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Tom Cairney and the captaincy question

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.

Millwall v Fulham: Memorable meetings

Ahead of our trip to south east London for a stern test of Fulham’s early season form, we’ve delved into archives to pick out three Fulham wins at the Den for your delectation. We start with a late show inspired by Kit Symons that helped the Whites record a vital early season success on the way to the Second Division title before recalling that brilliant Friday night when Slavisa Jokanovic’s side shrugged off a first half on the back foot to move into the automatic promotion places with some style. The following season’s League Cup success rounds off this feature – and we’d love to hear your memories in the comments.

Millwall 0-1 Fulham (17 October 1998)

Kit Symons ended Millwall’s four match unbeaten run with a last-gasp header that clinched Fulham’s first win at the Den for more than two decades. A fairly uneventful game was enlivened by some spicy challenges, including two from full back Jamie Stewart who was sent off by referee Eddie Wostenholme. Kevin Keegan’s side refused to settle for a point and Fulham sent bodies into the box for a last minute corner which was half cleared. Steve Hayward produced a peach of a cross from the left and Symons soared highest to direct a fine header past Tony Roberts in the Millwall goal. My own delirious celebrations were cut short when I realised I would have to make a lone walk to South Bermondsey station after Fulham’s late, late win.

Millwall 0-3 Fulham (20 April 2018)

This was one of the finest Fulham away displays of recent times. A trip to the New Den, with Millwall unbeaten in seventeen games and on the cusp of the play-off places, represented a serious test of Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion ambitions. The Whites had to weather a serious spell of early home pressure but turned in a sublime showing after half time. Ryan Sessegnon slotted home the opener just after the interval and Kevin McDonald’s screamer of a second will live long in the memory. Aleksandar Mitrovic sealed a superb victory in stoppage time after an outstanding forward run from Tomas Kalas – firing home his thirteenth goal in as many games. The sing song at London Bridge remains one of my favourite memories of that magnificent season.

Millwall 1-3 Fulham (25 September 2018)

A low-key League Cup tie might seem a strange inclusion for this list but there was plenty to like about the way Jokanovic’s second string dealt with a potential banana skin in south east London. Joe Bryan offered an early glimpse of his finishing ability by with a lovely low finish for the opener and Luca de la Torre capped an excellent display with the second. Cyrus Christie crashed home a sensational third (from thirty yards out with his wrong foot) to snuff out a Millwall fightback following Tom Elliott’s header – and there was a debut from the bench for 15 year-old Harvey Elliott.

Huddersfield Town v Fulham: Memorable meetings

There are some magnificent memories of Fulham triumphs at Huddersfield in recent years – it was tough to narrow our selection ahead of our first away game of the season down to just three. We have to start with one that Luis Boa Morte still remembers fondly, his late winner against the Terriers’ confirmed promotion in 2001 at the end of a magical season. The incredible backs-to-the-wall win under Kit Symons is certainly worth recalling – that game had absolutely everything – and the masterclass from Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in the 2016/2017 season was a simply sensational awayday. Feel free to add your own recollections in the comments.

Boa Morte clinches promotion

Huddersfield Town 1-2 Fulham (14 April 2001)

It took a late Luis Boa Morte winner, expertly squeezed into the bottom corner after he surged clear down the right flank, to formally confirm Fulham’s promotion to the Premier League after Jean Tigana’s side had put together probably the most magnificent season of football in the club’s storied history. The Portuguese forward poked a finish past Nico Vaesen after the goalkeeper had dashed off his line to try and avert the danger after Boa Morte had linked up impressively with Steve Finnan.

Louis Saha’s 28th goal of an incredible campaign came from the penalty spot after Boa Morte had been clumsily felled by Chris Lucketti, but the celebrations at the end of an incredible week that included Sean Davis’ dramatic winner at Blackburn looked like being deferred when Delroy Facey fired in an excellent equaliser after bursting away from Kit Symons. But that reckoned without Boa Morte’s brilliant finish, which ensured Fulham were not left ruing a succession of missed chances in the second half.

Tigana and his heroes were serenaded by the travelling fans in emotional scenes following the final whistle, which also included the players discreetly passing around the bottles of champagne provided by the sponsors as they briefly beat the French maestro’s ban on alcohol!

Fofana seals surreal win

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Fulham (21 March 2015)

This game quite literally had everything. Fulham scored direct from a corner, Huddersfield missed two penalties and there was a case of mistaken identity as the referee got Cauley Woodrow and Shaun Hutchinson mixed up. Right at the death, with Kit Symons’ side somehow surviving yet more home pressure, Seko Fofana sprinted half the length of the pitch to seal Fulham’s first away win in eight matches – tucking home at the second attempt after he had appeared to miss a much simpler opportunity. It was quite simply exhilirating.

Alex Kacaniklic got the crazy afternoon off to a surreal start when his right-wing corner went straight in, having somehow crept past both goalkeeper Alex Smithies and former Fulham defender Mark Hudson at the near post. Huddersfield laid siege to the Fulham goal but couldn’t score. As well as Nakhi Wells’ two failures from twelve yards, Ishmael Miller twice hit the post and Jack Butterfield rattled the bar from 20 yards. Fulham clung on with ten men and made sure of all three points in stoppage time when Fofana finished off a fine counter-attack and sprinted into the travelling support to lift the Whites further away from trouble.

Johansen double caps Fulham fightback

Huddersfield Town 1-4 Fulham (22 April 2017)

This was one of the classic away days under Slavisa Jokanovic as Fulham’s flowing football blew our promotion rivals away in the blink of an eye. The visitors weathered an early scare when Chris Lowe crashed home a fourth minute penalty after being brought down in the box by Floyd Ayite. That they fought back with such style was a credit to the confidence the Whites were playing with under Jokanovic, especially as the season was quickly approaching that make-or-break period.

Scott Malone equalised with his sixth goal of a productive campaign from left back, driving home with aplomb after offering an overlap for the adventurous Ayite, who was desperate to make amends for his earlier error. The Togolese winger was then felled in the area and Tom Cairney stepped up to score from twelve yards – a rarity in a season where the Whites missed thirteen spot-kicks. The peerless Stefan Johansen then added two more of his own in the space of nine minutes, firstly following up when Ryan Sessegnon saw a shot blocked and then robbing Jonathan Hogg to give Fulham further breathing space.

It was a commanding display that hinted at what was to come from Jokanovic’s side and stunned the home crowd into bemused silence. They did brilliantly join in with the away fans’ chant of ‘Leeds are falling apart again’ on a sunkissed afternoon that will live long in the memory.

Captain America: Tim Ream – Fulham’s Mr. Reliable

Tim Ream’s record at the heart of a Fulham Championship defence speaks volumes. The journey of self-discovery he took to force his way back into Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans, having been considered surplus to requirements ahead of the Serbian coach’s first full season in charge at Craven Cottage, speaks volumes for both his character and ability to hit high performance levels. His outstanding form at the end of that magnificent promotion-winning campaign vindicated Jokanovic’s volte-face and rightly places him alongside names like Schwarzer, Dempsey, McDonald and Mitrovic as modern greats in south west six.

Ream’s reliability in a back four wasn’t always a sure thing. He endured a rocky period after securing a move from Bolton, but in defence Fulham’s reshaped defence was a mess right up until Jokanovic was able to underpin the foundations in the summer of 2016. The American international worked his way back into the picture, despite the summer arrivals of Tomas Kalas, Denis Odoi and Ragnar Sigurdsson, through sheer hard work and a determination to ensure his own credentials fitted the head coach’s desire to play possession-based football from the back.

Ream’s distribution from centre half, his reading of the game and a reluctance to go to ground in the challenge were all characteristics that served Fulham well in a second half of the season where they roared up the table to almost pinch the second automatic promotion place from Cardiff. The fortitude the squad showed to swiftly bounce back from the disappointment of the final day at Birmingham and book a place in the Premier League via the play-offs was impressive and Ream’s quiet combination of relief and exuberance as he sat on the Wembley turf taking in the enormity of the achievement with the delirious Fulham fans will live with me for a long time.

Ream assumed the captain’s armband for Saturday’s friendly victory over Charlton in the absence of Tom Cairney was fitting recognition of his own quiet leadership qualities – respected around Motspur Park for many years. The experienced centre half has been someone who leads in actions both on and off the field, embarking on charity work both in his native home and his adopted one – his input to footballers4change and EduKitters, where he has been involved with a number of fellow Fulham team-mates this summer, speaking volumes about a strong commitment to social justice. He had to robustly defend himself against invented and spurious allegations from a Twitter troll last week, but defused the situation as adroitly as he has dispossessed many an attacker over the years.

Ream’s longevity – he has made 213 appearances across six seasons with the Whites – and experience in at this level will prove a priceless asset as Fulham prepare to enter a new era under Marco Silva. He may be getting on in age but was never blessed with outstanding pace to begin with and has always relied on his reading of the game to see problems emerging on the pitch. The 33 year-old has two promotions to his name from this division and spoke excitedly last month about the prospect of adding a third under Silva after adding the CONCACAF Nations League to an impressive honours haul earlier this summer.

His return to the side at the very end of last season could have been interpreted as a valedictory gesture for one of the club’s most committed servants, but both his performance at Old Trafford and the news that he had extended his contract earlier in the season suggests we’ll be seeing much more of the likeable centre half at Craven Cottage. The elongated cries of his surname when he’s on the ball will continue just like Ream’s steadying influence at the centre of the Fulham backline. One hopes he can flourish under the new regime because he’s a leader that all Fulham fans can be very proud of.

Jokanovic says Parker can see Fulham to safety

Slavisa Jokanovic says Scott Parker can guide Fulham to Premier League safety and will go on to have ‘a shiny future’ as one of England’s leading coaches.

The Serbian head coach, sacked by Fulham in 2018, has no hard feelings about his dismissal at Craven Cottage. Jokanovic, now in charge of Al Gharafa in Qatar, told the Daily Mail that he recognised the potential in Parker, having brought him back to Fulham as part of his backroom staff.

“I’m not crying or looking for some excuse. In modern football I have to respect the board for giving me an opportunity. Deep analysis is not necessary. I trust in myself. I trust in work not magic tricks. David Copperfield didn’t just appear in the club and perform magic. Fulham recognised that Scott was in some sort of trouble but they took a decision to trust in his good work. That work has put them in the position they are in now. I believe they can survive.”

“They are a team with great spirit. Scott has chosen the right way to play for survival and this year Fulham are a tough opponent for all clubs. On Saturday, Manchester City will have more quality than other teams but Fulham have enough games left to continue fighting.”

“When we played against City we lost 3-0. We didn’t challenge them enough, they won an easy game and I was really dissatisfied with how we lost to soft, naive goals. When we shook hands, Pep could see I wasn’t happy. He said “listen, where you are, at the Etihad and playing this way, you’re making the right choice.” He wanted to encourage me, to say I was playing the right way, and that I shouldn’t have a dilemma over it, that I just needed time to fix it.”

“When we put Scott on the staff he had not long finished his playing career and his professionalism was a great example to the players. He was always a great support. I’ve not kept in contact but followed him from a distance. I believe he has a shiny future in front of him, with or without Fulham.”