As the summer of 2004 drew to its disappointing conclusion, with Wayne Rooney Manchester United-bound in a £27million transfer deal, the £1.5million signing of Australian midfielder Tim Cahill from Millwall passed largely unnoticed. Scarcely could Evertonians have imagined then the impact that Cahill, a 24-year- old without a top-flight game to his name, would have on the club’s fortunes or that he would establish himself as the first Everton great of the 21st century.
Born in Sydney to an English father and Samoan mother, Cahill had paid his own airfare to England as a teenager in the mid-1990s in the hope that he would find a club. Ferociously ambitious and dedicated to his craft, these were the first steps on his path to being a top-class professional, and indicative of the hard work and desire that became hallmarks throughout his career. Signed by Millwall, he swiftly became an integral part of the south London team, helping them earn promotion in 2001 and an unlikely place in the 2004 FA Cup Final.
Cahill’s headed goal in Millwall’s FA Cup semi-final win over Sunderland elevated him to national prominence and alerted Premier League clubs to his availability. Throughout the summer of 2004 it seemed as if he might make the short journey across south London to newly promoted Crystal Palace. But when that transfer broke down due to a row over payments to Cahill’s agents, Everton stepped in. The £1.5million fee proved to be a fine bargain indeed.
A TENACIOUS, energetic midfield warrior, supremely fit and committed to his cause, Cahill brought real energy and verve to the Everton team. But it was his aerial ability and goalscoring prowess that elevated him to excellence. Standing just 5ft 10in tall, Cahill was one of the finest headers of the ball Goodison had seen in years. Despite his comparatively slight frame he had perfected the art of ‘floating’ in the air and his timing was imperious. In front of goal he was deadly, possessing a striker’s ruthlessness and utilising his aerial prowess to lethal perfection.
Cahill’s force was soon felt on the Premier League. In only his second game in an Everton shirt he headed the winner against Manchester City in one of their first matches at Eastlands – only to be sent off for an over- exuberant celebration. He repeated the trick on his Premier League return against Portsmouth a fortnight later, scoring the only goal of the game and this time remaining on the field.
Pushed to an auxiliary forward position, usually playing off Marcus Bent, Cahill was crucial to Everton through the 2004/05 season, finishing top scorer with 12 goals as they finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. It was fitting that his strike against Newcastle in the last home match of the season effectively secured the coveted fourth spot and his place in Everton hearts.
CAHILL’S excellent debut season brought a new and improved contract, and over the following year he earned global renown. His debut for Australia was delayed until he was aged almost 25, owing to appearances he made for Western Samoa’s under-20 team when he was aged just 14. FIFA’s initial unwillingness to scrub this from their records almost brought legal action when Cahill initially sought to play for the Republic of Ireland in the 2002 World Cup. A resolution came in 2004, by which stage he was firmly committed to the country of his birth. The following year Cahill was named Oceania Player of the Year as Australia qualified for the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1974, and Cahill was included in the country’s squad for Germany. His introduction as a substitute in the first group match against Japan changed the flow of the game and his two late goals helped bring a 3-1 victory. Australia eventually qualified or the second round and were unlucky to fall to eventual World Champions Italy. Cahill was one of 50 players nominated for the Ballon d’Or the following October, the first time an Everton player had been nominated in 18 years. He also appeared at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
Domestically he continued to shine, and was often asked to lead the Everton front line. Off the pitch what immediately set Cahill apart from other players was an inherent understanding of what the club meant to the fans and what it was to be an Evertonian. He took his responsibilities as a royal blue icon seriously. In interviews he spoke with humility about the honour of playing for a club that had given him worldwide renown.
Asked in 2009 if he regretted not playing for a club that regularly appeared in the Champions League, he replied: ‘Is the grass always greener? Is it the right situation for you and your family and you as a player? I feel that I am achieving a lot at Everton. It’s unfortunate that I haven’t won them big awards. But who knows? Maybe one day.
But beating Liverpool is like winning an FA Cup. Once you’ve played for Everton and know what it is to be a Blue, then you know what it means to beat Liverpool.
Derby matches were games Cahill seemed to particularly relish and they always seemed to inspire the best in him. Besides Dixie Dean no other Everton player has scored more times at Anfield than Cahill and the intensity of his performance always seemed to rise a notch when he came up against Everton’s great rivals. His display in the October 2010 Goodison derby was among the finest seen by an Everton player in years and he coupled an excellent goal with an effervescent, unrelenting display that battered his opponents into submission. Afterwards, the blogger Ed Bottomley paid the following tribute on his Dixie’s 60 website:
Tim Cahill is 30 years old. Many players peak sooner, some, usually defenders and keepers, peak later, but the Australian has reached the apex of his playing career and is currently a fearsome combination of physical strength and footballing craft. Gorge your eyes on him, tell yourself to remember, remember, remember. Those of us lucky enough to have seen Alan Ball in his pomp always regret we did not see more of him, make not the same mistake with Tim Cahill. In years to come children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces and vague passing acquaintances will ask ‘what was he like?’ On Sunday this player passed two landmarks, one mathematical the other mythical: His 34th minute strike was his fifth league derby goal, a post war record for a Blue, but it was his overall match performance, along with thirty or forty of equal intensity in recent years, that finally took him through the shimmering veil which separates the merely good, from the truly great. Though nominally operating in his accustomed role, playing just off the lone striker, Cahill was everywhere; at one moment auxiliary defender, the next supporting Arteta in midfield and then popping up to harass and to penetrate the Liverpool rearguard. It was all that we have come to expect from the Aussie, a performance of passion, intelligence and leadership.
Cahill had by then committed to a new long-term contract that will take him to his mid-thirties and ten-year anniversary with the club. ‘The chairman knows my thoughts,’ he said after putting pen to paper. ‘I will sign here for life. He knows my thoughts on what I love about this club. I respect everyone so much and hopefully I will be here for a long time.’
At times since then there have been questions asked about Cahill’s continued effectiveness in an Everton shirt. Certainly the relentless effort, the long-haul travel to represent his country, the battering by Premier League defenders has sometimes appeared to take its toll. The 2011 calendar year passed without a Cahill goal. But he has adapted his game, taken on more midfield responsibilities and continues to be one of Everton’s most important players.
Few goals in his Everton career were better or more important than his instinctive twisting header against Sunderland in 2012 FA Cup quarter-final and it showed that he is far from finished. After scoring he ran to the corner flag and unleashed his famous kangaroo boxing celebration that has become his trademark. Few sights at Goodison were more beautiful or pleasing than this in the early-twenty-first century, but all good things have to come to an end. The following summer Cahill joined the New York Red Bulls in MLS for an enticing swansong.