When Fulham fans apportion credit for the club’s remarkable second half of the season surge, most of it will rightly go to Slavisa Jokanovic. The Serbian’s side came into the own at the crucial point of the season – just as Watford did two years ago under his leadership – and overturned an eleven-point deficit to Leeds United as well as closing right in on several other play-off contenders. But, when you consider the genesis of the run that sparked the belief in the dressing room, people shouldn’t forget the absolutely crucial contribution of one Neeskens Kebano.
For all the promise of Kebano’s debut at Blackburn, where he frightened the Rovers defenders with a combination of raw pace and the desire to take them on, it appeared for a while as though the Congolese winger’s debut season at Craven Cottage would be remembered for that dreadful headed miss against Queens Park Rangers. The forward certainly paid the penalty for that error that was almost as misguided as his shockingly dyed mohawk – having to make them with brief cameos as a substitute until the African Cup of Nations, where he starred for Congo, that acted as a catalyst for the take-off of his Fulham career.
Kebano’s renaissance on his return was immediate. Introduced as a late substitute in a topsy-turvy tussle with relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic, he kept his cool and clinically drove home the winner four minutes into stoppage time after being played through by Tom Cairney. Three days later and Kebano repeated the trick against Nottingham Forest. Brought on as Fulham were locked at 2-2 and Jokanovic sought further inspiration, Kebano bustled into the box and showed tremendous courage to robustly challenge Vladimir Stoijkovic and hook home a finish that entered the Hammersmith End net via the unfortunate Jack Hobbs.
People laughed when Tony Khan, who has recently taken over the director of football acquisitions domain that once belonged to Mike Rigg, suggested in all seriousness that the likes of Kebano and Floyd Ayite could be considered as genuine alternatives to Chris Martin up front after the club’s failure to recruit any strikers other than Cyriac in the January transfer window. Well, after Ayite and Kebano’s goal return in the run-in, who’s laughing now?
Kebano wasn’t done there, of course. He scored a crucial equaliser in Wales after Cardiff appeared ready to derail Fulham’s play-off push with a feisty performance in February and followed that up with a vital third goal just as Preston North End threatened a comeback from 2-0 down at Craven Cottage the following weekend. That finish showed one of the winger’s most appealing attributes – the priceless ability to retain calmness as he entered a one-on-one with the goalkeeper and his unerring finishing hasn’t half proved valuable. There was another one against Aston Villa on Easter Monday that carried Fulham to the brink of the top six – and then came his brace at Hillsborough that turned around a game that the Whites had been behind in.
With Martin now available again after serving his suspension for the dismissal at Carrow Road, Kebano offering goals and valuable assists from an advanced position and Floyd Ayite’s excellent return on the other flank to go alongside Sone Aluko’s seemingly unquenchable work ethic, Jokanovic has a serious selection dilemma ahead of Saturday’s play-off semi-final first leg against Reading with Lucas Piazon undoubtedly eager to feature against his old club as well. Now that Fulham fans can legitimately dream of a sensational end to the season, Kebano’s part in making it all possible shouldn’t be overlooked.