TIM CAHILL, EVERTON GREAT
Mickey Blue Eyes
"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone"
JONI MITCHELL, 'Big Yellow Taxi' popular music song (1970).
You listen with due respect when a great Everton striker like Graeme Sharp comments on a player's abilities. It doesn't leave much room for argument, except by incurable mitherers. So I was delighted when Sharpy recently praised Tim Cahill as an Everton "great," since it coincides exactly with my own opinion of our Australian icon. However, I think it likely his true worth will only become obvious after he has returned home and we have to replace him. Sometimes it is like that.
Tim signed for Us in July, 2004, from Millwall, when he was 24, a bit late for a lower league player. David Moyes took a gamble on him that has been a big success for both parties. This December he is 31 years old. Normally, this would mean he is entering the closing seasons of his playing career. But where have these last six years gone? Time, where is thy sting? That longevity tells you a lot in these days of here-today-and-gone-tomorrow contracts, to say nothing of common cynicism. You don't last that long in the ruthless Premier League without exceptional football talent. In fact, given the club's present financial status his consistency is quite remarkable, a real tribute to Australian can-do athletic spirit. Had we more money to spend on more class players to join him I have no doubt his scoring ratio would be even better than its present goal every 3.4 games. Prior to joining Us he was at Millwall for seven years, where his ratio was one every 4.3 games. So his scoring rate actually increased when he stepped up to compete with some of the best players in the world. It is a remarkable story, made all the more so because football is not the front-rank sport of Australia. Everything he has achieved has been against the odds. In my view this makes him a great, self-made player who can be justly proud of himself.
His importance to Everton cannot be over emphasised. When he isn't in the team we invariably perform below par, certainly with less scoring threat. He is a formidable combination of combative niggling midfielder and striker with an uncanny ability to lose markers in and around the penalty area. You can't coach the kind of instincts he has. Either they are there or they aren't. In an earlier military era he would have made an excellent cavalryman with his clear coup'dœil and felicity of movement. His best scoring move in the penalty area is a single pace backwards that either draws his marker with him or loses the defender altogether, then a quick dart forward to score - usually a header. Sometimes it leaves you wondering where he came from. Sometimes it happens so quickly you blink to make sure it happened. The angle of his forward run takes him across his marker and sometimes across another defender too, thus eliminating them from the game. There ought to be a law of physics named Cahill's Law of Angular Momentum. At its best it is almost unanswerable. He scores them so brilliantly, and it is so much taken for granted, it stands out glaringly when he misses an easy one. It is all in the timing of course, which is why his heading abilities are phenomenal and frequently make much taller players look clumsy, very much like another Everton great, Alex Young. Marking him must be like trying to grab mercury - for which, watch what happens when we get a corner. His equaliser in the Cup derby match at analfield is a classic example. The look on the faces of pinkies defenders said it all, "Shit, he's done us again."
In midfield his main attribute is his non-stop running and energy, to contest 50-50 balls and disrupt opposition midfield flow where he can. He must be an absolute nightmare to play against when he's on top of his game. His job mostly is to win the ball, then lay it off short, not long - but he's not very good at long passing anyway. And there's no question he's what we Scousers call "a nark." Locally, this means he's a niggling, awkward type who won't leave you in peace..........Oh yes, he's a nark alright, which means there is a price to pay. There always is. In his case it is, inevitably, a series of injuries. Given his intensity, it is surprising he hasn't had more serious layoffs.
In fact his combination of midfielder and striker makes it hard to pigeon hole him as a player. I suppose the nearest we can get to it is the current jargon that he "plays in the hole behind the strikers." (Yes, I know, I hate that shit too.) In fact I think a better analogy is that of an old style inside-forward, pre-"total football." When he's not playing it almost always disrupts team balance, though that has eased with the development of Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell who are taking on more responsibility as they mature. Tim has lived through the (unfinished) renaissance of the club and has been a vital part of it. Now, it doesn't bear thinking where we would have been without him during our most difficult years. Yet his age means we have to think that way, as must he. I will be amazed if he has more than another two seasons in him. We can only hope the two young pretenders will fulfil their obvious promise and become great too.
Of course, it raises the question of what you consider to be a great player and how you make what is often a value judgment. At the very peak are the indisputably naturally-gifted, truly great individuals such as Dean, Pelé, Charlton, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Puskas, Platini, Rooney and Southall. I don't think even Tim would claim to be in that company, but I have no doubt he is one of Everton's all time greats in the same way as Graeme Sharp is a great in his way. Like Graeme, Tim arrived at the club during a difficult period and was instrumental in a turnaround. In some ways Tim's era has been much more difficult than Graeme's because there was never going to be a quick revival given the climate of a changed football financial system. Short of dramatic amendment, what was possible in the 1980s is no longer doable. We live in different times.
However, there is no doubt in my mind that Tim Cahill is as great player as Sharpy says he is. When he goes I doubt we will have a seamless transition, though naturally I hope I am wrong. If it is not seamless it is likely only then will the more myopic fans see just how much Tim contributes. This is typical of a consumerist society with little sense of true worth, where people and emotions are chewed up and spat out like so much tobacco phlegm. 'Twas ever thus, but never as self-pitying among the worst fans as it is now. Too many know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Gawd knows how such a sour-pickled mentality gets any enjoyment or relish from life, let alone pleasure from the game.
In football it only takes a few ordinary games or a single glaring miss (as Tim did against Arsenal, though typically he scored later) before some fans get on the backs of a player they were earlier lauding. Such cynics have always existed and always will. For some, this is built into their DNA; they are completely incapable of understanding there has never been a player who didn't have a loss of form. The classic example was arguably the greatest player of all time, Pelé: he had a lousy World Cup 66, then four years later was unstoppable and wonderful. There are many earlier and later examples. Those fans who really know and love the game understand this instinctively.
So make the most of Tim Cahill, Everton Great, while he's still here. You don't know what you've got till it's gone: I think Tim achieved his understanding of that a long time ago. But it was our good fortune he chose to spend half his playing career at Goodison Park. Graeme Sharp was right.