Think back to summer 2004. Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, George W. Bush was still President of the United States, Sven-Goran Eriksson was still England manager and an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney was still an Everton player – but not for much longer.
In the aftermath of Euro 2004, Rooney was about to join Manchester United and Everton fans watched with grim faces as the most talented player to come through the Blues’ academy in a generation departed to fulfil his potential elsewhere. But although it did not seem like it at the time, summer 2004 also saw the arrival of the player who would define David Moyes’ time at Everton – Tim Cahill. The Australian came to Goodison Park for £1.5m, after his profile had risen dramatically during the 2003/04 season as his Millwall side progressed to the FA Cup final. But despite the Australian’s impressive performances throughout the competition, there were few suitors for the all-action midfielder. Only Everton and newly-promoted Crystal Palace showed real interest in capturing Cahill’s signature, with the midfielder on the verge of joining Millwall’s south London rivals until Everton came calling. Joining the Merseysiders was the culmination of a long, hard slog for Cahill that began when he left Australia at the age of 16 in search of football glory.
But in 2004, the reaction amongst Evertonians to Cahill’s signing was distinctly muted. The club’s midfield certainly needed re-invigorating, and the 2003/2004 season had been one to forget at Goodison Park as Everton sleepwalked to a 17th place finish. Despite the lowly placing, the Toffees had not been in a relegation battle – safety was comfortably assured with weeks to spare, but Everton contrived to lose four out of their last six games to plummet down the table. But the season had never reached the heights of the one that preceded it, when in Moyes’ first full term in charge Everton narrowly missed out on a UEFA Cup place. Changes were needed then, but a more pressing concern was growing – the club’s bank account was worryingly bare. Despite what was said by Everton at the time, the sale of Rooney was necessary to stave off the creditors. Administration was looking a real possibility, and the £10m the Blues received upfront from United went towards guaranteeing the club’s future. After the dismal end to the 2003/04 season, the rays of hope produced by Moyes’ first year in charge were overshadowed by the dark clouds of possible financial meltdown. The only signings of that summer were Cahill and nomadic striker Marcus Bent – seemingly inadequate moves to replace not just Rooney but also Tomasz Radzinski, the livewire Canadian forward who divided opinion on the blue half of Merseyside. But Bent proved a willing workhorse for six months until James Beattie arrived and Bent threw his toys out of the pram at the mere sight of competition, while Cahill has gone down as one of the best signings in Premier League history.
Cahill’s winning goal against Wigan Athletic on Saturday was him in a nutshell. After 84 minutes of a tight game, Everton’s jack-in-a-box popped up again to devastating effect, powering Leighton Baines’ corner past the Latics’ goalkeeper. It was a trademark header from the No.17, a reputation he established in just his second Everton appearance when he scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Manchester City in September 2004. Eleven more goals would come that season as Everton battled to fourth place and Champions League qualification and Cahill has never bettered the 12 goals he netted in his debut Everton season, but with six strikes to his name already, 2009/10 could see him surpass that total. And after an autumn where Everton’s injury problems meant Cahill had to sacrifice himself for the team, the non-stop fan’s favourite is back in his favoured position, playing just off Louis Saha and providing Everton with arguably their most potent goal threat.
In the five and a half years Cahill has spent at Goodison Park, Everton have evolved from being a workmanlike outfit with more artisans than artists to boasting the delightful skill of Mikel Arteta, Stephen Pienaar and Marouane Fellaini, and Cahill’s role has changed accordingly. Previously, he was needed to provide the spark that separated Everton from their rivals. Now, he is the lungs of the Everton team, the one who wins the fight so his more creative team-mates can play with freedom. Cahill gives his all for Everton, and Evertonians would not swap him for anyone. Not even Wayne Rooney.