Denis Odoi: Cult Hero

Image: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

Many Fulham fans will have woken up on the 1st February fully expecting to learn that Fabio Carvalho had departed for Liverpool, as the transfer window ‘slammed’ shut. A quick scan of the FFC website showed the deal didn’t happen with various rumours abounding to the reasons why. This is a story that will run for a while yet, but I was pleasantly surprised to see we did conclude some business with the Merseyside club in the loan of Neco Williams.

A new right back hadn’t seemed a major priority this window but with Cyrus Christie , Marlon Fossey and Steven Sessegnon going out on loan along with Kenny Tete’s propensity to injury, it did become a position of concern; especially with the issue compounded by the departure of Denis Odoi. There had been rumours yesterday that he was signing a pre-contract deal with Club Brugge which it was assumed would lead to a return to his native Belgium in the summer. Instead with the Williams deal done we have now learned that Odoi’s departure is immediate.

Denis arrived at the club from Lokeren in the summer of 2016 to little fanfare. We learned that he was a versatile defender who had been capped once by Belgium and had a Champion’s medal under his belt from his stint at Anderlecht. Slavisa Jokanovic’s first transfer window as manager and his knowledge of the continental game, sparked a change in transfer policy. The previous summer had seen us recruit proven Championship players like Tom Cairney, Tim Ream and Richard Stearman, but Jokanovic saw us acquire a more eclectic mix of players we didn’t know much about.

It left us with little idea what to expect when newly relegated, favourites for promotion Newcastle United arrived at the Cottage for the first game of the season. As it turned out we were brilliant on the night and Matt Smith’s first half header gave us a deserved victory. However there was only one talking point that night as the Fulham faithful left the ground. A switch of play towards the touch line saw Denis, not simply keep the ball in play, but flick it off his back over the Toon full back and keep control in one sublime movement. That moment of skill defied belief and seemingly the laws of physics and in an instant Denis was taken to our hearts.

Over the next two seasons he became a regular feature in the Fulham line up often at full back but in his second term more often as centre back alongside Tim Ream as he displaced Tomas Kalas to become a feature of a side that went 23 games undefeated as we reached the playoffs for the second season running. Odoi was generally very reliable but was also prone to the odd rush of blood to the head- such as his sending off at Brentford that term.

The play offs had ended disappointingly in 2017 but 2018 was to be a far happier experience and Denis was to prove a central character. His leap and flying header to win the semi final against Derby will forever remain one of my favourite goals and sparked joyous scenes at the Cottage. After scoring arguably the most important goal at The Cottage since the historic Europa League run, Odoi was embraced by Fulham Faithful as they poured on to the pitch at full time, hoisting him on their shoulders and celebrating into the night.

In Denis’s eccentric way though he almost went from hero to zero after he was sent off in the Final against Aston Villa. Had we gone on to lose that day it may have tarnished his reputation but as our 10 men survived to record a famous victory all was forgiven. That he was sent off for a chest high, studs up challenge on a certain Jack Grealish, made it a little easier to forgive him. His crossbar celebration upon realising promotion further cemented his place in our hearts.

In the three and a half years since that famous day at Wembley Denis has had a fairly chequered existence at the club. He helped the club to go up via the play offs once again in 2020, but in our two seasons in the Premier League he has experienced relegation. That he played as many minutes as he did in the doomed 18/19 season points to the failings of the defenders brought in to replace him in the starting XI. He made 31 league appearances under the three managers, 29 of them as a starter. In 20/21 he was been deemed only a bit part player, but the club suffered the same fate as two years earlier. Regardless of this Odoi has not sulked and always given his best when called upon.

With Kenny Tete at the club this season it looked like Denis again might get little game time, but an injury to the Dutch international saw Odoi restored to the team and his performances saw him keep his place for a while even after Tete recovered. Of course he wasn’t perfect and was still prone to lapses in concentration. Indeed his last game in our colours against Blackpool contained a couple of hallmark Denis errors that led to a yellow card and a few nervous gasps from the crowd. Did that make me love him less? Most definitely not. I’d learned, on the morning of the game, from a newspaper article that Denis is just as at home in a record shop or in a café discussing politics as he is on a football pitch. To be fair that didn’t surprise me. From his first game, and that trick against Newcastle, it was clear Denis was no ordinary footballer. He has been rightly accorded cult hero status at the club over his 6 years at Fulham and I am very sad to see him go.

He goes, I’m sure, with the good wishes of all Fulham fans. Let’s hope he can pop back in May to pick up a Championship winners medal and possibly have a quick dance on a Cottage crossbar.