Fulham captain Tom Cairney is aiming to repeat his Wembley heroics from two years ago and lead the Whites back to the Premier League against Brentford on Tuesday night.
The gifted playmaker scored the only goal as Slavisa Jokanovic’s side beat Aston Villa at the national stadium in 2018 to bounce back from the disappointment of losing in the play-offs the previous season. Cairney says that day – and his measured finish from a fine ball from Ryan Sessegnon remains his most cherished in football.
“That was the best day of my career. Everything about it was perfect: the weather, the pitch, the way we played – especially in the first half – and scoring the winner and lifting the trophy. You couldn’t really write it.”
The emotions of that glorious sunny afternoon at the national stadium were a world away from the way in which Fulham reached this play-off final, scrapping to an aggregate success over Cardiff City at a deserted Craven Cottage – with the tie played behind closed doors due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It has just about sunk in. It was a weird feeling after the game, not having the fans to bounce off of and the celebrations were a lot different this time, compared to two years ago. Everyone would be on such a buzz to go and watch or play there. It’s a strange feeling, but I think we’ve become more accustomed to it as the games have gone on.
“We had a bit of a chat and the manager said to us to look at how far we’ve come. We were relegated out of the Premier League last year and used to a losing environment, but to turn that around so quickly is a credit to the manager, the staff and the players as well. If you look back, it’s been a successful season on the whole but it’s not a successful season without winning on Tuesday. We’ve put ourselves in a great position and there’s just one more hurdle left to overcome.”
Cairney is full of praise for the way Parker, his predecessor as Fulham captain, has transitioned into his first managerial role – having taken the helm with the Whites hurtling out of the top flight under Claudio Ranieri.
“We knew he was going to go into coaching and be a manager because he’s that type of person. He’s got a good presence when he walks into a room, has everyone’s respect and he doesn’t change day-to-day. Win, lose or draw, it’s the same mentality. He’s a massive driving force and I think he deserves a lot of credit.
“He’s a young British manager with, arguably, one of the strongest squads in the Championship and to do what he’s done in his first season has been a big achievement. I think the footballing community needs to get behind managers like this and push them forward because he’s from the generation of Terry, Lampard, Gerrard, Campbell. That era of quality British players that we had are giving their knowledge back. We want to do it for him, 100 per cent. You want to pay back the faith he’s shown. If he does get promotion in his first season, I don’t know how many people have done that, but it will be some achievement.”
Parker certainly isn’t underestimating the challenge posed by local rivals Brentford in the final, but feels Fulham’s experience of the big occasion might prove decisive.
“They are a very good side, we’ve watched them all season. They are a possession-based team like us, so we’ll both be looking to dominate the ball. We’ve been very impressed by them and I’m sure they’ve been very impressed by us. We’ve got ways we can hurt them but we know they can hurt us because they scored two against us after the restart.
“When we played Villa two years ago, they had the experience and all the players who’d been there before and we didn’t. Hopefully the experience of the mental side of the game rather than the physical can help us get the better of them. I think that’s where experience comes in reading situations and not letting the occasion get to you. I like to think that in those moments we’d hopefully come out on top.
“I don’t think we’ll need to remind ourselves of what’s at stake, but I think it will be strange in such a big arena with no fans. It’s strange enough at the Cottage but to play in a 90,000 seater stadium with no one in it will be a little bit surreal. We’ll have to get to grips with that and then hopefully play our stuff.”