Stefan Johansen’s departure on loan for Queens Park Rangers wasn’t the most unexpected news of the January transfer window. The experienced Norwegian midfielder’s loan move to Shepherd’s Bush ends a frustrating few months for one of Fulham’s most likeable performers in recent years – after Johansen was omitted from the 25-man squad submitted to the Premier League at the start of the season and, having been only included in League Cup ties subsequently, it was telling that Scott Parker didn’t pick him for the FA Cup trip to W12 last month.
In truth, Johansen struggled to make an impact after Fulham’s last promotion ending that season on loan at West Brom once the Whites had brought in big money midfielders. But there can be no doubting the affection that he has held in at Craven Cottage. He made have endured a slow start to his Fulham career, taken off at half-time after an error-strewn debut against Blackburn, but his boundless energy, eye for a pass and hunger to win the ball back quickly established him as an indispensable part of Slavisa Jokanovic’s first-choice midfield.
The understanding Johansen quickly forged with Scottish duo Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney became integral to the way Jokanovic wanted to play football and the ‘three musketeers’ swiftly became one of the Championship’s most eye-catching midfields. Johansen, whose penchant for a professional foul was remarkably never punished with a red card, was a reliable source of goals in his early years with the Whites, including a famous winner at Loftus Road on a memorable night in September 2017.
There are countless more iconic Johansen moments. We can’t forget the brilliant finish at Burton that set Fulham on their way to a crucial midweek win when Jokanovic’s side were finding the Brewers tough to break down, his goading of James Maddison in front of the away fans having opened the scoring in a vital victory at Carrow Road, the industrious running that was a key part of Fulham’s fabulous victory at Huddersfield later that season and, of course, his contribution to the unforgettable play-off final win over Aston Villa – when those trademark lungbusting fans came in very handy after Denis Odoi’s sending off.
Johansen wasn’t quite as important during last year’s run to the play-off final, playing in a slightly deeper role under Scott Parker and gradually being eclipsed by the likes of Harrison Reed and Josh Onomah. He still racked up 35 appearances – and when sent on late in a game, you knew exactly what he would provide. Johansen was arguably one of the main reasons that Fulham’s record of never being beaten when taking the lead under Parker stood for so long.
It isn’t difficult to see his departure – even it is just a temporary one at this point – as a more broader changing one of the guard. The key fixtures of Slavisa’s side are gradually being ushered aside, if they haven’t already left SW6. McDonald, another vital cog in that all-conquering side that went 23 games undefeated in 2018, has made just 31 appearances since the 2018 play-off final as injuries and acquisitions have hampered his hopes of regularly football. The press reports suggest that the Scot is free to find a new home but he remains a popular figure around Motspur Park and is currently taking his coaching badges.
Odoi, who announced himself at Craven Cottage with that glorious control off his back against Newcastle, has also found first-team football fairly infrequent of late. The Belgian utility defender, who wrote his name into Fulham folklore with that majestic header against Derby in the 2018 play-off semi-final, has seen five of his eight appearances this term come in the domestic Cup competitions. His versatility across the back line got him a place in the 25-man squad but it is difficult to see him making much of an impression on the first team after the success of Parker’s back three, comprised entirely of summer arrivals.
Sunday showed that age might just be catching up with one of Fulham’s finest recent servants in the form of Tim Ream. The American international, who has come back from being written before, was an ever-present under Parker last season but has made just eight appearances this term, with the jittery display against Burnley being the last of them. That performance shouldn’t detract from Ream’s remarkable consistency over the past few seasons after proving to Jokanovic, who was prepared to release him back in 2016, that he could be the very ball-playing defender the Serbian was seeking. His 207 appearances are a testament to just how reliable Ream has been as the backbone of two promotion-winning sides.
Johansen, McDonald, Odoi and Ream all have contracts which expire either at the end of this season or the end of the next – even if the club have options to extend those deals. There’s not much for sentiment in modern football and it feels like a changing of the guard is imminent. Whilst the club must look to strengthen where it can to move forward, the affection held for these characters can’t be expressed in mere numbers or brief words. They were all part of one of the most exciting Fulham sides in the club’s history and, perhaps more impressively, dusted themselves down after being largely ignored during a season of dismal failure in the Premier League, and committed to returning the Whites to the top flight.
What are your fondest memories of these Fulham heroes?