Every Fulham fan would have been dismayed to learn after Marco Silva’s press conference yesterday that Tom Cairney is still not back in full training seven months after his last first team appearance for the Whites. We all know the difference our peerless playmaker makes when he is fit to play those precise passes through midfield, but equally we have become accustomed to the fact that the management of persistent knee problems mean the likelihood of him being an ever-present again in a gruelling Championship campaign is close to zero.
Cairney’s wretched run of injuries has undoubtedly hampered Fulham’s performance in recent years. On song – and part of the formidable midfield trio alongside Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, who have sadly both departed this summer – he was simply unplayable. He played his best football in that mesmerising season under Slavisa Jokanovic when the Whites won 23 games on the trot and, bounced back from that not being enough to secure automatic promotion, to triumph in the play-offs. In his emotional post-match interview at Wembley, it became clear that Cairney had been playing through the pain barrier for some time – which makes his consistency all the more remarkable.
Cairney’s place in Fulham folklore is assured as the only man in history to lead the club to two Wembley triumphs. Nobody needs reminding just how effortlessly he tucked away the beatifully crafted goal to beat Aston Villa, but his contribution in the tussle with Brentford two years later should not be overlooked. Deployed in a deeper role, the Scottish midfelder might have eschewed some his attacking instincts but grafted to prevent Brentford from playing and played a pivotal part in a memorable victory.
It is fashionable these days to question Cairney’s leadership credentials – as he is far from the conventional vocal captain – but instead he leads by example on the field. While he may have struggled to replicate his best form in the top flight (and injuries have clearly robbed him of the chance to shine at times – he was outstanding in Fulham’s first league win against West Brom last year), he is the ideal number ten in a possession-based Championship side. His vision, range of passing and ability to turn defence into attack effortlessly are all vital attributes that Marco Silva would love to call upon regularly. The numbers remain staggering – Cairney’s scored 37 goals, made 28 more in 217 appearances since Fulham signed him from Blackburn for what now looks like a bargain £3.5m back in 2015.
Silva stated yesterday that Cairney is probably still a few weeks away from a possible return to the side. That gives the Portugese head coach a headache as to who to use to fill a position that has been pivotal in the success of his previous sides, as he likes to use a number ten behind a loan forward. It may be that Fabio Carvalho, impressive in his cameos towards the end of last season, seizes a chance to shine. But no one could doubt how crucial Cairney is to Fulham’s fortunes – and he will be as desperate as anyone to end a hugely frustrating spell on the sidelines.
It will be doubly disappointing as Cairney seems to be the perfect player to thrive in Silva’s ideal system. The former Everton and Watford manager will be the fifth boss that the Scottish international has worked under at Craven Cottage. He had to endure being shoved out on the right under Kit Symons, before shining in the central role he made his own once Jokanovic took charge. Claudio Ranieri was never sold on Cairney’s importance and you felt that his creative talents were somewhat shackled under Scott Parker. The man himself knows just how long a Championship campaign is – and let’s hope he can make his mark on Silva’s first season when those injury issues abate. A prolonged period away from the treatement is precisely what Fulham and Cairney crave.