One of the knocks against English football in the past was that the game’s leading scouts placed two much emphasis on physical characteristics from a young age. If you were looking for an example to embody the narrative, you’d do worse the day that Leeds United released Tom Cairney at the age of sixteen for being too small. The classy midfielder, arguably the best creative player beneath the top flight, openly admits that his departure from Elland Road ‘crushed’ him.
You wouldn’t consider Cairney diminutive these days, having grown to beyond 6ft, and even if his growth spurt didn’t materialise, modern football is full of precocious talents who have made the most of their low centre of gravity. Although it took him a long time to get over the disappointment of leaving Leeds, having been at the Yorkshire club’s academy since the age of seven, Cairney used that rejection to spur him on, when Hull City offered him a YTS contract. Two years later, he was making his senior debut for Phil Brown’s side and he finished that season with nineteen Premier League appearances to his name, which might have made for some awkward conversations at Thorpe Arch.
It’s clear that he has always felt he had a point to prove to Leeds – something that has dated back to his very first return to Elland Road with Blackburn Rovers. On New Year’s Day in 2014, he set up both of Rovers’ goals in a 2-1 one – the first with a beautifully weighted through ball for Jordan Rhodes, before his devilish corner was headed home by Rudy Gestede. He followed that up with another goal the following year as Blackburn won 3-0 at Elland Road.
Cairney’s desire to remind his first club of their costly mistake has only intensified since he moved to Craven Cottage. He curled home a sweet finish on his first trip to Elland Road with the Whites in February 2016 and then repeated the trick some six months later, celebrating with his trademark knee slide in front of the travelling fans. But perhaps the Scottish midfielder’s most memorable moment against Leeds came in added time at Craven Cottage last March, when he bent home a majestic finish from outside the box before leading wild celebrations at the front of the Hammersmith End. That late, late equaliser sparked Fulham’s sensational run into the top six at the end of last season – where they secured a play-off place at the expense of the Yorkshire outfit.
Cairney was distraught to have to miss the trip to Elland Road, a dour scoreless draw in August, due to the troublesome knee problem that has so disrupted his current campaign – but it looks as though he’s gradually getting back to his best form at a critical point in the season. He scored Fulham’s second at Carrow Road on Good Friday, following up recent strikes against QPR and Sheffield United since his return following another injury lay-off, and Cairney will be desperate to land another telling blow against Leeds this evening.
The 27 year-old’s outstanding displays at the heart of Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield have earned him an international recall as well as plenty of plaudits. Cairney was named in the PFA’s Championship team of the year last season – and although Fulham haven’t seen the best of his undoubted ability this term, he’s intent on making up for lost time. Cairney’s maturity since he took on the club captaincy as well as his phlegmatic response to opponents targeting that knee with plenty of robust challenges has been impressive. He’ll be desperate to put remind Leeds just what they’ve missed out on again this evening. Based on his record, you wouldn’t bet against Cairney playing a starring role.