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Jul 24, 2012

Cahill: An Everton icon

Even the celebrations were symbolic. Tim Cahill treated many a corner flag as a punchbag, bouncing as he boxed. For eight years, his fighting spirit helped Everton punch above their weight, his combativity copied by his colleagues.

But, as the Australian prepares to trade Merseyside for Manhattan, the Toffees of Everton for the Red Bulls of New York, his methods provided a metaphor in themselves. Cahill stands under six feet, but he leaps above rather bigger men and 31 of his 56 Premier League goals came with his head. Rather than being camouflaged by a crowd of giants, he helped Everton reach unexpected heights. Eight seasons at Goodison Park brought seven top-eight finishes; his debut campaign remains as remarkable as it appeared then.

Everton had narrowly avoided relegation the previous summer, lost Wayne Rooney to Manchester United and spent £1.75 million on a midfielder from Millwall. They went on to finish fourth.

Cahill's arrival was the product of David Moyes' thorough approach to scouting and the Scot's willingness to trawl the lower leagues was justified. Cahill's explosive second appearance set the tone for his stay; he was sent-off for celebrating a winner at the Etihad Stadium. A role as the scourge of Manchester City was a recurring theme; predictably, it was Cahill who scored the opener when Everton triumphed in Manchester during the big freeze of December 2010. In temperatures of minus nine degrees Celsius, the Australian was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Gloves and snoods were never his style.

Perpetual running kept Cahill warm that night. He was an irrepressible, at times irresistible, underdog who harried the moneyed. Yet it was also the beginning of the end; thereafter, only three corner flags were punched in his final 52 Everton appearances. For six-and-a-half years, however, he was the closest to a guarantee of goals from midfield outside the elite. Five came against Liverpool, making Cahill Everton's record post-war derby scorer.

And yet it is not the statistics, the 278 games and 68 goals, that made Cahill the most significant player of Moyes' reign. He was emblematic of Everton, equipped with a never-say-die attitude and a willingness to battle. Phil Neville was the ultimate professional, Leighton Baines the lifelong Evertonian and Mikel Arteta the artist, but Cahill was the talisman.

He shaped the side. Moyes' 4-4-1-1 system has become his trademark, but it was designed to suit Cahill, who was Marcus Bent's energetic support act in 2004-05. He spent spells deeper in midfield and led the line when, as tended to happen, Everton found themselves short of a striker but Cahill was at his finest as the bridge between two departments of the side.

He was one of the constants in a time of continuity. Moyes placed an emphasis on recruiting the right characters and instilled loyalty in his charges. Cahill spent the best years of his career at Goodison Park without agitating for a move and with the aid of several close friendships. He served as best man at Arteta's wedding, players who represented graft and craft respectively forming an alliance on and off the pitch.

Now the Spaniard has gone and the Australian is set to follow. An era is ending at Goodison Park. Louis Saha, the most complete striker of the Moyes years, left in January. Joseph Yobo, signed in the Scot's first summer in charge, is set to depart. The stalwarts of his side are heading in different directions, the manager quietly switching his focus to the next generation. At 30, Arteta is the youngest of the quartet. At 32, Cahill lacks the dynamism he displayed at his peak.

The changing of the guard began last season. Cahill concluded the campaign on the bench with Marouane Fellaini operating in the striker's slipstream. The signing of Steven Naismith provides another option and should allow the Belgian man-mountain to return to the heart of the midfield. In Ross Barkley, Jack Rodwell, Darron Gibson and the unheralded Leon Osman, Moyes could trial others in what, at Goodison Park, really should be called 'the Cahill role'. Now his sale should permit the return of Steven Pienaar, another who could support Nikica Jelavic.

They are a diverse group of contenders with one common denominator: none, even the physical, fearless Fellaini, are quite like Cahill. It is an understatement to say he will be missed, but an accurate appraisal to say the time had come for a parting of ways.

A few paragraphs ago, it said Cahill ended the year on the bench. As far as Moyes' starting 11 is concerned, that is true. Technically, however, he finished it by getting sent off after the final whistle on the last day. It is a suspension that will never be served and ensuring that Cahill's Everton career was bookended by a hint of controversy. Within that, however, there were plenty of goals, many delivered after a typically athletic spring. His height was average, his impact huge.

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