Lost in all the euphoria of last night’s epic comeback against Brighton and Hove Albion was the fact that Tom Cairney’s introduction as an early substitute marked his 150th appearance for Fulham.
Cairney’s class on a football field has never been in doubt. He flickered brightly with Hull City as a teenager and his capture from Blackburn Rovers for little more than £3m in 2015 seems a steal in hindsight. With such a smart football brain and crisp passing ability, it was no surprise that he flourished under Slavisa Jokanovic’s tutelage and, when he was switched into a playmaking central midfield role, the classy midfielder became the fulcrum around which an unassailable team was built. Cairney’s partnership with Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald comprised the most complete midfield in the Championship, with Fulham’s domination of possession appearing almost absolute at times.
The Scottish international, who has also matured markedly as he assumed the captaincy following the retirement of Scott Parker, has also had to show serious resilience as he has battled back from two troubling injuries over the past couple of seasons. It was noticeable that Fulham’s indifferent start to the last campaign ended with Cairney’s return to the side and, despite another injury-troubled season this term, there is no doubt that he makes such a difference to the side. Last night’s turnaround only served to underline the point, with Fulham able to impose themselves on Brighton only once Cairney had come off the bench to replace Tim Ream on 26 minutes.
The difference in Fulham’s patterns of play and assertiveness with Cairney able to protect possession and set the Whites moving forward alongside the outstanding Jean-Michael Seri was massive. Although Claudio Ranieri has so far sought to play only one of the pair having opted for a back five, I’m hoping that he can tweak the system to fit Fulham’s two best passers of a ball into the same side. The momentum garnered from last night’s revival is massive – and, with a number of away wins needed to secure survival, it would make sense for Ranieri to become a little more adventurous.
Without Cairney, Fulham suddenly seem primitive and predictable in possession. His composure on the ball in tight spots is a real asset for a defence that has suffered so regularly this season and his eye for a pass provides a greater threat going forward. Ranieri might have correctly identified that Cairney doesn’t score enough goals for a player of his calibre, but you could hardly quibble with his effectiveness last night. He was incredibly unfortunate not to mark his landmark with a goal, curling two sumptuous efforts against the crossbar, even if one did rebound kindly for Luciano Vietto.
Cairney has already served up so many special moments in his time at the club. His tears at Reading following the play-off defeat were followed by his desire to lead the team back to the promised land and he delivered in such fine style on that magnificent day at Wembley. That outstanding injury-team equaliser at Leeds that propelled the Whites’ late charge into the play-offs will live long in the memory as well his wondrous strike at Wolves. He’s already etched his name into Fulham folklore – and you wouldn’t bet against Cairney carving out a few more memories between and now and the end of this campaign.