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As football fans, there are some nights you remember as clearly as yesterday regardless of the passage of time. Tuesday 7 March 2017 will be forever etched into my memory. Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham side had played themselves into serious promotion contention, winning four of their last five fixtures, to move into seventh spot some six points off the play-off places but they faced a stiff test with the visit of fourth-placed Leeds, who had set the pace at the top of the table earlier in the season.

I was a nervous wreck throughout the day and appealed to my then boss for some blessed relief at around 3.30pm. He granted me an early exit from our office just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament and I got the underground to Hammersmith to begin the usual pre-match routine. A couple of pints in the Chancellor’s, a nervous chat with Carl and Jim behind the bar, and I decided to stroll towards the Cottage way ahead of schedule, taking in the dipping sun, and arranging to meet an old friend in Stevenage Road.

That Fulham lifer was beset by car trouble and barely made kick off. Opposite the ticket office, I watched as a steady stream of fans picked up their tickets and encountered a crestfallen group of Belgian supporters, who had seen their plans for a first pilgrimage to Fulham’s historic home scuppered by the club’s sales restrictions, which had principally been designed to deny Leeds supporters access to the home areas. As I entered to see what could be done, I heard one member of the group trying to prove his Fulham credentials by reciting the squad numbers. It took about fifteen minutes for me to convince the ticket office staff that I – as a season ticket holder – could both had the privileges to buy these guys the tickets and would vouch for them in the event of any trouble. Never had I been greeted as enthusiastically as when I emerged with the tickets for them and a few more celebratory beers were sunk at the back of the Hammersmith End before it was time to take in the action.

The game began disastrously. Leeds, shorn of the services of the injured Chris Wood, went ahead through a freak goal when the usually dependable Tim Ream sliced his attempted clearance from Kyle Bartley’s free-kick beyond David Button in the fifth minute. The Fulham goalkeeper then saved smartly from Gaeteno Berardi before carelessly miskicking and almost presenting Kalvin Phillips with a second before the home side finally settled. Ryan Fredericks gradually got free down the right, with Neeskens Kebano heading wide, Tom Cairney shooting fractionally off target from a cleverly worked free kick and then Kebano being incredibly denied an equaliser when his rasping volley bounced off the underside of the crossbar and over the line – only for Lee Probert to wave play on.

Leeds spurned a pair of half chances to increase their lead, with Alfonso Pedraza rattling the post when clean through, before Jokanovic’s men reasserted themselves. Kebano did brilliantly to work some space where there appeared to be none on the left angle of the area but ruffled the side netting with his shot. Scott Malone shot straight at the goalkeeper and Stefan Johansen’s close-range header was diverted wide. In the last minute of normal time, Philipps was dismissed for a second yellow card after crudely taking down Scott Parker just outside the box. Rob Green made splendid saves from Johansen and Cyriac in quick succession and you felt it just wasn’t going to be Fulham’s day.

But that was reckoning without Tom Cairney. The classy playmaker, released from Elland Road at the edge of sixteen because he was too small, had made a habit of scoring spectacular goals since he swapped Blackburn for south west London in 2015, but now the pressure was on. The five minutes of stoppage time were almost up. Both Fredericks and Sessegnon had pushed well forward, leaving space for Cairney to tiptoe into. Leeds offered him a little too much room and curled a fabulous finish into the top corner to bring Fulham level.

The celebrations were frenetic and raucous, matching Cairney’s moment of magic in their intensity. The number ten charged towards the Hammersmith End delirious with Fredericks and Sessegnon leaping all over him and punching the air in delight. I was caught up in all the emotion, ending up in the gangway with the beaming Belgians, several of whom were in a bundle on the floor.

It was the sort of scene that had accompanied many a Cairney goal over the course of that season. His family were a familiar part of those frenzied celebrations in many an away end up and down the country – and it was already clear how much Cairney was enjoying his football in Jokanovic’s mesmeric midfield. That last-gasp equaliser dramatically changed the course of Fulham’s season – sparking the Whites’ late run into the top six, where they clinched a play-off spot at the expense of Garry Monk’s men, who ran out of steam as the finish line approached.

Fulham didn’t go up that year, denied by a very debatable penalty in the semi-final second leg at Reading, and the image of a tearful Cairney clapping the fans after the final whistle, with home supporters already invading the Madjeski Stadium pitch, remains seared on my mind. The journey home had me contemplating life without the club’s classiest unpicker of defences but Cairney stayed, inheriting the captaincy from Parker, and went on to lead the Whites to two play-off final successes at Wembley.

Having suffered a setback in his latest recovery from a persistent knee problem, Cairney will be missing from Parker’s line-up as Fulham look to spring a surprise at Liverpool this afternoon and give their survival bid a real shot in the arm. But the Scottish schemer’s place in Fulham folklore is already assured. He’s hit many a memorable finish for the Whites, including the one that beat Aston Villa on an unforgettable afternoon at the national stadium, but for pure drama the Leeds leveller takes some beating. It was the night when classy Cairney became Fulham’s talismanic figure.