Stefan Johansen’s celebration after clinching Fulham’s win over Nottingham Forest last month set a few tongues wagging. The Norwegian midfielder wheeled away to the Hammersmith End with his finger to his mouth, which reminded some Craven Cottage regulars of how Bobby Zamora reacted to scoring for the Whites – and might have been a retort to some criticism of his displays earlier in the season. Given the all-action midfielder’s energy was pivotal in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side reaching the Championship play-offs last year and he played through the pain of a groin injury for much of this campaign, I believe Johansen’s industry as the beating heart of Fulham’s midfield trinity isn’t lauded loudly enough.
The Norwegian captain would freely admit that he’s struggled to hit the heights that he reached at the end of last season. Even whilst he was considering to be underperforming last year, Johansen’s quality and drive still saw him a regular on the scoresheet. For a while – with those superb free-kicks at Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest – he might have usurped the likes of Tom Cairney and Ollie Norwood as the first team’s dead ball specialist. His ability with the ball at his feet is not in doubt, but some of his work out of possession doesn’t get the same recognition. In recent weeks, his hassling and harrying of opponents has unsettled Aston Villa and Wolves, who both arrived in the capital full of confidence.
As Jokanovic’s designated box-to-box midfielder, Johansen has consistently covered every blade of grass almost effortlessly. That coolly taken clincher against Forest encapsulates his tireless running as pinched the ball from Joe Worrall on the halfway and raced in on goal having looked out on his feet only seconds earlier. Johansen’s energy enlivened a midfield that looked a little one-paced prior to his arrival and the man himself has come a long way since his debut, when he was hauled off after just 32 minutes after a home defeat by Birmingham City.
Beloved for his brilliance at Celtic, Fulham moved quickly when it became clear that Johansen had fallen out of favour in Glasgow. Whilst Cairney – and more recently Ryan Sessegnon – have hogged the headlines for their goalscoring contributions from midfield, Johansen’s sixteen goals in 64 appearances – a return of one in every four appearances – is remarkable. Even when he isn’t popping up with a winner – and his precise finish to beat QPR at Loftus Road still sticks in my own memory – Johansen often pops up with a match-winning moment. Two of those came last weekend against the league leaders when he twice found Aleksandr Mitrovic in shooting positions and tilted the contest away from Wolves.
Johansen wasn’t the only Fulham player to start this season slowly. Indeed, many of the first-team squad might be wondering whether the Whites could have been closer to second-placed Cardiff City, if they could have found greater consistency in August and September. But, as the old adage reminds us, form is temporary and class is permanent. Watching Johansen’s insane intensity, commitment to the high press that would border on the suicidal if lesser mortals tried it and will to win, it isn’t difficult to see why Jokanovic rates his Norwegian tyro so highly.
Captaining his country, it is clear that Johansen is highly thought of in his homeland. He’s a role model off the pitch, as demonstrated by his commitment to equal pay when he signed a historic agreement with the Norwegian women’s captain Maren Mjelde in Trafalgar Square in December. Fulham fans will hope he will be as fondly remembered as his compatriots Brede Hangeland and Erik Nevland. If he can can continue to have a major say in the Championship promotion race over the remainder of the season, then Johansen will be able to write his own chapter in Fulham folklore.