Long Reads

Tim Cahill: 2006’s Unlikely Ballon d’Or Nominee

Tim Cahill Everton's Unlikely Ballon d’Or Nominee
Credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It was Parra’dowee when Tim Cahill was born. The aboriginal people of the Sydney basin, the Tharawal, had their own seasons and December 6th, 1979 was firmly in the middle of that. Hot and dry was the description and although the Aborigines now comprise only 1.1 % of Sydney ‘s population, their knowledge endures. During December 2012 and January 2013, Sydney experienced their hottest temperature on record – 45.8 Celsius – and became gripped by a heatwave that would become known as Australia’s Angry Summer.

Born in such conditions meant that by the time a tiny Tim was taking his first steps, the seasons had changed and it was Wiritjiribin and Ngoonungi – cold and windy into cool and warming. It was perfect weather for rugby, in other words, and with an English/Irish father and a Samoan mother raising him in Australia, it would have been no surprise if the first ball he showed interest in was egg-shaped. Six of his relatives including three cousins would go on to play league and union, and one day he’d have two nephews of his own that would follow suit. Instead, Cahill became the first Socceroo to score at a World Cup, scoring a brace on his tournament debut against Japan in 2006.

It was his eighth year in professional football, but his international ascendancy had been a rapid and successful two-year journey that resulted in him being a surprise nomination for the 2006 Ballon d’Or, arguably football’s most prestigious individual award. He was the first Evertonian to be nominated since Welsh goalkeeper Neville Southall in 1988, and the only player from an AFC nation on the 50-man list. It was the last year before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo started habitually finishing on the podium and the penultimate edition before one of them began winning it every year – a trend that continued until Luka Modric won the latest edition.

The year had started rather like a movie that was to chart an unlikely hero’s rise to the top would; drawn against his old club, Millwall, in the FA Cup 3rd round, Cahill scored the only goal of the game to knock them out. He chose not to celebrate out of respect, however, and the sentiment was genuine and heartfelt; full of reverence for the team took a chance on a boy from a Sydney academy. Twelve years later, he would return to The Den once more, this time for his second stint in dark blue.

Everton were caught in a rut entering 2006, struggling to replicate their 4th place finish from the previous season, and hindered by the UEFA Cup, after a Champions League exit in the qualifying rounds. Cahill partnered Mikel Arteta in central midfield, and Leon Osman and Kevin Kilbane flanked them in a flat 4-4-2 formation that saw James Beattie paired with James McFadden up front and had David Weir and Joseph Yobo in the heart of defence, with Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville either side. In the days before Tim Howard became an Everton legend, it was Nigel Martyn in the sticks more often than not.

The New Year provided a turning point though, and after four consecutive defeats and winless in five, it was Cahill who instigated the upturn in performances. On New Year’s Eve, Cahill scored the only goal of the game in an away win at Sunderland, and then on January 2nd, he netted himself a brace at Goodison, in a 3-1 win over Charlton. The goal up north came from an injury time corner swung in by Kilbane and powered home with a stereotypical header from Cahill, followed by his trademark boxing routine on a hapless corner flag. It eased any lingering relegation worries and moved them six points clear of the drop zone. The Aussie had stemmed the blood loss and sent Everton on the way toward a 7-game unbeaten run, including six wins. He wasn’t to score again during the upswing but his through ball allowed James Beattie to score 12 minutes into the next match – Arsenal – which they went on to win 1-0. He put in a Man of the Match performance in the one after, another 1-0 victory, this time over Wigan. In the last of their 7-game streak without defeat, a home fixture against Blackburn, one goal – a James Beattie header from Mike Arteta’s freekick – was more than enough for all three points, and marked the 5th consecutive match in which The Toffees failed to score more than once. It could have been so different, however, as Cahill got not one but two goals ruled out for offside before they had even reached the hour mark.

It was Newcastle who ended Everton’s resurgence, but it did not keep them down for long, as they returned with a 2-2 draw at Upton Park, before back to back wins at home over Fulham and Aston Villa. It was as if the loss to The Toon had emphasised that 1-0 score lines weren’t always going to cut it, as they then scored a combined nine goals in the next three games, compared to just six in their previous six.

Cahill wasn’t able to leave a mark on the game with West Ham but provided the assist for an audacious 20-yard chip from Beattie in the following game – a 3-1 win over Fulham – and returned to scoring ways as his side tore Aston Villa apart a week later. An early lead was provided by McFadden and was then kept intact by Cahill, who headed a Steve Davis effort over the bar. Just minutes later, Cahill again reacted quickly, this time to meet a rebound off the post from McFadden’s shot before Wilfred Bouma could respond. The goal was symptomatic of the Australian’s heart, unintentionally injuring his opponent, as they clashed heads in the aerial duel that resulted in Cahill scoring. Everton were now rampant and with a couple of minutes left of the first half, Cahill orchestrated a quick, sweeping attack, playing a pass into space for Arteta to race onto, beating JLloyd Samuel for pace, before whipping in a cross to the back post that was duly dispatched by Leon Osman. Villa were gagging for the whistle as Everton attacked once more and only a rare missed headed effort from Cahill kept the tally at three going into the break. A 19-year old Gabriel Agbonlahor pulled one back just after the hour mark, though Villa couldn’t mount a sustained comeback and Cahill added a fourth in the final minute. It was revenge for a Boxing Day hammering of a similar scoreline. On that day Villa scored four without reply.

The emphatic victory was Everton’s biggest of the season and with eight games left, it set them up for a late push for a European spot. It wasn’t to be, though. The Merseyside derby came seven days later and a Liverpool side making their own European charge – theirs to a second successive Champions League final – comfortably beat their rivals 3-1, despite a red card for Steven Gerrard just 18 minutes in. Everton did make it nervy for the hosts when our protagonist scored his customary header in the 61st minute to halve the deficit, but Andy Van der Meyde got himself sent off ten minutes later and Harry Kewell finished the job with five minutes left on the clock.

The goal in the derby turned out to be Cahill’s last of the season, as they limped to the league’s conclusion, winning just one of their last eight games. They failed to score in four consecutive games in their last six and ended the season with a 2-2 draw at home to West Brom, after a 1-0 win at the Riverside a week previous. Between a fourth-place finish the season before and one in sixth in the 2006/07 campaign, the middling position of 11th was a disappointment, but Everton’s central midfield was something to be proud of. Arteta won the Player and Player’s Player of the Season award and Cahill was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or.

Nominated on October 16th, Cahill was still riding high on the wave of Australia’s successful World Cup campaign. It was their first tournament in 32 years and guided by Guus Hiddink, their Round of 16 1-0 defeat to eventual champions Italy was their best finish (and still is). His two goals against Japan – a Man of the Match performance – made him his country’s top scorer in Germany. It was a lovely way to finish off the 2005/06 season and he carried his form onward into the next.

Everton made an unbeaten start to the 2006/07 campaign, winning three of their first seven, including a 3-0 Merseyside derby win at Goodison in which Cahill opened the scoring. They lost their next game, which was two days before the Ballon d’Or nominations were revealed, but Cahill was probably already safely there without the four goals and three assists he had already notched up in the opening eight games.

Ultimately, Cahill’s place on the 50-man shortlist did not transfer any further, failing to receive any votes from the journalists or the international managers and captains that cast them. Australia didn’t get a vote, otherwise, you’d hope he’d have got at least one, but he was in good company nonetheless, with the likes of Michael Ballack, Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard, and Fernando Torres also without a vote to their name.

In 2006, Tim Cahill was nominated for football’s greatest individual accolade and for Evertonians and Australians alike that is worth remembering.

About the author

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Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. Books on Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology take up the space left on his shelf after those on football have had their pride of place. It is these topics that influence his writing, where he likes to skirt the main topic of football with culture, demography, and trends. His favourite author is British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson.

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