By Toby Porter
Tim Cahill always wanted to come back to Millwall.
He said so when he left. He said so a month later. He said so in his autobiography, which he wrote three years ago.
And he said so privately throughout that time.
You couldn’t exactly call him a prodigal son – because it’s like he never wanted to be away.
Millwall fans would have taken him back at any stage during the 14 years since he left.
And they will welcome him with open arms this week.
Homecomings are always emotional occasions for Lions supporters.
The ones I remember are Andy Roberts in 2002, Steve Morison in 2015 and Neil Harris in 2007 – perhaps something fans had been dreaming of for three years.
But this may be as good – or even better, because the interval between departure and return has been so long.
The manner of his leaving was a little confusing.
There had been speculation for months in the 2003-04 season, at the end of which the Australian’s poached goal against Sunderland at Old Trafford had earned the 119-year-old club its first FA Cup final berth.
But I can still remember the scene after Dennis Wise’s team played in a pre-season friendly at Southend United – Cahill’s last game for the club. The game was quiet – all I can recall is right-back Alan Dunne being played on the right wing and making an astounding run down the channel, losing his marker and crossing from virtually over the byline with implausible skill. Slightly unexpected, that.
But afterwards, there were a few different interviews going on as local and national reporters scurried for the best story from the match.
I knew the big boys would be able to publish any Cahill comments before I could – this was years before stories went up straight away on the internet.
So I talked to Wise about his plans for the season. I can also recall Chopper talking to the Southend Echo about whether he would ever play for his boyhood club at Roots Hall. Against all my assumptions, he did exactly that seven years later.
But Cahill did his usual. He was always one of the easiest Millwall players to interview because he was fearless, opinionated and articulate. He had more energy than the Tasmanian folk devil in full gargling cry – words tumbled out of him with fluent accuracy, like he had been rehearsing them for years. My shorthand could not keep up.
Even when put on the spot, he would give you something to weave an interesting piece around, even if he never landed anyone or his club in any trouble. That day in Southend, with the microphones in his face, he nipped nimbly around choppy waters.
That was the case when he eventually decided on a move.
What emerged later was that a transfer to Crystal Palace had come close, but various people – it was never specified who – prevailed upon him that a flit across South London might cost him his popularity at The Den.
That transfer fell through, but Everton capitalised and signed him for £1.5million on July 23. At the time, a lot of Toffees fans said “who?”
Within a couple of seasons, the midfielder was being dubbed “the bargain of the century”.
Any Millwall fan could have told them.
What you get with Cahill is not just a footballer – but a personality. “Force of nature” is sometimes overused to describe sportsmen. But the half-Samoan was as much of a ferocious fireball on the pitch as off it. But always controlled. Whenever he got a card – and he got a few – it always looked like he had been overcommitted rather than venomous.
He was a highly-valued ball-winner as well as a scorer. To measure how much – one of the first big injury stories I can remember covering on Millwall was Cahill rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in September 2002. I never saw manager Mark McGhee so crestfallen again. He knew he had lost not only a livewire on the pitch, but a take-no-prisoners motivator off it.
Manager Wise must have known in July 2004 he would lose the 24-year-old after the side had failed to win promotion to the Premier League. Ironically, Cahill’s goal, and the very feat of reaching the cup final, was probably what cost them that landmark.
The manager used the money to bring in Jody Morris and Barry Hayles, which might have been some consolation.
Cahill had 30 goals for Everton within little more than two years, most of them scored with that hammer of a header, made possible by visionary positioning and the most ridiculous heights imaginable for a man who stood only 5ft 10in tall. He always had the element of surprise, especially judging by the looks on the faces of towering centre-backs when he outleapt them.
One of those goals came in a January 2006 FA Cup replay at Goodison Park against Millwall. Needless to say, he scored the winner. It was Dunne who arrived too late to block.
Cahill did not celebrate, but trotted back to his own half in as respectful a manner as his team-mates would allow. He almost looked embarrassed. But most of the time, when he was on the pitch, it was like he could not help himself. Goalscoring was one of his great loves.
Millwall was another one. It is nice to see the two back together again after all these years.