Creative Soccer Culture

In Conversation | Fulham Captain Tom Cairney on the 18/19 Premier League Season and His Journey Back to the Top Flight

Tom Cairney is a wise player who has returned to the Premier League with maturity. A leader who has the ability to spark change in the game, he's determined to inspire his squad. Discussing his formative years through to contemporary ambitions, he's ready to get stuck into the 18/19 season.

Tell us about those places you cut your teeth and learnt the way you play?

"I would say it’s just parks really. Where I grew up in Nottingham and Leeds we used to play cuppy singles or cuppy doubles and I think it was there where I learnt to play football really. Either that or just outside my house. My mum used to tell me off all the time for kicking the ball against the wall."

How competitive was it at that age, did you have to prove yourself?

"It was seriously competitive and everyone would join in. The age groups would be from nine years olds to 16 years olds playing and so everyone was battling it out. It was a special time. I loved playing with the older kids, that was my thing. When I was eight, nine or ten and get to a final of a kick about in the park against 15 year olds who would be trying to take you out - I loved it. I think those kind of things make you a better player as you grow up."

You probably didn’t think about it at the time but what parts of your game do you think you learnt about most from those kind of games?

"I think it’s protecting the ball. When I think back, I weighed less and was a lot smaller than the other players so you have to learn to keep hold of the ball and protect it and I think that is one of my core skills today so I’d probably say that."

Coming down to this tournament tonight, it’s all about that Phantom creative player, what would you say makes the best creative minded player?

"I’d say they have to be fearless. Those players who don’t always play by the book or exactly how their manager wants them to play. The creative players are always very off the cuff and I think their style of play is natural, it’s not necessarily coached. You can’t coach flair play and you can’t coach a player to see a perfect pass - I think it’s either god given or not."

Are we in danger in over coaching these flair players rather than letting them express themselves then?

"I think there’s an argument for that in academies perhaps, especially if we’re teaching everyone to play the same way. It’s not like we’re making robots but when you see throwbacks of people like Gazza back in the day doing something magical, players of that ilk are special."

Tom Cairney Interview portraits_0000_EH_SB Nike Phantom_Tom Cairney_056.jpg

Growing up, the sunday league game is a little different, you’ve just got to get stuck in...Do you think the game has changed a lot where the next generation are encouraged to be creative in how they play?

"It’s so hard to make it in today’s game. There’s thousands of people out there trying to make it as a football player and I’d say it takes a lot more than just ability to make it. The mentality, your discipline, especially in your teenage years, that’s when you really have to decide what you want to do and for me, if you make it at any level whether it’s League Two, the conference or the Premier League you deserve a lot of respect."

When did you know your position, have you always been looking to create opportunities for others?

"Always. I was always in the middle of the pitch really and I knew my style from when I was younger, I’ve always been a player looking to create in how I play. Whatever position I’ve been put in, my outlook has always been that way."

What players sparked something for you when you were growing up? What was it about them that stood out?

"The original Ronaldo. R9. I remember the ‘98 World Cup, I was seven years old and I had the Brazil kit. I remember when there were rumours of him being ill and potentially not playing in the final and crying because I wanted him to play. It was all about R9 for me. I think my cousin got me the whole kit and just waiting for him to play was something I remember really well. I cried when they lost in the final [laughs]."

It was your goal in the playoff final that put Fulham into the Premier League. Firstly, what the hell goes through your head when that hits the back of the net?

"I can remember just going numb. It was a surreal moment and all a blur. Honestly, I had no feeling and it was just like this wave of emotion and thinking “what the hell!?”. In seconds you’re mobbed by everyone and the celebrations kick in but it’s a moment of madness."

The party must have been wild after that… have you come down from there?

"It took a while and to be honest it’s only thanks to preseason again that you find that focus. It definitely took some time and it was one hell of a night after that. We all went back to the hotel and saw friends and family and then after that went to a club and the owner took care of us all night, he couldn’t have done more for us. It was the perfect way to celebrate. We partied to the early hours."

Tom Cairney Interview portraits_0007_EH_SB Nike Phantom_Tom Cairney_002.jpg
Tom Cairney Interview portraits_0003_EH_SB Nike Phantom_Tom Cairney_032.jpg

You’re looking at the start of a Premier League season, returning to the league… having had a taste for it before, how hungry have you been to get back to the top flight?

"I’ve wanted to be back here for years. As everyone knows, the Championship is such a hard league. It’s probably one of the hardest leagues in the world and I think with the team we had last season, we had to do it with them otherwise we would have lost a few players. I’m looking forward to it but at the same time I know how hard it’s going to be so we’ve really got to go for it and do ourselves justice."

Those margins get that much more demanding as you get higher up the leagues, what would you say the Phantom premier league player needs to possess that maybe players lower down the league's don’t?

"You’ve got to try and be the difference I think. The margins are fine and I don’t think through the leagues there’s all that much difference, it’s just about making sure you contribute in bringing ideas to the team. Those creative players have to do what they’re best at and create a bit of brilliance to win a game. That’s the difference. I think it’s those little things that people weren’t expecting that win matches. Whether that’s someone like Ryan Sessegnon doing something magic or Mitrovic pulling something out of the bag, it’s those moments that will win us games."

Who are the players you’re most looking forward to testing yourself against this season?

"Looking forward to slash not looking forward to, I guess, the likes of De Bruyne, Hazard and those type of players. I’ve obviously watched them both for years but to be on the same pitch and play against them and see how special they are up close and personal will be a great test for me and us as a team."

"I think you can’t be in awe of any opponent though. Obviously there’s a level of respect but as soon as you get out onto the pitch, you have to go and do your thing. That’s all up to you, not them."

You made the Championship Team of the Year two years on the trot, do you feel like you’re returning to the Premier League in your prime?

"Yeah I would say so. I’m at a good age and I think now is my time. I’ve done it for a few seasons in the Championship now and I think I’ve proved that I’m a good Championship player but it’s time for the step up for sure."

Tom Cairney Interview portraits_0004_EH_SB Nike Phantom_Tom Cairney_028.jpg

What’s changed for you since you last tasted the top flight, how have you developed as a player?

"Leaps and bounds. Unquestionably. When I look back now, I was just a puppy then and we were going through a hard time at Hull. The team changed and I think I did well but the player I am to who I was is light years apart now. I’m completely different now and a whole lot stronger."

What does it take to captain a team that is heading into the Premier League - what qualities do you need / have you gained - do you need to inspire people through your play?

"Being a captain of a Premier League team is a big role. It’s going to be a tough season with highs and lows and I think there will be times when I’ll need to try and galvanise the boys but if I just play the way I can and perform well then I can lead by example and the rest of the team can follow in my way. That’s the way I like to do things. I expect the same standards that I set."

"I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly vocal player but I try and get on the ball and take the game that way and make us play on the pitch. That’s the type of leader I’d say I am."

Tom Cairney Interview portraits_0001_EH_SB Nike Phantom_Tom Cairney_045.jpg

What players out there right now, with a professional opinion, do you think break the mould and create the play in a completely different way?

"I think Sessegnon. What he has done at his age and what he can do is frightening. He’s not really a vocal boy but his mentality is spot on. Whether he scores a hatrick or does something special, he’ll always be the same person the next day and I think that’s inspiring."

The Nike Phantom Tournaments recently have been about players who mix style and creativity into their game on and off the pitch - would you say that reflects you pretty well?

"Yeah I think so. I like fashion and I’ve always been a fan of Nike. They do a bit of everything these days and both on and off the pitch, I try and look good where I can. I think a lot of young players do the same, you’ve got to be confident in how you play and appear on and off the pitch. [laughs] I have a lot of clothes though - it’s another thing my mum will tell me off for."

If you were to give any advice to you of five years ago to ensure you get to where you have now, what would that be?

"I remember when Sessegnon made his debut, speaking to him before and saying “there’s a reason why you’re here, there’s a reason why you’re sat in this dressing room. Just because it’s the first team, it doesn’t change anything, just be you”. I remember just looking at Ryan as a 16 year old and he needed to know that we want him to go out there and play his game, do what he does. What’s got him there is just being him and playing how he does. I hope that helped him - that’s the type of thing I say to other people but most importantly I say it to myself and remind myself of that. You can’t shrink in the environment and we can’t in the Premier League."

Tom Cairney's Fulham take on Tottenham in the Premier League this weekend.

You can suit up in the Nike PhantomVSN here.

Photography by Edd Horder for SoccerBible.


The Creative Soccer Culture Brief

Sign up to our newsletter and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the world of Creative Soccer Culture.