Tim Cahill spent eight years at Everton and eventually left as one of the club’s most loved players of the past 30 years. He cost them just £1.5million.
Cahill moved to England as a teenager to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer, joining Millwall as a 16-year-old and going on to make 250 appearances for the South London club.
Then, in 2004, he got his big move to the Premier League with Everton. Any fears he might struggle to step up soon evaporated as Cahill top-scored in his first season at Goodison. Eight years, 278 appearances and 68 goals later, the Toffees could reflect on one of the best bargains of all time.
Everton had gone through a real up-and-down first two seasons of David Moyes’ tenure.
The Scot took over towards the end of the 2001-02 season when Everton finished 15th. They bounced up to seventh in his first season in full charge but then collapsed back down the 17th in 2003-04.
However, Moyes was not under pressure. It’s often used as an excuse, but this genuinely was a team in transition.
Moyes had inherited a bloated squad from Walter Smith, featuring too many players in their 30s who were blocking the first-team development of talented younger players, and in the space of a year Moyes allowed Alex Nyarko (30 in the summer of 2004), Steve Watson (30), Tomasz Radzinski (30), David Unsworth (31), Alan Stubbs (33), Mark Pembridge (33), and Kevin Campbell (34) to leave.
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Although Jospeh Yobo (24), Tony Hibbert (23), James McFadden (21), and Leon Osman (23) had all featured for Everton in the disappointing 2003-04 campaign, moving out some of the older heads would allow that group of youngsters to enter the 2004-05 season with the confidence of knowing they were now trusted first-teamers.
However, Moyes still needed to secure a few more players to fill out the squad. All areas needed strengthening, but particularly central midfield and up front, the positions vacated by Watson, Radzinski, Campbell and departing 18-year-old academy graduate Wayne Rooney.
Everton were notoriously short on funds for both transfers and wages, a situation not helped by the fact that the seven departing older players listed above yielded a total of just £2.5million in transfer fees. Between them they had cost the club £18.3million.
Even after accounting for the initial £20million from Rooney’s sale to Manchester United on the last day of August 2004, that still left Everton to shop around at the real bargain end of the transfer market.
Furthermore, 2004 was a particularly difficult year for clubs to get bargains from abroad, as had been the standard for Premier League clubs for the eight or nine previous years.
That was because since Roman Abramovich’s takeover in June 2003, Chelsea had been spending amounts never before seen even in the world’s richest league, driving up the price English clubs could expect to pay on overseas transfers.
For the £1.5million Everton spent on Tim Cahill in summer 2004, they could instead have had:
– Mido on an 18-month loan (Roma to Spurs, £1.5m)
– With a bit of negotiation, all of Lomana LuaLua (Newcastle to Portsmouth, £1.75m)
– Just over half of Francis Jeffers (Arsenal to Charlton, £2.6m), which is about all that was left of him after he fell out with David Moyes after rejoining Everton on loan the previous year
– One-quarter of Mateja Kezman (PSV to Chelsea, £6.3m)
– About 20% of Fernando Morientes (Real Madrid to Liverpool, £7.2m)
– Tiago’s left leg (Benfica to Chelsea, £11.5m)
The football-playing oddity in a rugby-playing family in Australia, Tim Cahill Jr received a huge amount of encouragement from his Samoan mother Sisifo and English father, Tim.
Tim Snr had travelled the world and was happy for his son to do the same. A Londoner and former merchant seaman, he had played not just against fellow sailors and dock workers but occasionally provided training fodder for South American teams like Racing Club in the 1960s and early 70s.
So when Tim Jr – an avid fan of the great AC Milan side of the 1990s – asked to fly to England as a teenager to find a professional club, his parents made the required sacrifices to help their son succeed.
“I’ve always been really hungry because my family sacrificed so much to give me this opportunity,” he explained to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It was hard for me to come to England; my parents had to get a loan to get me over here for a trial. I’ve made sure since then that I’ve paid them back and they’ve never had to work since the day I got my first contract.”
It’s fair to say it paid off, as Cahill caught the eye of Millwall and signed professional terms, initially playing for just £250 a week (£13,000 a year).
He made his full debut in May 1998 and went on to make 249 appearances for the Lions – the last of which came in Millwall’s first and only FA Cup final appearance, having scored the winner in their 1-0 semi-final victory over Sunderland with a characteristically opportunistic finish.
Those performances and a scoring rate of better than one goal every five games from an attacking midfield role drew the attention of numerous clubs towards the 24-year-old.
A transfer to newly-promoted Crystal Palace fell through at the last minute due to a dispute over agents’ fees, allowing Everton to complete a £1.5million transfer.
It was a perfect marriage: Everton had their talented bargain, and Cahill had his long-awaited move to the top flight.
Cahill made his Everton debut in a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, and scored the winner in the Toffees’ next game, another away trip across the M62 against Manchester City.
It was the archetypal Cahill goal. Tony Hibbert crossed from the right byline, and 5’10” Cahill timed his run to perfection to rise between Danny Mills and Richard Dunne to nod past David James from six yards.
Sadly for Cahill, the moment was marred by referee Steve Bennett’s ludicrously harsh interpretation of new rules regarding goal celebrations: his Fabrizio Ravanelli-style shirt-over-the-head celebration drew a second yellow card and Cahill was off.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was not often the voice of reason, but it was hard to disagree with his criticism of Bennett’s decision.
Everton went third in Cahill’s absence with a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough in the following game, and they would stay there until the turn of the new year.
However, having fielded just 18 players in the first half of the season, Moyes needed more reinforcements, and the January transfer window saw the arrival of striker James Beattie from Southampton and the loan signing of Mikel Arteta from Real Sociedad.
They were the perfect foils for Cahill, and having scored three goals in the first half of the season he went on to score another eight in the second half of the campaign, finishing the season as Everton’s top scorer and Fans’ Player of the Season as the blue half of Liverpool pipped their Red rivals into fourth place – their best league position since 1988, and one they have not since bettered.
Cahill spent eight seasons with Everton, serving as vice-captain to Phil Neville and forming an unconventional but devastating midfield goalscoring partnership with Marouane Fellaini, whom he was able to match for aerial threat despite being six-and-a-quarter inches shorter than the Belgian.
Having spent the first 10 years of the Premier League era largely fighting relegation battles, Cahill was a true key player in Everton’s transformation into consistent challengers in the fight for European qualification.
His record of 68 goals in 278 appearances for the Blues (one-and-a-half goals shy of scoring exactly one in every four games) stacks up remarkably well against other attacking midfielders of the same era: the Australian’s strike rate of 0.245 goals per game puts him just between Paul Scholes (0.216 gpg) and Steven Gerrard (0.262 gpg).
His goals may not have been as spectacular as those two, but you can’t argue with the numbers, and that is not bad company for Tiny Tim to keep.
Throw in that Cahill is Australia’s all-time leading goalscorer (48 in 96) and Everton’s most prolific goalscorer in league Merseyside derbies in the post-war era (five goals – only Ian Rush, Gerrard and Robbie Fowler have scored more for the team from the other side of the park), and at just £5,396 per game, you’re looking at one of the Premier League’s best-ever bargains.