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After ten torturous months on the sidelines with knee trouble, it took just twelve minutes for Fulham favourite Tom Cairney to mark his return in style. The club captain, a talismanic figure in two Championship promotion seasons, crashed home an unstoppable volley off his majestic left foot to end Cardiff’s stubborn resistance and lift the Whites back into the automatic promotion positions. The enormity of the moment was encapsulated both by the roar of the Hammersmith End for their hero and Cairney’s own emotions – he looked close to tears as he peeled away from his team-mates, covered his face briefly and lifted both arms in a brief moment of reflection.

Plenty had doubted whether Cairney, absent since a 1-1 draw with Newcastle last December, would ever return to the Fulham side. His history of horrendous knee injuries certainly added to the psychological trauma of his latest setback, which allowed the playmaker to complete only a single training session under Marco Silva until the recent international break. The speed of his reintroduction to the first team squad – Cairney was an unused substitute against QPR on Saturday – took many by surprise and there would have been a few hearts in mouths when he replaced Harrison Reed here at half time, especially as Cardiff had demonstrated their physicality in a scrappy and competitive first half.

Deploying Cairney in a deeper role he sometimes occupied under Scott Parker seemed a serious gamble after Reed had felt his calf in the dying stages of the first half, but Cairney – so often Fulham’s creative hub over the years – immediately enlivened Fulham’s previously ponderous possession. He linked up cleverly with Bobby Decordova-Reid, who crashed a shot against Mark McGuiness, and began the move that saw Aleksandar Mitrovic head Neeskens Kebano’s cross into the arms of Alex Smithies.

But Cairney’s starring moment just before the half mark. Harry Wilson, a persistent threat against his former club, threatened to weave his way through after a mazy dribble across the penalty area but the Welshman’s progress was halted by a desperate defensive tackle. The ball fell for Cairney, who lashed home a rising finish from the edge of the box to score his first Fulham goal in almost a year. It was a fairytale return for one of Fulham’s finest modern servants – and Marco Silva will be delighted to have one of the division’s most dangerous midfielders fit and firing again.

The goal galvanised Fulham and the hosts quickly made sure of all three points. They were handed a second on a plate six minutes later when a woeful pass out from the back by Joel Bagan was intercepted by Wilson, allowing Decordova-Reid to pick out Mitrovic, who rolled home a simple finish from thirteen yards, leaving Aden Flint trailing in his wake. The Cardiff board had given Mick McCarthy two more games to save his job after the dismal derby defeat at Swansea on Sunday, but it remains to be seen whether the beleaguered boss lasts until Saturday’s meeting with Middlesbrough after a seventh straight defeat that leaves them barely above the bottom three.

To Cardiff’s great credit, they were competitive to the last, enlivened by the late introduction of substitutes James Collins, Kieran Evans and Mark Harris. The visitors might have made a game of it in the closing stages, pouring forward regularly with Flint firing over at the back post after McGuiness had flicked on Bagan’s cross. The outstanding Kieffer Moore forced a fine save from Marek Rodak after his drive had deflected off the diving Tim Ream, with the Slovak international at full stretch to tip the Welsh striker’s snapshot over the bar.

Fulham had began on the front foot after their derby demolition of QPR with Decordova-Reid almost scoring against his former employers inside two minutes when he stooped to head Wilson’s cross inches wide after a well-worked short corner. Reed rattled a drive over from outside the box a minute later before Moore, an imposing presence in the Cardiff forward line, darted away from Ream to reach a raking ball from the impressive Rubin Colwill and thumped a venomous drive off angle of post and bar with Rodak motionless.

The home side enjoyed nearly two-thirds of the ball in a first half they dominated with Wilson regularly breaking into dangerous pockets of space behind the Cardiff midfield. He produced an impudent backheel after latching onto a lovely through ball from Jean Michael Seri and Kebano rattled the far post with a rasping drive from the edge of the box. The visitors offered an immediate riposte with Marlon Pack taking aim after being afforded too much space outside the area – but the former Bristol City midfielder’s shot didn’t dip quite enough to beat Rodak.

Despite the stalemate, the engaging encounter was developing into an end-to-end contest. Reed brought a sprawling save out of Smithies from distance after rampaging forward from the halfway line and ignoring white shirts out on the flank. Cardiff came just as close before the break when Colwill crept onto a clever Moore knock down and drifted inside Denis Odoi before curling a shot a yard wide of Rodak’s far post.

Ultimately, two moments of quality from Fulham’s star players made the difference. This might not have been a vintage home display, but it is the kind of result the Whites will need to replicate regularly if they are to mount a serious promotion push. They leapfrogged West Brom, who were beaten by Swansea tonight, on goal difference but remain five points behind Parker’s unbeaten Bournemouth. There were encouraging cameos from young strikers Rodrigo Muniz and Jay Stansfield, who will both lay claim as understudies to leading man Mitrovic, whose all-around play was again as importance as his thirteenth goal of the campaign that put the game beyond the struggling visitors.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Reed (Cairney 45); Kebano, Wilson (Stansfield 90), Decordova-Reid; Mitrovic (Muniz 89). Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Tete, Mawson, Onomah.

GOALS: Cairney (57), Mitrovic (63).

CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Ng, Bagan, McGuiness, Flint; Vaulks, Pack; Giles (Harris 73), Bowen (Collins 66), Colwill (Evans 73); Moore. Subs (not used): Phillips, Morrison, Brown, Patten.

BOOKED: Pack, Bagan, Ng.

REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).

ATTENDANCE: 15,789.