Tom Cairney openly admitted he felt as though he had “no purpose” when the Championship season was temporarily halted in March.
Then, football does provide a welcome and all-consuming routine, for players and fans alike. It’s a release, an obsession, something to work towards every week for 10 months of the year, every year.
Now though, that purpose couldn’t be clearer.
“A local derby, a Play-Off Final… you don’t need much more motivation than that,” the Fulham captain says confidently, speaking to us via a video link from the club’s Motspur Park training ground.
Tuesday evening will see the 29-year-old lead the Whites out at Wembley, where only 90 minutes against West London neighbours Brentford stand in the way of a return to the Premier League.
It’s the culmination of what has been a unique and challenging campaign, the most recent part of which seeing Fulham quickly recapture the easy-on-the-eye style of football implemented by current manager and former player Scott Parker.
“Lockdown has been weird,” Cairney adds. “Training on your own, trying to motivate yourself, it was hard.
“As soon as we got back to the training ground, that competitive edge came back and we’ve managed to go on a decent run.”
Indeed, following defeat to Brentford and eventual champions Leeds United, a seven-game unbeaten run saw Parker’s men deservedly claim their Play-Off place before seeing off Cardiff City over two legs in the Semi-Finals. They were even in with a shout of automatic promotion on the final day.
“I think everyone needs to take massive credit for that. It was a long time to be off, so to come back as we did, it’s a credit to the team. It’s been a massive effort by everyone and we’re so close now.”
While so much about this particular Final will appear unfamiliar, Cairney has been there, done it, and worn the ‘we’re going up’ t-shirt. Not only that, he’s done it as skipper, scoring the only goal of the game as Fulham beat Aston Villa in the 2018 edition of what is always one of the biggest matches on the footballing calendar.
“I think I remember quite a lot of that day, to be honest,” he adds with a smile. “Walking out of the tunnel, we were greeted by the loudest sound I’ve ever heard inside a football stadium. It was crazy.
Some 85,000 fans packed the National Stadium that day, as the midfielder found the net on 23 minutes with a fine finish.
“It would be right up there, if we can do it again. It was so special two years ago, a bit surreal to score the winning goal and get Man of the Match. To lift the trophy, it was the perfect day. Anyone can score the goal this time, anyone can lift the trophy – I don’t mind, as long as we win.
“I’m buzzing; it’s really sunk in now. The celebrations after the second leg against Cardiff were a bit different to when we got to the Final two years ago but, nevertheless, it’s a massive achievement to be back there. We’re potentially just 90 minutes away from the Premier League.”
As on-off relationships go, Cairney’s connection with top-flight football has been right up there.
Released by Leeds at 16 - a “crushing” experience by his own admission – he would have to wait just two years for a shot at the big time, as a series of standout performances for Hull City eventually earned him a Premier League debut in 2010.
It was a brief stay for the club’s Young Player of the Season, though, as the Tigers suffered relegation to the Championship later in the same campaign. This time, a three-year wait would follow, as Hull bounced back with promotion in 2012/13, but Cairney would instead be loaned back to the Championship, joining Blackburn Rovers.
A journey that has since taken him to Craven Cottage also took him back to the top flight with the Whites for a single season in 2018/19 and, this time, he’s hoping to get there and stay there.
“I really badly want to get there again. I want to get back there and play. I want us to prove that’s where we belong.” There’s a determination about Cairney when asked about his personal ambitions.
“We have a hurdle to get over first but, if we can, hopefully we’ll be a Premier League club for a long time to come. It has to be a team effort, and you saw that two years ago.
“There will be hard moments in the game when you have to dig in; there are so many things to overcome in order to win a final. It’s about everyone getting on the ball and helping their mate out; then, when it’s our turn to play, we’ll try to hurt them. We’ll leave everything on the pitch to lift that trophy.
“To my generation, when we were growing up, Fulham were always a Premier League team. Everything here is geared towards being a Premier League club, and it’s on our backs to try to get the club back there. That’s where Fulham deserve to be.”
If Fulham are to return to the Premier League on Tuesday evening, they’ll have to do it without fans inside the stadium, without that deafening wall of noise Cairney described as the players walk out under the famous Wembley arch.
But one thing that won’t be lacking in the eyes of their captain, is purpose. Not any more.
“It would mean everything to get promotion,” Cairney says, as he readies himself to finish his preparations for the Final.
“The fans are definitely desperate for it too and I know they’ll be glued to their TVs. When I go out onto that pitch this time, it will be in the back of my mind – I know who we’re doing it for. It’s a massive motivation.
“To the fans, I’d say ‘keep believing and keep the faith. Stay with us, and know that we’ll give everything.’
“Hopefully we can all celebrate together when all of this is over.”