AT 6ft tall you would never have expected Tom Cairney to have been released for being too small.

But that is exactly what happened to Blackburn Rovers’ player of the year when he was 16.

Despite his obvious talent Leeds United took the decision to allow the gifted midfielder to leave after nine years at Elland Road due to his size.

It left the then 5ft 1in Cairney crushed.

But his devastation soon turned to determination to prove Leeds had got it wrong. Badly wrong.

It is safe to say that he has done that.

Within two years of being let go by Leeds Cairney was playing and scoring – against Everton at Goodison Park – for Hull City in the Premier League.

Injury ultimately halted his progress at the Tigers but his hugely promising career is back on an upward trajectory after an outstanding first season at Rovers.

It is now seven years since Cairney’s world was turned upside down.

But the memory of being told he was no longer wanted by the club he had spent more than half of his young life at still fires him.

“To be honest it crushed me, it crushed me a lot,” said Nottingham-born Cairney, now 23.

“I was with Leeds from I was seven to 16 so it was a big part of my life.

“I was going there three-four times a week, missing days of schools, and obviously my mum and dad had put a lot into it too.

“So getting released at 16, it just felt like, ‘oh no, after all that effort’.

“But I was determined I would not stop there.

“I went to Hull and they offered me a YTS as they obviously saw something.

“And from 16-18 I shot up in height and then it went back to my footballing ability.

“From getting released at 16 to making my Premier League debut – if you wrote it down you wouldn’t believe it. I owe a lot to (then Hull manager) Phil Brown as he believed in me.

“I think the academy staff at Leeds must have got a bit of a shock when they saw me playing in the Premier League! I don’t know what happened to them but I think they may have got a telling off!

“That’s why it was nice to go back to Leeds for the first time last season and the play the way I did and the way we did. It was a great feeling.”

Of the series of sparkling displays Cairney produced for Rovers in 2013-14, the one at his old stamping ground on New Year’s Day stands out as the highlight.

Clearly motivated to show his old employers what they were missing – ‘I went to bed early the night before!’ – Cairney showed off his full repertoire of skills as he completely bossed the midfield on his first return to Elland Road.

He set up Jordan Rhodes for the game’s opening goal with a brilliant threaded through pass and it was from his outswinging corner which Rudy Gestede emphatically headed home to settle it.


Cairney’s performance completely overshadowed that of Luke Murphy, the player who had turned down Rovers in favour of Leeds the previous summer.

And it led the home supporters to question had their club signed the wrong man – and, more pertinently, why they had ever discarded a player of Cairney’s ability in the first place.

It certainly was not because of his technique.


“People used to call me happy feet when I was growing up because the only time I was happy was when I had the ball at my feet,” said Cairney, who, following the completion of his initial six-month loan from Hall, made the permanent £600,000 move to Rovers 24 hours after his masterclass against Leeds.

“If I didn’t have the ball I was sulking! I’ve just always loved the ball and it never bothered me that I was small when I was younger.

“I always played with older players growing up, anyway, and being younger and smaller I had to protect the ball and move it quickly.

“It definitely helped with the technical side of my game – as well as making sure I didn’t getting smashed by the bigger, older lads!

“Eventually I did catch up with them, height wise, and my technique was already there.”

Cairney was speaking after giving a talk to the youngsters enrolled on the Football League Trust Education and Futsal programme run by the Blackburn Rovers Community Trust in the Indoor Centre at Ewood Park.

The two-year programme, which gives 16-18-year-olds, of mixed playing abilities, the chance to represent Rovers in futsal and study for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Sport, has already won the backing of Gary Bowyer.

And Cairney, like his manager, is throwing his weight behind it.

“I’ve never played futsal but after watching the lads have a go I’d definitely like to,” said the former Scotland U21s international, who cites brilliant Brazilian Ronaldo and Chelsea’s supremely talented young Belgian Eden Hazard as his past and present favourite players.

“It looks right up my street as the ball is played on the floor, it’s on a small pitch and it’s all about your passing and your touch.

“I played a lot of small-sided football growing up and it definitely helps with your technique.

“And people probably don’t realise how much work you do on small pitches in training at first-team level now.

“I love it and I really like the look of futsal too.”

For more information about the Football League Trust Education and Futsal programme run by the Blackburn Rovers Community Trust, call 01254 296256 or email