Fulham are Premier League. Now that we have all (hopefully) recovered from our historic day out at Wembley, a fresh opportunity to pay homage to one of our unsung heroes has arisen, an intermediary in the centre of the park, a secondary commander that keeps all the troops in check on the turf, and the individual that has been selected for a healthy dose of glowing praise and plaudits is none other than the sturdy, assertive, demanding Kevin McDonald.
‘KMac’ featured 43 times for Slavisa Jokanovic’s triumphant squad last term in all competitions, a record which highlights just how integral he was to the Whites’ push for Play-Off supremacy, and though he was indeed absent from his side’s opening fixture of the 2017-18 Championship campaign, a 1-1 draw against Norwich City at Craven Cottage which saw the Canaries equalise at the death through Nelson Oliveira, the strapping Scotsman soon made his presence and clout in the dressing room as well as on the pitch known.
The start to Tom Cairney’s season was marred by injury woes, meaning that the midfield sculptor was absent from the match-day fold for 8 out of 15 weeks. McDonald’s influence, even with Cairney involved, is always felt and apparent, and it seemed appropriate with that in mind that the 29-year-old temporarily took the armband from his crocked countryman for 8 straight domestic fixtures, which harboured 3 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses.
A stalwart of his profession, ‘SuperMac’s’ exuberance and commitment often saw him penalised by the official, but being a defensive midfielder by trade, it’s simply all part of the service that the odd blemish scuffs his disciplinary record. In 42 league meetings, McDonald picked up 10 yellow cards as punishment to his somewhat hardy approach to stunt the opposition’s advancements, timing is crucial in tactical fouls, and 3 of his first 5 cautions surfaced in the final 20 minutes of play when the game was likely to have been stretched and lacklustre.
But, as he incurred 5 yellows within 15 Championship outings, McDonald was suspended for the 1-1 draw against Derby County at the Cottage on November 18th, a harsh reminder and indicator that his efforts on the pitch, which often got him pencilled into the referee’s bad books, would have to be curbed in the coming weeks if he was to continue to hold down an undisputed starting spot in ‘Slav’s’ stuttering contingent, as continuity is pivotal to progression.
McDonald, when he isn’t patrolling his segment of the park, is a consummate distributor of the ball, whether it be offensively or conservatively to ensure that Fulham retained possession in a typically domineering fashion, and his awareness and intelligence to find the easy option rather than a killer pass eases the mounting pressure when he and his teammates are being squeezed or hounded.
Every single point matters, and in October against Bolton Wanderers down by the river, Fulham were on the brink of a deflating 1-0 loss at the hands of the Championship strugglers, who would have claimed their first away success of the campaign. However, McDonald, true to his tireless exploits, wasn’t about to taste the sourness of defeat on this particular occasion. McDonald found the ball at his feet, opened his stride and arced his way around the Trotters’ scrambling rearguard before crafting a delicate dink into the danger area, where ‘Top Cat’ mercifully diverted home with an intricate glancing header to share the spoils.
McDonald’s natural ability to safeguard and shepherd across the back four often drifts under the radar as it’s demonstrated in such a composed, systematic manner, but when he has to exhibit guile, trickery and agility, the robust midfield anchor has an extra gear his in steadfast engine which allows him to effortlessly evade his markers, a deceptive adeptness which undoubtedly credits him as one of the game’s most adaptable and effective protagonists, even if it’s rarely advertised.
Goals were few and far between for McDonald throughout the previous term and all 3 of his registered strikes came in the second half of the season, contributing towards the ground-breaking unbeaten streak which spanned 23 competitive, hard-fought encounters. His first emerged in a 3-1 win at Oakwell against Barnsley, his second materialised at CC in a 2-0 victory against Leeds United, although it’s his third tally mark which raised eyebrows in the terraces against Millwall at The Den, a thunderbolt which is an undisputed Goal of the Season contender.
Following Ryan Sessegnon’s instinctive slotted effort which gave Fulham the lead just after the break, the Cottagers needed a second to widen the gap between them and their driven, tenacious opponents, and whilst The Lions endeavoured to frustrate and suppress, there’s no force on the planet which could have halted McDonald’s rapturous right-footed pile-driver. On the parameter of the 18-yard box, the Scot slalomed past a hapless, floored George Saville, weaved his way into a prime vantage point, calibrated his posture and rifled a net-busting meteor into the roof of the target, a ferocious hammer blow which even he, as well as the travelling faithful, was awestruck and astonished to have witnessed.
Nobody knew that McDonald had that kind of technique and bravery within his studied locker, a beguiling connection between boot and ball that any seasoned hit-man, especially Harry Kane, would have been proud to have claimed, and in the weeks after that momentous phase of play, those in attendance would goad and plead for another pinpoint missile from the rugged utility expert, though, sadly, our relentless requests remained unfulfilled, but that’s not for the want of trying, of course.
McDonald, remarkably, before the 2017-18 season had never been given the privilege of serving Scotland at senior international level, a baffling lack of recognition which is deeply unjust considering the significant impact he exerts for the south-west Londoners on a weekly basis, however his country did finally come knocking in March 2018 for two friendly matches, and the possibility of gaining his inaugural cap was tantalisingly close for the formally discarded midfield buffer.
The first of Scotland’s brace of tests was against Costa Rica at Hampden Park, a 1-0 defeat for Alex McLeish’s set-up where McDonald graced the line-up for a full 90 minutes, and though the result wasn’t flattering in his nation’s favour, it was a sobering yet beneficial introduction to the gruelling life of a regular international competitor, and Fulham’s representative certainly has the metal and credentials to withstand and cope with the paramount requirements needed on such a prestigious, reputable stage.
Four days after Scotland’s narrow loss, the collective travelled to the Groupama Arena to touch gloves with Hungary, but after an uninterrupted inclusion against the South Americans, McDonald failed to make it off the bench. But from the relative comfort of the dugout, he did watch his country defeat the Nemzeti Tizenegy 1-0 thanks to a Matt Philips strike, and over the course of the two games, fundamentally, parity was restored on all notable fronts.
With a renewed sense of worth and stature, McDonald was an invaluable spokesman during the latter stages of the season, especially when Fulham needed every member of the fold to stand up and be counted for in their search for second or indeed Play-Off supremacy. A level head is necessary, and McDonald faced the media with an air of calmness and equilibrium in his words; he understood the magnitude of the relevant games ahead, although he also portrayed a mature, mindful respect to the weighty task at hand, if Fulham were to reach the top-flight once more, that is.
On the final day of the regular season, Fulham squared up to Birmingham City at St. Andrews with the intention of grabbing another vital 3 points, but as the Blues also needed a stroke of positive fortune, the Whites were subsequently put to the sword and slayed 3-1 by the relegation-threatened club, a damning result which handed second to Cardiff City, a reality which dictated that Jokanovic and co. would have to progress the hard way against Derby County in the Play-Off semi-final.
McDonald was particularly vocal after the flaccid defeat which put an end to the club’s illustrious unbeaten run, however rather than highlighting the flaws and shortcomings from the deflating performance, the resolute midfield despot issued a spirited war cry, emphasising the importance of digging deep and pulling in the same direction, a fervent philosophy which was received by the supporters with complete solidarity. The fight was only just beginning, it seemed.
Destination: Pride Park. The first leg against the Rams stood imposingly in Fulham’s path, and after Cameron Jerome nodded the home side into a deserved first-half lead, the Whites had to exhibit their unity in the second 45. Contained by Derby’s organisation before the interval, Fulham came out of the blocks with a purpose and probed Gary Rowett’s men perpetually through Aleksandar Mitrovic, Floyd Ayite and unsurprisingly, ‘KMac’, who catapulted a fizzing drive goal bound, and though it appeared destined, the sight of a clattered bar and a bewildered Scott Carson summed up the Whites’ fruitless night in Derbyshire. But a date down by the river was yet to come, and an electric, contagious optimism engulfed every Fulham supporter in existence, as on their day, the squad that Jokanovic had masterfully assembled was capable of achieving remarkable feats.
The floodlights illuminated the beauty of the Cottage and a spectacle was afoot, and in trademark fashion, Fulham bamboozled Derby in the second half, a sheer footballing exhibition propped up by Sess’ and an unlikely saviour in Denis Odoi. The tie on paper prior kick-off was evenly poised but Fulham, after 43 years of hurt and anguish, would return to the home of English football after downing Derby 2-0. Queue the jubilant sound of clappers, the alluring aroma of prawn sandwiches, and the prospect of a “tinpot” pitch invasion. McDonald’s unwavering conviction and fortitude galvanised all aspects of the encounter, and all that impeded Fulham’s view of the promised land was John Terry’s Aston Villa.
Cagey, calculated, clinical. Villa arrived at Wembley with an arrogance, they had been here under the arena’s majestic arch before, but May 26th was to be Fulham’s time to bask in the glory. Steve Bruce’s ageing compliment had experience on their side, but the enthusiasm, athleticism and harmony oozing from ‘Joka’s’ battalion overpowered the likes of Terry, Alan Hutton and Jack Grealish. McDonald held a steely stranglehold over the centre circle, a human tollbooth if you will, and his astute regulatory control in and out of possession muzzled Villa’s creative prowess, allowing the Whites to construct alarming opportunities and demonstrate their superiority.
‘Captain Fantastic’ netted the decisive goal in the 22nd minute, an instance which warranted a rapturous cacophony of unbridled elation from the avid ‘white wall’, a 1-0 lead which stood for over 70 minutes without being drastically jeopardised. Odoi, after decking Grealish, was sent for an early shower and Fulham had to weather a mini onslaught from Villa for the remaining 20 minutes, but with promotion in their sights, the Cottagers stood firm and soaked up all that the ‘Claret and Blues’ brandished. Peeping through fingers, the final whistle blew and many a tear was shed – Villa’s tail drooped, Fulham’s resilience told, and the Whites were and now are an official Premier League outfit. Drink it in, literally.
Next term amongst the top brass, McDonald will undoubtedly play an elemental role in Fulham’s midfield, just as he was last season en route to promotion. Bullish as well as highly dexterous, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers man embodies all that’s desired from a defensive midfielder, and as his career continues to flourish and progress as he approaches 30-years-of-age, it’s thought that his best years in a Fulham shirt are still yet to come.
McDonald’s physicality will be suited to the Premier League, the engine room is a troublesome department to tame and monopolise, but his aerial adeptness and timing in challenges are virtually tailor-made for the confrontations thrown up on England’s elite stage, and whilst there’s indefinitely a great deal to learn and master in the months to come, Fulham’s resident shock absorber has earned the right to pit his wits against the supposed creme de la creme in the imminent 2018-19 season, and we’ll be behind him and the lads every step of the way, through thick and thin, to ensure that we survive, prosper, and flex our captivating, ‘Barcelona-esque’ muscles whenever and wherever possible. An assailable showing at Stamford Bridge, perhaps.