There are so many magic moments to consider when casting your mind back through Tom Cairney’s Craven Cottage career. One leaps out immediately: the measured finish after he had sneaked in behind the Aston Villa defence to reach Ryan Sessegnon’s sublime through ball at Wembley in the play-off final. There’s the injury-time equaliser against Leeds United, who released him as a schoolboy, that sent the Hammersmith End into ecstasy and the way the captain marked his earlier than expected return with a trademark left-footed return against Cardiff City last season. The clincher on that Friday night at Griffin Park is pretty hard to overlook, too. You can’t pick just one, but mine is one of the midfield master craftsmen’s earlier strikes at his old stomping ground.
Fulham had dominated for most of the ninety minutes at Ewood Park but failed to break down a stubborn Blackburn Rovers side. It looked destined for a stalemate and, at the back of the Darwen End, I began to try and convince myself that any point away from home couldn’t be sniffed at. David Button smartly started one more attack deep into stoppage time and after an intricate passing move between Cairney, Kevin McDonald and sixteen year old Ryan Sessegnon, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side spied an opportunity along the left flank. Gordon Greer stretched to clear but succeeded only in diverting the ball into Cairney’s path. The former Rovers favourite curled a fine finish into the far corner, sparking joyous scenes as he sprinted to celebrate in front of his family.
Cairney has delivered again and again for Fulham. His class was never in doubt, although initially Fulham failed to put him in the places where he could hurt the opposition. Bafflingly, having brought him in when a summer Venky’s fire sale made one of the Championship’s most consistent creators available for £3.5m, Kit Symons shoehorned a very left-footed number ten into a rigid 4-4-2 on the right flank. It didn’t work and Cairney only appeared effective when cutting in from out wide, something a savvy full back could easily counter. It took Jokanovic’s arrival – and the Scot’s deployment in the hole – for his quality to shine through, firstly at Loftus Road as the playmaker inspired the Serbian’s first win in charge of the Whites.
It was when Cairney was elevated to the club captaincy following Scott Parker’s retirement that he grew to be the pivotal part of a team that played some of the most fluent football the second tier has ever seen. Jokanovic’s use of his skipper as a distributer and orchestrator of attacks as the most advanced of his three midfield musketeers proved a masterstroke that ensured domination of the ball and a succession of chances. He was the division’s most feared midfielder with six goals and five assists in 37 games: all the while battling a serious knee injury. His crowning glory was that finish at Wembley, but his emotional television interview after Villa had been vanquished sticks in the mind as he insisted that ‘football won’.
The Nottingham-born, Scottish international has always thrived on proving the doubters wrong. He was distraught to be let go by Leeds on account of being too small to make it as a midfielder, which might be why he saves some of his most spectacular strikes for the Elland Road outfit. Plenty questioned whether he’d come back from a horrible knee injury after breaking into the Hull City side, but he did and – even when fitness became an issue again – he still helped them return to the top flight. There was those who wondered just whether he’d be effective at Ewood Park and they too soon ate their words. The only remaining gripe about Fulham’s number ten was whether he could still do it at the highest level, but he changed the game against Brentford by merely stepping off the bench and – in appearance number 250 at the Emirates on Saturday – he helped the Whites keep hold of possession and twice produced superb sliding tackles.
Cairney has grown into a leader all of his own in front of our very eyes. He was a shy figure captivated by the capital’s bright lights when he arrived in 2016. He is now an inspiration to many: not just for his undeniable ball skills, but because of his unstinting commitment to his craft. Those who have been fortunate enough to know Tom eulogise about his support for the club’s brightest academy talent, his work with the other EFL and Premier League captains throughout the coronavirus pandemic and his quiet leadership at Motspur Park. He’s not been shy about leading important campaigns on mental health, removing the toxicity of social media or eradicating discrimination from football or society. For a man who usually lets his feet do the talking for understandable reasons, Cairney is engaging, funny and passionate.
In discussion with Henry Winter earlier this month, he eulogised about Craven Cottage, which can only have endured him further to the Fulham fanbase. It remains a mystery why a footballer of his quality has only been awarded a couple of senior Scottish caps. The saltire’s loss is our gain, because as any Fulham fan knows, there simply ain’t nobody, like Tom Cairney. We are exceptionally lucky to have his class and character in the black and white. Nobody had led Fulham to victory at Wembley before Cairney – and he’s now done it twice. His longevity might surprise some, but we know even after clocking up 250 matches for the Whites, there’s still plenty more to come.