The last minute of normal time against Nottingham Forest on Saturday encapsulated what Stefan Johansen brings to the Fulham midfield. Joe Worrall, a defender so highly rated that Forest rejected bids well over £10m from Premier League suitors during the last knockings of the January transfer window, brought the ball down and considered how to serve up the visitors’ last chance at Craven Cottage. He reckoned without the Norwegian midfielder snapping at his heels, who pinched the ball away after a heavy first touch.
That was on the halfway line in front of the Riverside Stand dugouts. Johansen, a ceaseless runner since he joined Fulham from Celtic last August and become the final piece of one of the best midfield combinations in the Championship, looked absolutely shattered. But he summoned reserves of energy from somewhere and sprinted clear, bursting into the penalty area and – with the ground and perhaps Aleksandr Mitrovic himself expecting a square pass for the Newcastle loanee to mark his debut with a goal – kept his composure to slot past Costil Pantilmon.
The goal was similar both its manner and importance to another late strike of Johansen’s earlier this term – his superbly taken clincher at Cardiff City on Boxing Day. This one sealed a game that had been full of toil and frustration for Fulham – against a dogged Forest side who had threatened to take the lead on a number of ocassions before Pantilmon found Lucas Piazon’s rasping drive too hot too handle. It said everything about Johansen’s desire that, after another all-action performance in the engine room, he was the man who pinched possession on the halfway line and sprinted half the length of the pitch to finish things off in the blink of an eye.
There was some comment on social media about the Norwegian’s finger-to-the-lips gesture after scoring. Contrary to popular belief in the era when any online comment is defensible, footballers are fallible human beings and around read what fans’ think of them. I wouldn’t read too much into the way players celebrate – and if the little reminder to the Hammersmith End of his pivotal role in this side works as well for Johansen as it did for Bobby Zamora during his time at Fulham, then everyone will soon be laughing along with him.
Johansen has enjoyed peaks and troughs this term – not hitting the heights of his first season at Craven Cottage, when he was fantastic, but the main reason for his dip in form has nothing to do with his ability. The energetic midfielder was nursing a groin niggle earlier this season, which severely limited his mobility at times, but he was willing to play through the pain at a time that Fulham were without other key members of their midfield. Not only has Johansen battled on while less than fully fit, there was a period before Christmas where he lined up as a false nine without complaint with the Whites struggling for goals. That’s the mark of the man.
Even though he hasn’t been playing the sparkling football that accompanied his peerless performances during Fulham’s incredible end to the last campaign, Johansen has still made a considerable contribution to Fulham’s points haul. At one point during the Whites’ slow start to the season, it seemed like he was the only man able to find the net with any regularity. The Vardø native has six goals to his name this term, including vital winners against Hull City and QPR, and a beautiful free-kick against Aston Villa. Factor in a couple of assists – and it underlines his ongoing importance to Jokanovic.
It seemed astonishing to me that Celtic were willing to let a player who had proven so integral to their success in recent years leave for what seemed a relative patience. Johansen’s face might no longer had fitted in Glasgow, but with each passing day, the £2m Fulham paid for his services seems even more like a steal. Alongside Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney (with Ollie Norwood doing a creditable job since he has joined on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Johansen’s determination coupled with his considerable footballing ability makes Fulham’s midfield one of the most feared in the English second tier. It’s one of the reasons why the Craven Cottage faithful can still dream of returning to the top flight this year.