With our Norwegian King and Sweet Scottish Prince now departed from Craven Cottage. Jack J Collins pens an epithet to two men who changed everything.
Let’s begin with a brief recap of Johansen and McDonald’s first few months with Fulham. McDonald signed from Wolves on 22th July 2015, whilst Johansen joined from Celtic on 26th August, with the Championship season already underway.
5th August 2016
Having survived relegation by the skin of our teeth the previous campaign, Fulham open their league season against recently relegated Newcastle United. The midfield trio are newly-signed Kevin McDonald alongside Ryan Tunnicliffe at the base, with Tom Cairney, wearing the captain’s armband, in front of them. Fulham, showing a newly-found steel in the centre, grind out an impressive 1-0 win over the title favourites.Embed from Getty Images
10th September 2016
Fulham play Birmingham City at Craven Cottage, where Slavisa Jokanovic opts for a midfield three of McDonald, Johansen and Cairney for the first time. Johansen is substituted after just 32 minutes of his full debut, replaced by Jozabed.
24th September 2016
The next we see of Johansen is when he comes on against Bristol City at half time, with Fulham trailing 1-0 to a Tammy Abraham strike. Fulham lose the game 4-0, with Kevin McDonald being sent off in the second half.
29th October 2016
It takes almost a month before we see Johansen, McDonald and Cairney together in the middle again, as Fulham take Huddersfield Town to the cleaners, battering the Terriers 5-0 at the Cottage. Finally, 15 games into the Championship season, Fulham’s midfield trio click, and the magic flows – KMac even gets himself on the scoresheet.
What happened next is part of recent Fulham folklore. The Three Musketeers in the middle go from strength to strength as Fulham make a late dash for the Playoffs which ends in tears at the Madjeski, but it’s followed by a year which gives us 23 undefeated and culminates in that magic day at Wembley. 6. 8. 10. McDonald. Johansen. Cairney.Embed from Getty Images
But much as they come as a unit, I think it would be only right to give them their due individually as well, as we come to the end of the reign.
Kevin McDonaldEmbed from Getty Images
I can’t remember a period where KMac hasn’t been beloved of Fulham fans, which is as much a testament to just how brilliant he has been on the pitch almost every time he has set foot on it, as it is to his brilliant character.
When KMac joined Fulham, we were coming off the back of a season in which we had been saved from dropping to League One by Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele. Our midfield included a passionate but ageing Scott Parker, Rohan Ince on loan and Sakkari Mattila; and we had conceded 79 goals in 46 Championship games.
In his first season we would concede 22 less and score 19 more than the previous season as we marched to the Playoffs, and although this was not all the work of Kevin McDonald by any stretch of the imagination, he became the rock on which Slavisa Jokanovic would build his church.Embed from Getty Images
Tactically, McDonald provided something that we’ve not seen since at Fulham. He’d drop between the centre-halves to receive the ball, creating a system which mirrored three at the back to allow Fredericks and Malone/Sessegnon/Targett to drive up the pitch and join the attack.
There is a reason that our fullbacks were fundamentally involved in so many goals for Fulham over these seasons – they were given the freedom to get forward by the tactical astuteness of the man in the middle.
Over the years, there have been so many things that we could write about – that goal at Barnsley, the arse goal against Leeds, that song, the trip to Vegas, the promotion party that never finished, the list goes on.
But it’s his contributions on the pitch that I think I will look back most fondly on. It’s a general absolutely barking out orders to his troops from the centre circle; it’s his vocalisation of things that allowed TC’s quiet leadership to flourish in the early days of his captaincy; it’s those tackles that were made to look effortless by exquisite reading of the game; it’s the crunching ones that we needed late on.
When Kevin McDonald joined this club, we were somewhat listless, lacking real nous and any defensive spine whatsoever. In him we found a leader, a general and a clubman. I say with some certainty that this ship would not have been turned around without a rudder so true.
Stefan JohansenEmbed from Getty Images
Truth be told, there hasn’t been a Fulham player that I have loved the way I love Stef since perhaps Zoltan Gera. In all the ‘Captain Shithousery’ chat that has permeated his game in the last couple of seasons, it’s forgotten a little bit just how cultured and brilliant a player Stef was in his prime.
That first season, his 13 goals and 8 assists in all competitions led Fulham’s output; and he followed it up in our promotion campaign with 8 goals and 9 assists, of which perhaps best was the winner at QPR that send the Fulham fans into raptures just minutes after we’d missed a penalty.
38 goal contributions across two seasons for a player in the No. 8 role is absolutely nothing to be sniffed at, but is even more impressive when you look past that and into his overall game, where every blade of grass was covered on a regular basis.
If KMac was the rock on which the foundations were built, StefJo was the heartbeat, pumping blood around the arteries of this Fulham side with his incessant running and ability to pick the right pass time and time again.
I could write reams (no pun intended) on Stefan Johansen, that cultured left foot and what he brought to the team that nobody else could. Indeed, we haven’t had a true No. 8 in the club since – someone equally adept at making up ground, stopping counters, creating chances and scoring goals.
I spoke of leadership above, but having Norway’s captain in the ranks, a man who had comfortably played Champions League football with Celtic, solidified the core and provided the platform for Tom Cairney, probably Fulham’s most gifted footballer since Mousa Dembele and Dimitar Berbatov, to flourish.Embed from Getty Images
There was that moment at QPR, kneesliding in front of the School End; the whipping the crowd up against Norwich after Stef had put James Maddison in his pocket. That’s passion with end product. There was the assist for Sess in the Playoff semi-final, the double at Huddersfield, the two assists against Reading last season as we laid the Playoff ghosts to rest. The list goes on.
Whilst his role changed in later years, I’m not going to go into the whole ‘King of Shithousery’ thing. Yes, there were vital interceptions to stop counter-attacks – Leeds at home comes to mind, but framing Johansen in that light does him an immense disservice. He was so much more than a destroyer – a creative, dynamic force that brought the level up of every player around him. A pure eight.
Over and Out
Johan Cruyff once said that “playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” At Fulham’s finest, in the throngs of singing how many games we’d gone undefeated at Norwich and Wednesday and Millwall and the rest, Fulham played the most beautiful, simple football. Take the ball, pass the ball; as Pep would perhaps say.
Nobody symbolised that more than our very own engine room, the Scottish Prince and the Norwegian King.Embed from Getty Images
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and perhaps this one above hits hardest. The skipper, the goalscorer, the talisman; flanked by his two most trusted lieutenants, lifting the prize highest. The trio front and centre on one of our greatest ever days in the sun.
Kevin, Stefan, we salute you, and we are forever in your debt. You will always, always, always be welcome at the Cottage.