Hull City's Tom Cairney can have a big 2013 - but must bide time for now
JUST seven league starts have made 2012 a year to forget, but Tom Cairney has been assured he can again look forward to brighter times when Hull City bid for promotion in the New Year.
Although Cairney has been a welcome figure back in the Tigers' fold with substitute appearances against Huddersfield Town, Derby County and Leicester City in the last fortnight, the past 12 months have threatened to see the midfielder's fledgling career grind to a standstill.
After struggling to hold down a place in Nick Barmby's City side through the second half of last season, a serious knee injury sustained in August's League Cup exit at Doncaster has so far ruined plans of cementing a place in Steve Bruce's midfield this term.
Four months on the sidelines have at least allowed a slimmed-down Cairney to come back in the best shape of his career and he is now eagerly awaiting his first league start since April.
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Tomorrow's visit of Leeds United, the club that rejected Cairney as a 16-year-old, may again see the gifted midfielder forced to settle for a place on the bench, but Bruce is certain that City's one-time rising star can soon recapture his sparkle.
"We'd all heard about Tom as a kid, everyone was aware of him," Bruce told the Mail.
"I can remember coming down to Hull to watch him myself a few years ago when I was in charge of Sunderland.
"That talent was never in question but now I believe he's grasped the nettle to make himself physically better.
"The work that he's put in at the gym while he's been out is clear for everyone to see and he's seeing the benefits.
"I've been delighted with his application because he's an excellent footballer. He'll be a big player for us in the second half of the season I'm sure, especially with the way we play."
Along with Andy Dawson, Paul McShane, Seyi Olofinjana and Liam Cooper, Cairney is one of only five remaining survivors of City's Premier League adventure.
Almost four years in the Tigers' first-team squad have seen the 21-year-old rack up 72 appearances, but that figure promised to be far greater when crafting a glowing reputation in his teenage years.
Those great expectations have proved difficult to fulfil in the Championship and, for all Cairney's talents, both Nigel Pearson and Barmby were left unconvinced by his consistency and mobility.
It leaves the Scotland under-21s international returning with a point to prove in 2013.
After losing over a stone in weight during his rehabilitation in Autumn, Cairney is convincing Bruce he can now slot into an energetic midfield that is winning admirers across the Championship.
"He looks like an athlete now and that can only help him because he's technically very, very good," added Bruce.
"When we came to watch him in the past, the question was whether he had the ability to get up and down the pitch like a midfielder has to if they're going to play at the level he wants to get to.
"His style makes him a natural fit into our side. He might have to bide his time because the competition for places is very strong, but I've been impressed with what he's shown when he's come off the bench.
"He puts his foot on the ball and keeps possession well. Those are the qualities you're looking for in a midfielder and he'll have a big role to play."
Should City remain true to a 3-5-2 shape going forward, Cairney appears to be in direct competition with Stephen Quinn, an early contender for Player of the Season, on the left of a fluid three-man midfield.
Substitute appearances against Huddersfield and Leicester have seen him replace Corry Evans in a central role, though, and Bruce may consider that change again for the final fixture of 2012 against Leeds.
While Evans has been enjoying the best form of his City career this month, he is just one more booking away from a one-game suspension ahead of January 1, when the number of yellow cards required for a ban moves from five to 10. Evans is currently the only City player walking that tightrope going into tomorrow's game.