a pass where there seemed to be no gap and that uncoachable quality of knowing just when it’s time to take a game by the scruff of the neck. But what has impressed me the most over the past nine months has been the development of the man. Cairney might seem somewhat shy but beneath that quiet exterior is a fierce desire to deliver, as shown when Leeds axed him at 14 for being ‘too small’. Others might have wilted in the face of rejection from their boyhood club, but Cairney went on to turn in quality performances on a regular basis for Hull City and Blackburn Rovers. By May, Cairney’s leadership skills had merged alongside those disciplined displays as part of Fulham’s third midfield musketeers to such an extent that it was a foregone conclusion he would succeed Scott Parker as captain.
Cairney might have to shake John Terry’s hand in the centre circle this season, but nothing highlights the gulf in class between London’s oldest professional football club and the team from Walham Green than the contrast in those two men. Cairney is a grounded individual, who benefits from the support of a family, who have waved away offers of corporate hospitality to sit in with the fans. Sister Rebecca and Tom’s mum have embraced the madness of the Fulham experience rather than being overly fussed about a few lads bundling towards them after another screamer hits the net. Girlfriend Abbie has been remarkably tolerant of being the third wheel in his brilliant bromance with Smith. Meanwhile, Cairney has let his football do the talking – and quietly, in his own way, asks his team-mates to match his consistently high standards. In that staggering second half of the season that saw Slavisa Jokanovic’s side record Championship winning form to reach the play-offs, nobody let him down.
Cairney’s cult hero status was assured almost from the moment he curled in an improbable effort from the right angle of the box against Brighton and Hove Albion, but it was only enhanced by the way he deals with the adulation of younger fans. Take, for instance, how he received some thank you money from an eight year-old as well as instructions to ‘try a bicycle kick and run fast to get the ball’. The video of Cairney turning up at Giacomo’s door, saying ‘You know I’m Tom Cairney’ is brilliant.
That’s not, as some suspected, an isolated incident or a PR exercise from Fulham Football Club. Take a look at the photos of Cairney meeting youngsters with Cauley Woodrow at the Fulham Foundation’s Soccer Schools yesterday. We were sent a picture of the young boy on Cairney’s right who interviewed him afterwards. When I grow up a bit, I want to look at Tom Cairney like one of those kids or Matt Smith. And, you know what, I probably will.
Cairney combines those two rare gifts – sensational footballing ability and humbleness in an age where all the inducements are there to become the kind of sports star people end up resenting. There ain’t nobody like Tom Cairney. He fitted into things just fine when he arrived, but now both he and Fulham are flourishing. Long may it continue.