It is fair to say that Stefan Johansen’s Fulham career didn’t get off to auspicious start. The Norwegian midfielder was hauled off just 32 minutes into a disastrous debut against Birmingham City, full of misplaced passes, nerves and mistimed tackles. He looked horribly out of place in the unforgiving heat of the Championship. It serves as a timely reminder about the perils of rushing to judgement. Johansen’s departure for Queens Park Rangers this weekend hits particularly hard for two reasons: first, the nagging sense that he was shabbily treated after his part in two Fulham promotions and, secondly, for his pivotal role at the heart of arguably the most stylish Fulham side in two decades.
Looking back at it now, snaring Johansen from Celtic for a smidgeon over £2m was the sort of steal master criminals would still be dining out on. It is impossible to understate his importance in the side that Slavisa Jokanovic built. He quickly shook off that shambolic debut to become an automatic selection in central midfield, dovetailing deliciously with the defensively-minded Kevin McDonald and Fulham’s creative hub Tom Cairney. Supporters may fondly recall that Johansen was more than happy to break up opposition attacks with scant regard for the rules, but he was a midfield craftsman in his own right too.
For every cynical challenge like that the one that floored Cameron Jerome in the play-off semi-final, there was a majestic strike like the one that settled the west London derby at Loftus Road. The Norwegian had the happy knack of delivering decisive goals to put Fulham’s promotion push back on track – opening the scoring with a beautiful volley at Burton, when the Brewers looked like nullifying our dominance on a bitterly cold night, and cracking open a similarly miserly Norwich rearguard in another crucial clash. He weighed in with eleven goals in his first season at Craven Cottage as the Whites felt the pain of the play-offs at Reading, but Jokanovic was putting together the building blocks of something even bigger.
A further eleven goals followed in the next campaign – impressive considering Ollie Norwood’s emergence as a credible understudy in the Fulham midfield – including several strikes that settled a stuttering start to the season, where Jokanovic’s side struggled to impose their will on emboldened opponents. There were more iconic moments, such as his gesticulating to James Maddison as the gifted midfielder became frustrated at being completely outplayed at Carrow Road, his winner against Nottingham Forest, a brilliant fourth goal on Boxing Day at Cardiff and, of course, the critical chest control that set up Ryan Sessegnon for that vital opener against Derby in the play-offs. Not to mention the way he found Sessegnon at Wembley in the build up to Cairney’s memorable finish.
Johansen’s influence wasn’t confined to cultured assists or massive goals, however. By far his biggest asset was his boundless energy. His ceaseless running was a key part of the way Fulham’s possession football matched up to the more agricultural methods of some Championship opposition and his willingness to mix it up in pursuit of victory made him a cult hero. Johansen’s footballing ability – he was never found lacking in the Champions’ League at Celtic – couldn’t legitimately be questioned and that midfield trio produced some of the most spellbinding football seen at Craven Cottage since Jean Tigana stalked the touchline. There’s no finer compliment than that.
There’s something else that stood out about Johansen. He was a model professional, whose pursuit of excellence was limitless. He once told the Norwegian press on international duty that he felt the only way he could belong in such exalted company at international level was to prove it in training every day. You could almost see him take that attitude onto the field as well.
He’s been considered a role model in his homeland for many years – as evidenced by his elevation to the national team captaincy – and struck a serious blow for social justice in signing up to an equal pay agreement with the Norwegian women’s skipper Maren Mjelde in Trafalgar Square in December 2017. I saw his considerate side in his dealings with a number of disabled supporters and had personal experience of it, when he walked over to engage in conversation when I was waiting for someone else at Motspur Park. When I asked why he’d approached me (he surely hadn’t committed my drunken acclaim at Preston train station to memory), he said he didn’t want me to feel left out. Such is the mark of man. He fully merits mention alongside his compatriots Brede Hangeland and Erik Nevland in Fulham folklore.
It was totally understandable that Johansen grew tired of being jettisoned after playing a pivotal role in lifting Fulham out of the Championship. He might not have been up to the mark required to pull Fulham away from the Premier League relegation zone – his fighting qualities wouldn’t harmed our position – but he deserved better than being discarded from Scott Parker’s squad without discussion. He’s demonstrated that he is still a force to be reckoned with at Championship level and he deserves the chance to continue QPR’s resurgence under Mark Warburton. We’ll never forget his contributions in the famous white shirt. Takk for alt, Stefan.