Loyalty isn't just a word to Tim Cahill
The first thing you notice upon shaking hands with Tim Cahill is that he has surprisingly soft palms. It's a jarring fact only because it undermines the scrappy, blood-and-guts persona he earned over eight seasons boxing Premier League corner flags at Everton.
The second is how relaxed he appears in his new MLS reality. Two weeks after the abrupt announcement of his $1 million dollar transfer to the New York Red Bulls, the 32-year-old midfielder completed a morning workout at the New York Red Bulls training facility, tucked away at the back of Bruce Willis' alma mater, Montclair State University. It is a sweaty 90 degrees in New Jersey. Yet the player bounds into the spartan portable office that doubles as the team's media room with a chipper relish.
Cahill admits his "move happened quickly," and the transition from the Northwest of England to New York has triggered a personal and professional whirlwind. His wife and four children are in the process of receiving visas, while the family has yet to identify a permanent home. What's more, this is the first time the midfielder has trained for consecutive days since his arrival, and he is poised to make his MLS home debut on Friday night. Yet the soft-spoken player projects an affable presence, calmly focused on the challenges that lie ahead.
The Australian international has a habit of framing his comments with "to be totally honest with you ...", a phrase that would seem disingenuous if uttered by most in the world of football. But from Cahill's mouth, the words serve only to reinforce his candid nature, especially when augmented by occasional references to "professionalism" and "loyalty," two values which have defined his career trajectory.
Everton fans will be the first to vouch for that. Cahill arrived from Millwall for $2.3 million in 2004 and stuck by the cash-strapped club with unusual devotion through the peak of this career. The new Red Bull even admits one of the reasons MLS made immediate sense was because, "after Everton, I had no interest in going to another Premier League team."
Cahill recognizes how old-school his approach was when asked to reflect on his Premier League career. "It has become a rare thing nowadays to play for one team for so long," he said before declaring with a quiet pride, "my legacy will be my exceptional ability in the air."
The late runs Cahill made into the box were no secret, yet more often than not, his opponents could do little to stop them. Over the course of the past five EPL seasons, the 5-foot-10 Australian used his head to score 21 goals. Only the lanky Peter Crouch, who has 9 inches on Cahill, headed home more.
Cahill can't pinpoint the first time he realized he could leap higher than all those around him. "I always scored goals with my head," he said. "Even as a really young kid, when it was a fairly unusual thing to be able to do. My family, being Samoan, loved rugby and because it is a fearless culture, I was encouraged simply to stick my head in anywhere, even when the boots were flying. People always talked about my lack of height, but I believe I showed them that how tall you are does not matter. It is the size of your heart that counts."
Heart, sweat and courage were inarguably Cahill's hallmarks at Everton. As long as he was on the field, it always felt like his battling team had the chance to score, no matter whom they were playing. Few Everton fan will forget the 90th-minute bicycle kick with which Cahill rescued a point against Chelsea in 2007-08. He talks animatedly about the goals he scored in crunch derby games that ensured even rival Liverpool fans treated him with respect as he walked around the city. "I bet they're happy I left," he chuckled. "I scored a fair number of goals against them. "
Everton's swashbuckling spirit allowed the club to punch way above its weight -- and its balance sheet -- during Cahill's career. In a Premier League ever more predetermined by economic muscle, his debt-ridden team managed to conjure a finish of 8th or higher in all but one of Cahill's eight seasons.
The Australian remains proudest of the immediate impact he contributed upon his arrival. "Wayne Rooney had just been sold to Manchester United, yet we still managed to finish fourth with a small squad of older players taking the field week in, and week out." Cahill pauses to think about the nature of that achievement before slouching back in his chair to declare, "You will never see a Premier League squad like that be able to qualify for Europe again."
I ask whether these economic realities made it hard to summon a sense of motivation ahead of every season when Everton had no realistic chance of winning the title. Cahill explains that the lack of finances were his motivation. "It made you work even harder, to help bring young players through, and to help the manager," he said. "Don't get me wrong. It would have been great to have had more money. But every year we developed a new young player to fill whatever gaps we had and found a way to win."
Such collective sentiment is all too rare amid the climate of calculated greed which has gripped English football. I remind Cahill of a quote he once gave the Guardian: "I don't need an armband to captain my team; I feel I am already a captain." Then I asked how he asserts that authority in a strange locker room with a new team in a foreign land. "That's easy," he said. "I train really hard, become part of the group off the field, and during games I lead from the front by working hard, tracking back and closing down defenders."
Cahill makes his MLS home debut Friday against Houston, the same team that administered a 2-0 defeat in brutal 98-degree conditions last week. The debutant confesses conditions were far from ideal. "Playing 90 minutes after just one day's training was very difficult, but injuries meant we had used all of our substitutes, so I had to play the whole game." The experience was eerily familiar. "It honestly felt like being back at Everton where you fill the void and get on with it."
MLS may be approaching the business end of the schedule, but Cahill admits he is very much in preseason form. "I'm still getting to grips with the league," he said. "It's been a real eye-opener. The lads here are fit and very technical. With every game I will get fitter. Right now I'm testing the water."
I ask what emotions he expects to feel when Everton open the 2012-13 season without him. Cahill puffs out his cheeks at the prospect of their first game against Manchester United. "I'll miss the quality of play, the fans and the atmosphere of the Premier League," he said, "but I am a professional and my goals right now are to be consistent and become part of this group. Everton will always be a part of me, as will Millwall, but from now on, me and my kids will simply be their biggest fans."
The sound of salsa emanating from the nearby breezeblock gym momentarily intrudes to underline a sense of how far Cahill has journeyed. We are a long way from the luxurious training facilities of the Premier League. "The fields are different here," he said. "The one we played on in Houston was one inch of grass and sand with what felt like concrete underneath. But then if you compare Red Bulls Stadium to Goodison Park you realize while Everton's ground has character and loyal fans, New York's surpasses Premier League quality. It is honestly what Everton deserve in their future."
Cahill pulls up his T-shirt to scratch his left arm, revealing his intricate tattoo sleeve. The Samoan design is a biography, depicting everything that has been important in Cahill's life, beginning with his grandmother, continuing down to his own children. The initials of Millwall and Everton are inscribed alongside those of his wife and family.
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Will Cahill have the New York Red Bull's logo etched beside them one day? The player does not so much as crack a smile at the question, instantly leaning forward to articulate an answer which could sum up his approach to life. "I have only ever done something when my heart and soul is into it," he said. "It took me four or five years before I tattooed Everton on my arm. I pride myself on being able to go back to London and be smothered by Millwall supporters. I will go back to Everton and embrace their fans. I would like to be able to say the same when I leave the Red Bulls, but it will take time and I will have to earn it."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.