Rank: 2 | Age: 25 | Starts: 37 | Appearances: 39 | Minutes: 3,172 | Goals: 8 | Assists: 6
Born in Nottingham, England, Tom Cairney started his youth career with Leeds United before joining Hull City in 2007. He would go on to play his first game with the senior team on January 30th, 2010 in a Premier League game against Wolves. Since then, Cairney has been a regular contributor for every club he has played for. He did receive a nasty knee injury in the beginning of the 2012/13 season from a tackle by then-Doncaster Rover James Husband. A long layoff from that injury led Cairney to only playing ten league games that season.
After Hull City’s promotion back to the Premier League in 2013, Cairney was not seen as a player that would be in their future plans. As the saying goes, one person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. In this case, Cairney was sent on loan to Blackburn for the 2013/14 campaign. He would go on to agree on a permanent transfer in January of that season as Cairney not only became a fan favorite, but also one of the better players in the Championship during his time at Ewood Park.
Whether it was the allure of Shahid Khan’s millions or the at-the-time high prospects of playing for a club expecting to get promoted to the Premier League, Cairney would sign a four-year contract with Fulham last summer with a transfer fee of £4.2 million. Considering that is a massive amount of money for a Championship player, we had to wonder at the time if all that money was well worth it.
As it turned out, those fears have been more than alleviated after the season Cairney put up despite a tumultuous Fulham campaign. He set career highs in goals, assists and minute played while mostly playing central or right midfield. In fact, his 3,172 were almost 500 more minutes than any other Fulham player not named Ross McCormack or Moussa Dembele. When you consider the responsibilities required from him at his position, that is a massive achievement. His passing has always been elite and this season was no different. Only Bolton’s Mark Davies was able to better Cairney’s 87.5-percent completion percentage while playing over 3,000 minutes. In terms of his movement with the ball at his feet, only 21 other Championship players performed better than his 50 successful dribbles (resulting in a career high 1.42 per 90 minutes).
Of course, there are some things that Cairney can improve in his game. After all, it’s not like the 25-year old is demanding to guide England to their first World Cup in over 50 years. For starts, his passes are those of the short and safe variety rather than the long balls the likes of which Jamie O’Hara were using last season. Consider that Cairney’s long ball rate has plummeted from 2014 (4.32 per 90 minutes) to this season (2.50 per 60 minutes). That being said, do you chalk that up to the systems that Kyt Symons and Slavisa Jokanovic required of him?
Along with that, he can look clumsy when asked to go for the intercept or sliding challenge. There’s no better evidence of that than his red card in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Wolves on September 29th. As a result, Cairney might be one of the cleaner players on the team based on his lack of card accumulation (2 yellow cards and the one aforementioned red card), but he is also among the most reluctant to “get stuck in”, leading to possible odd man rushes going the other way.
But that shouldn’t be a knock on such a player that can be wonderful to watch when at his best. You know who else had these criticisms with the same positive qualities? Paul Scholes. Since he’s only played 10 Premier League games as a 19-year old at Hull, he certainly isn’t a carbon copy of the Manchester United legend. Still, with the ball at his feet, he can truly dictate the tempo of a football match. Along with that, Cairney tries unique stuff with the ball that only McCormack can rival on the team. The perfect evidence of that is his criminally underrated laser of a goal from outside the penalty area in Fulham’s home opener against Brighton & Hove Albion last August.
2016/17 Best Case
With the amount of playing time he received and the amount of production he put up last season, evidence has to be that Tom Cairney will end up becoming Fulham’s most important player as they strive to get back to the Premier League as soon as possible. Dembele has already left for Celtic and the rumors will not stop for McCormack. That leaves Cauley Woodrow and Matt Smith as the only central forwards with Championship experience that could play in front of Cairney if McCormack leaves at the right price. It will be critical for Cairney to continue his world class distribution and find ways to link up with newcomers like Floyd Ayite so that they blend well with Jokanovic’s tactics. Unless Fulham add more pieces to the senior squad, it will be another trying year for Fulham, but if their’s one player that is up for preventing a potential crisis on the pitch, Cairney is among the first you should name.