Friday’s announcement that Kevin McDonald would be leaving Fulham at the end of the month felt inevitable but it still tugged at the heart strings a little bit. McDonald, the heartbeat of this side for so long, has far bigger things to worry about than his contractual situation at present as he recovers from his kidney transplant – but the outpouring of emotion as Fulham fans reacted to the news showed just how important he has been in SW6 over recent years. The word legend is horribly overused in sports punditry these days, but McDonald is a bona fide Fulham one as much for his contributions in and around the dressing room as on the field.
The Scottish midfielder became a cult hero during his time at Craven Cottage, slotting in successfully to a problem position at the base of Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield after Fulham finally concluded their lengthy pursuit of his signature with Wolves in the summer of 2016. McDonald has spoken about how the Serbian head coach changed his game by playing him in a deeper role than he had ever played before and it worked to perfection. The triumvirate of McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney were in many ways the critical part of Jokanovic’s success – becoming a delight to watch as their pretty passing ripped through Championship opposition, especially when the Whites went half a season undefeated.
McDonald often controlled games, even when not on the ball, a metronome who sat just ahead of the centre backs and ensured that the Whites were ticking over correctly. He was always one to be trusted, providing a sense of solidity when Fulham’s defence was notoriously leaky. However, the 6’4″ Scottish international also proved to be more than capable with the ball at his feet, with his elegant passing providing the foundations for more conventional flair players, like Cairney, to influence proceedings higher up the pitch.
McDonald, of course, was not short of his own moments of magic. In different ways, his goals against Barnsley, Leeds and Millwall will live long in the memory. His magnificent strike at the Den will be etched in Fulham fans’ minds for ever – topping off a brilliant awayday with some raucous celebrations. It finished off a superb team display on a high-pressure occasion for the Whites and the technical excellence of his astonishing 25-yard screamer should never be discounted either. .
But perhaps McDonald’s most important influence was one which the fans never truly saw. He was clearly a leader on the field, but his ferocious will-to-win and reassuring words around the dressing room, which we glimpsed with the snippets of footage and photographs of the celebrations following the Wembley victory over Aston Villa, definitely resonated with his team-mates. You can be certain McDonald was critical to the camaraderie that carried Jokanovic’s side through the magnificent run in the second half of the 2017/2018 season.
We have seen tantalising glimpses of his character. He’s been engaging with the fans, but never sought the limelight. Many of his acts of kindness – sending messages to supporters who have been seriously ill or videos of support to those struggling with coronavirus – arrived privately, a mark of the man. There have been hilarious interludes in public, such as attesting to the accuracy of the Fulham fans cheeky ditty in his honour to Ivan Berry, or the revealing stories that featured in his engaging chat with former team-mate Si Ferry.
If we didn’t already know about McDonald’s bravery, we were convinced of it by the way he faced up to his kidney surgery – going public in order to educate others about the disease and what help was available. It may have brought his playing career to a premature end, but frankly it is remarkable that he scaled such heights whilst battling his body for fourteen years in professional football. His two promotions with Fulham are made all the more remarkable. We wish both Kevin and his brother, who donated his own kidney, well in their ongoing recovery.
There are still questions marks about where McDonald’s career goes from here. He has already passed on some of his insights to Fulham’s academy stars as he studies for his coaching badges. A move into coaching would allow McDonald to continue to influence the game that he loves and there’s no doubt that he would carry the respects of his peers into a new role. That, of course, is for the future. I’m certain we haven’t heard the last of Kevin McDonald. Alongside all Fulham fans, we wish him all the best for his recovery – and it isn’t just sentiment that has me hoping that we’ll see him in the dugout at Craven Cottage at some point in the future.