Yesterday’s win felt massive. Getting three points at Stoke is never easy, but beating them without two key players in a see-saw contest was some achievement. A run of four wins in succession opens up an eight-point gap at the Championship for Marco Silva’s men, which is some response to a packed schedule. Success in Staffordshire was also notable for another reason: Tom Cairney completed his fourth start in a row. When you think of all the angst over the Fulham captain’s injury absence, his return his a joy to watch. Silva acclaimed his display as his best of the season.

Plenty of people wondered whether Cairney, magisterial at times in this division, would ever reach the levels he attained before the destabilising knee injuries. There were rumours that he could only train once a week and that playing might be a step too far. Coming back from such a long spell on the sidelines takes plenty of character and Cairney himself admitted that he found watching Fulham get relegated as a helpless spectator really tough. We all saw the outpouring of emotion on the night he made his return after cracking in that lovely volley against Cardiff. He’s kicked on from cameo appearances to become the fulcrum of Fulham’s midfield once again.

Cairney’s class was never in doubt, from the moment he burst on the scene as a youngster with an eye for goal at Hull to his dominant displays at Blackburn. It was baffling that Kit Symons deployed him as an inverted wide man on the right, but the midfielder began to flourish once Slavisa Jokanovic switched him into the number ten role. Cairney managed six goals and eight assists in a frustrating first season at Craven Cottage, but with the Serbian’s surgery on his squad began the man who Fulham’s fluid football flowed. He scored twelve goals, none more notable than the injury-time equaliser against Leeds, and added eleven assists as the Whites were cruelly beaten at Reading in a tight play-off semi-final.

His tears on the pitch at the Madjeski Stadium showed just how much it meant. There were fears that he might find Premier League football elsewhere, but Cairney committed his future to the club, saying how determined he was to lead Fulham back to the top flight. He grew in stature have handed the captaincy and, even as those knee problems began to disrupt his season,
matched the previous campaign’s goal tally. After playing through the pain to take Fulham to Wembley, there was a storybook ending as he slotted Ryan Sessegnon’s sublime through ball under Sam Johnstone to secure promotion on that magical day.

There have always been question marks about whether Cairney can do it in the top flight, but nobody emerged from the 2018/2019 with credit. Three managers followed a summer transfer splurge and a badly disjointed squad, with Cairney only finding a regular spot in the side once Scott Parker had picked up the pieces. He filled a new number eight role for Parker in the Championship, a deployment that denied the Whites the benefit of his unrivalled passing in the final third, and was harshly dropped after performing brilliantly against West Brom back in the top flight.

Cairney’s knee problems were said to be career-ending and it would have been a sad way for a bona fide Fulham great to bow out. The man himself was having none of that and battled his way back into contention much earlier than anyone had expected. He deserved a genuinely tear-jerking moment in front of the Hammersmith End all of us own: the sweet volley showed he had lost none of his technique, but his progression back into a table-topping side has proved his durability. Cairney has not just added more goals to his game – he has four since his return – he is spraying those sublime passes around like he’s never been gone.

It is wonderful to watch him playing football with a smile on his face once again. There were some sublime Cruyff turns that riled the Stoke supporters yesterday and the uptick in form since he has assumed his place in the Fulham midfield indicates he will be vital to yet another promotion push. Silva seems to have given his skipper a freer role to influence proceedings than his predecessor and Cairney is thriving in it. We feared Jean Michael Seri’s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations, but with the Ivorian in Cameroon, the Reed-Cairney axis has really prospered.

I’m sure Cairney will consider the Premier League as unfinished business. His ability to keep the ball and unlock defences could be vital in a division where Fulham have been too easily brushed aside in the past. But the 31 year-old has been around long enough to know not to take anything for granted. He’ll want to make sure Fulham don’t flitter away their advantage at the top of the table. It really is fantastic to have him back pulling the strings from the middle of the park – let’s hope we can see him lifting the Championship trophy come May. That would be a fitting reward after ten months of agony for Fulham’s master craftsman.