On May 26 2018, Tom Cairney scored the winner in the Sky Bet Championship play-off final to send Fulham back to the Premier League after a four-season absence.
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Less than two years down the line, he’s looking to lead the Cottagers back to the top flight once more. But this time he’s hoping to do it without the need for a make-or-break Wembley showpiece, in front of the eyes of the world.
“It’s strange, as weird as that sounds,” he told the Sky Sports EFL Podcast. “It was the best day of my career and I think the day will never be beaten, as a whole.
“But you’re trying your best to not get into that situation again. To be honest, I don’t want to go back there and have a chance of ruining the memories! Hopefully we can try and catch the top two.”
Fulham’s remaining fixtures against current top six
Ahead of Tuesday’s home clash with Swansea, which is live on Sky Sports Football Red Button, Scott Parker’s team sit fourth in the table, five points behind second placed Leeds and 12 behind leaders West Brom, with 12 games to play.
Every outcome remains feasible, particularly when you glance back at the club’s results in the second half of the aforementioned promotion campaign, when a 23-game unbeaten run helped them to a third-place finish.
There’s a sharp intake of breath from the Fulham captain as he attempts to assess the promotion race in its current state.
“I see a lot of teams thinking the same things and probably saying exactly the same things that I’m saying,” he said.
“You can say you’re chasing the two top, but at the same time I think seventh are a few points off us as well so two losses or two wins can shoot you up or shoot you down. I don’t think it’s ever been this tight at this stage in the season, but there was a weird Christmas period, we caught a bit of ground.
“West Brom and Leeds had a really big lead [earlier in the season]. I remember watching them and they were both playing really well, but then at the same time, with the experience I’ve had in this league, [I know] anything can happen.
“I remember a few years ago Leeds were 12 points ahead of us in February or March time and we ended up catching them and beating them to the play-offs. It would be nice if something like that could happen again.
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“You talk about it among your team-mates and how nice it would be to have the extra few weeks off! The play-offs are a great occasion to be involved in; the semi-finals were amazing. When you’re in it it’s special and you do enjoy it but if you are in it, you have to win it. It’s a lot of pressure.”
A shift in approach in recent weeks has seen Fulham firm up at the back, but also score a significantly lower number of goals than fans have grown accustomed to and Cairney believes it has put them in a better position to challenge at the top of the table.
He added: “I think we got quite a few clean sheets and that was quite rare compared to the start of the season where we’d concede goals but outscore teams. We won a few games 1-0 which is not very ‘Fulham-ish’.
“I remember Hull away we won 1-0, [1-0 at] Blackburn away and they hadn’t been beaten at home since September, I think it was. We put in a business-like performance and I think that was the key, really.
“I think we’ll always create and score goals, that’s what we say before games. We’ll always get a chance and with our striker [Aleksandar Mitrovic], you fancy us to score a couple. So if we have that solid foundation and keep a clean sheet, we always fancy ourselves to win games.
“I think the style of play is different [to that of the promotion side] but there are some similarities: we try to keep the ball, keep possession, dominate games. We went on that crazy run the season we got promoted – we went half a season unbeaten – but at this stage we are in a better position than we were before so there’s been a few more positives this year.”
In many ways, it’s been a season of transition. A transition back to the rigours of the second tier and, more prominently, a full transition into management for Parker, who took over from Claudio Ranieri a year ago this coming Friday. “The conversations have changed,” said Cairney with a chuckle.
“It is a little bit strange from when you share a dressing room with someone, you play with them and then all of a sudden they are your manager but you used to have conversations with them that stay in dressing rooms and now you can’t really have those conversations!
“It’s a bit strange in that sense, but the respect’s always there. The respect on my part as a player when he was playing was big; he’s got a good presence and he was one hell of a player. I played with him at the end of his career but he was a top, top player and to be fair, when he joins in training now he’s still the best player, which is a bit embarrassing.
“It’s tough. He’s got arguably one of the best squads in the Championship to manage in his first managerial job. It’s a good job but it’s also a tough job at the same time so to be in the position he’s at at the minute, I don’t think he gets enough credit he deserves.
“Teams don’t always bounce straight back [to the Premier League] so to be in the position we’re in is a credit to him and his staff really.”
With that in mind, does Cairney believe dreams of automatic promotion are feasible?
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