Marco Silva’s press conference on Friday had a number of juicy titbits in it – including the suggestion that Tom Cairney could be close to a return to training. We’ve been waiting nine months for Fulham’s premier playmaker to shake off his troublesome knee injuries and have already been through a few false dawns. Some have speculated that our number ten is no longer an automatic pick given how seamlessly Fabio Carvalho has taken to senior football, whilst others wonder whether the captain’s armband should remain his.
There’s no doubt about his talismanic ability, but Cairney is certainly more of a leader by example than a leader of men. He’s the only Fulham captain to have led the Whites out onto the Wembley turf three times and has written his name into Fulham folklore after those two memorable play-off final victories. His ability with the ball at his feet is unquestionable as well. Cairney was the creative force in Slavisa Jokanovic’s stylish side that swaggered their way to 23 matches unbeaten when the prospect of the Championship play-offs he eventually won so memorably against Aston Villa appeared particularly remote. The emotion in his television interview after that final laid bare his struggles with chronic knee problems – and without those injury clouds it isn’t too fanciful to suggest he might have firmly established himself in the top flight, or at least, become a regular feature in the Scottish national side.
Cairney’s never quite cracked the Premier League, but he is in a class of his own in the Championship. His wonderful left foot means opponents often have to put two men on him just to reduce his influence and ability to retain possession. There’s no doubt the quiet midfielder has grown in stature since taking on the captaincy from Scott Parker and his longevity in a time of constant change at Fulham has to applauded. His 212 appearances put him pretty high on the club’s all-time list – and Cairney’s Championship numbers are simply incredible: 152 games, 34 goals and 47 assists denote just how pivotal a performer he has been in several Craven Cottage sides.
Cairney might not be a conventional captain in the blood and thunder, bawl them out mould, but he’s earned his leadership credentials through an old-fashioned work ethic and letting his football do the talking. He can run a game with his feet rather than his voice and those qualities have been recognised by successive managers, from Jokanovic to Ranieri and right through to Parker. He does face arguably his toughest challenge after a prolonged period on the sidelines: first to prove his fitness on the training pitches and remain healthy long enough to mount a sustained challenge to the starting line-up in an area of the field where Fulham suddenly look very strong. Carvalho has yet to put a foot wrong in a series of mature displays and the re-emergence of Jean Michael Seri might even push Cairney down the pecking order in the deeper midfield role he sometimes occupied under Parker.
Silva will eventually have to make a difficult call on the future of Cairney’s Fulham career. The peerless passer has made no secret of the fact that the best football of his career has come by the banks of the Thames, but there must be a question mark over whether he can return to that sort of level. Does he still possess the ability to turn a game in the blink of an eye? Is he the sort of on-field leader than Silva wants? Tim Ream has done a terrific job as an understated skipper in Cairney’s absence and the American appears to be enjoying a new lease of life under the club’s new regime. He’s even embraced social media with a zeal that has surprised plenty, suggesting that he sees his role as helping to repair the relationship between the fans and the club.
It goes without saying that we hope the next few weeks go well for Cairney. He’s just got engaged and seems settled in London. His contributions to Fulham’s fortunes since he arrived from Blackburn in what looks an absolute bargain of a deal these days already make him a bona fide Fulham legend. If he could reach the heights of those Jokanovic campaigns at the heart of the Fulham midfield, then the potential for Silva’s side would appear limitless. Cairney himself hasn’t given up on the prospect of resurrecting his Fulham career and, as one brilliant former manager so memorably implored in his programme notes, now’s the time to keep the faith.