Stefan Johansen’s departure this afternoon made it official. We’ll never see the three midfield musketeers who transformed our fortunes under Slavisa Jokanovic – the Norwegian, Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney – together in a Fulham shirt again. The word legend gets thrown around too easily by modern football followers, but it is impossible to understate the significance of Johansen’s contribution at Craven Cottage over the past five years. He played every game in that magnificent 23 match unbeaten run under Jokanovic that nearly delivered automatic promotion and the telepathic understanding between that triumvirate in the engine room was a key reason why the Championship couldn’t cope with Fulham’s dynamic football.
It might be stretching it to describe Slavisa’s stylish bunch as the Barcelona of the Championship but the way the Whites held onto the ball was mesmerising at times. With Johansen completing a permanent switch to Shepherd’s Bush and the wonderful news that McDonald is recovering nicely following his kidney transplant, today seems an appropriate moment at which to reflect on their immense impact down by the banks of the Thames. McDonald made a massive difference at the base of the midfield, whilst Johansen shrugged off a disastrous debut to quickly become undroppable alongside Cairney.
You might be feeling emotional this afternoon but, in the words of that old phrase, it isn’t time to be upset but to be grateful that we were all able to enjoy this special time in Fulham’s history. Jokanovic, himself a pretty hard-nosed midfielder, must have seen much to marvel at in the play of both Johansen and McDonald. The Scot himself has admitted that his time at Craven Cottage coincided with the best football of his career, even if he was deployed in a much deeper role than he had ever played before. He played that deep-lying number six role to perfect, reading the game expertly, whilst Johansen married his eager eye for a pass with an embrace of the sort of cynical tackles that Fulham players of old just wouldn’t make.
The way in which those two dovetailed so effectively allowed Cairney the freedom to roam into forward positions in a manner that stuck fear into the Championship. But it is easy to forget that Johansen came up with crucial as well. The former Celtic man scored in four successive games as Fulham were going through a sticky patch in the winter of 2016, grabbed a vital opener at Burton to breath new life into the Whites’ promotion push and played a starring role in the defeats of Ipswich and Norwich City. His brace in the devastating dismantling of promotion rivals Huddersfield in one of Fulham’s most complete away displays will live long in the memory.
That season ended in bitter disappointment at Reading, but Johansen played a pivotal part as the Whites bounced back from that setback to go one better the following year. The energetic midfielder again scored massive goals, grabbing winners against Hull City and Queens Park Rangers as well as curling home a brilliant free-kick at Nottingham Forest. He came into a great run of form towards the end of the season, breaking the deadlock at Carrow Road and memorably winding up James Maddison in the dying embers of a crucial contest. His role in the famous win over Aston Villa at Wembley shouldn’t be discounted, even if some of his team-mates have cruelly described his searching ball that fell at the feet of Ryan Sessegnon in the build up to the goal as a mishit.
The togetherness that these characters fostered clearly played a huge part in Fulham’s success. You only have to glimpse at the famous photo of McDonald addressing the victorious troops in the Wembley dressing room after the play-off final to get a sense of the unity within that squad. Those wonderful scenes will live long in the memory – and Johansen, who seems to have been treated rather shabbily by the club’s hierarchy in recent years, probably deserved better than being excluded entirely from Scott Parker’s Premier League plans after his unstinting service to the cause.
It will be very difficult to recreate the understanding that midfield trio shared – as McDonald touched upon in his recent interview with the club’s official website. Fulham have some serious talent in their academy, but the brutal nature of the English game (especially in the Championship) reminds us regularly of the fact that there’s simply no substitute for hard work. One of Johansen’s most endearing qualities was that he always appeared full of running and never shirked a challenge – even if there appeared little chance of him getting the ball.
It might be time for a new era under Marco Silva, but we should as Fulham fans pay tribute to the talisman who shaped our past. Tom Cairney’s curler against Leeds that sparked the Yorkshire side’s collapse and our own rise to the top six will be a moment stored in Fulham folklore for years to come. McDonald’s magical strike at Millwall was just as astonishing – if only for the identity of the scorer. Johansen has produced many moments of magic I’ve already detailed, but perhaps his most telling contribution might have been crudely bringing down Cameron Jerome as the Derby striker seemed set to burst over the halfway through with that play-off semi-final locked at 1-1 on aggregate.
All three men have given us such magnificent memories and they deserve to be hailed as the Fulham heroes that they are.