The legend of Tim Cahill

John Duerden John Duerden

There have been some big name players to come from Asia over the years. Hidetoshi Nakata, Park Ji-sung and Ali Daei were national and continental legends who all made an impact on the world stage. When it comes to big game players however, there can’t be any to rival Tim Cahill.

The Australian pops up, literally on many occasions, to save the Socceroos when they really need him to. What are the team going to do when he retires, which at the age of 37 he should surely do before too long?

There he was on Tuesday scoring both goals as Australia defeated Syria 2-1 in the second leg of their 2018 World Cup play-off to take the tie 3-2 on aggregate. It was looking dicey early on in Sydney as Omar Al Soma gave the visitors the lead on the night and the tie overall. In a stroke, Australia’s away goal advantage was erased and the hosts were going to have to score twice just win the game without a penalty shootout.

That wasn’t part of the script, at least one written by anyone down under. Cahill wasn’t having any such uncertainty. Within a few minutes of falling behind, there he was to get on the end of a Matthew Leckie cross to head the kind of goal he has scored so many times before.

And then there he was in extra-time to head home once again. Al Soma came close with a last-gasp free-kick that hit the post to ensure that Cahill took all the headlines. For a player who was benched for the first leg in Malaysia five days previously, it was quite a feat.

The only consolation for Syria as their World Cup dream was ended by the former Everton man, it that they were not the first. Japan are a bigger Asian football nation to fall foul of the veteran. He announced himself to Asia as well as the world with his two-goal intervention against the Samurai Blue in the opening game of the 2006 World Cup, turning zero points into three.

Since then, the phrase ‘cometh the hour, cometh Tim Cahill’ has become something of a cliche. He is not as mobile or as energetic as before – it is almost 20 years since he joined Millwall after all – but when a goal is needed, he is there.

He is Australia’s best ever player, maybe not in terms of natural ability but certainly in terms of performances. Fifty goals from a man who has reported for international action from all corners of the globe – Europe, North America and Asia – is phenomenal.

In terms of bringing out the big performances on the biggest stage then in Asia, in terms of coming up with a goal to win a game or avoid defeat, it is hard to look past Cahill.

One senses that coach Ange Postecoglou would like to move on from the dependence on the old warhorse to get the goal, would prefer a more sophisticated way to score goals than cross into the area for the best header of the ball in Asia to do what he does best. Yet even the far from pragmatic Postecoglou can’t resist turning to the star when only a win will do.

“He’s just a freak,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said of Cahill. “I can’t think of when he last played 90 minutes, let alone 120. He’s got real belief in himself. He’s just a unique, extraordinary individual. He led from the front today.”

Postecoglou is a forward-thinking coach and not a man to focus solely on the next game and the next result but even he must feel some relief that he will step down when Australia’s 2018 World Cup dream ends, either in the final play-off against the fourth-placed team from CONCAFAF or at the tournament itself.

He will not be the Socceroo coach who faces up to life without Cahill. He will not have to find a replacement for those goals that always seem to come. He will not have to be in a do-or-die situation without the old warrior. At the moment, there does not seem to be a successor capable of coming close.

Maybe that will always be the way. Maybe he will never be replaced. For Tim Cahill is not only the greatest Socceroo ever, he is the finest big-game player that Asia has ever seen.

He is the ultimate match-winner. Australia should enjoy him while they can.