And not just a goal, but some goal; a 30-metre limited-edition lithograph-worthy half-volley to open the scoring in a Melbourne derby in front of 40,000 fans at Etihad Stadium.
There was a sense as that attention-grabbing goal flew in, and as Cahill followed it up by throwing some well-rehearsed combinations at a corner flag, that the 36-year-old had, with one sweep of his right boot, repaid a chunk of the $1m or so Football Federation Australia contributed to secure the Socceroos’ talisman as a guest marquee player for Melbourne City. There was a similar feeling in late November when Cahill scored the winner in a tempestuous FFA Cup final against Sydney FC, his header delivering the A-League’s most upwardly mobile team its first piece of silverware.
Certainly in terms of the publicity he has generated, Cahill’s first few months in the A-League – a league he once seemed destined, or even determined, not to join – have been a success. Contractually obliged he may be, but like his very own mini-me, Yoshi, Cahill has been everywhere; smiling, signing, spruiking. And scoring in big games. On Monday Cahill was at it again, with Maroubra sand between his toes, front and centre of the A-League’s Summer of Football, a promotion timed to coincide with a busy new year fixture schedule and the looming distraction of the Big Bash T20 competition.
What effect the hits-and-giggles of T20 will have on A-League ratings remains to be seen, but so far the numbers are up – which surely played a part in the new bumper television deal worth $346m over six years announced by FFA and Fox Sports on Tuesday. It’s a little much to credit this to Cahill’s star power alone (SBS has so far this season seen a 28% jump on last year’s national audience figures, with Fox Sports experiencing a similar rise) but it was no fluke that SBS favoured Cahill’s Melbourne City in its early-season Friday night live broadcasts.
If it’s hard to judge Cahill’s effect on TV ratings, it’s easier to see that his presence hasn’t made a huge difference to crowd figures. While attendances across the league are marginally higher than last year, you can still swing a cat at City home games – providing, that is, you can smuggle one past the bag checkers. City’s current home crowd average is 11,603 – compared with last season’s 11,062. On the other hand, club memberships have risen by about 2,100 to 11,791 on last season, but that’s only a couple of hundred more than the club had in 2014-15. If Cahill is getting bums on seats they are mostly in Australian lounge rooms.
Nevertheless, considering the A-League has proved a graveyard to many of Cahill’s peers from the so-called “golden generation” of Socceroos, he must be happy with his start. He’s scored three A-League goals in nine games (six of them starts) and, of course, his FFA Cup final goal gave City a reason to get around to building a trophy cabinet.
Cahill seems happy, too, to do whatever is asked of him by the coach, John van ’t Schip. Many top players have faces longer than a Melbourne Cup starter when left on, or called to, the bench, for it’s a reality at odds with their own self-regard. But Cahill, though he doesn’t seem to be lacking in self-regard himself, has proven himself a team player, and whatever he manages on the park, his influence off it, on City’s younger players especially, must be significant.
Of course, it hasn’t been all photo-shoot perfect. Cahill has been reminded that domestic allegiances always outweigh national ones; that his status as icon-in-chief of the Socceroos hasn’t protected him from copping stick from one-eyed rival fans, particularly those of Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.
Cahill said this week he was “hit hard” by verbal abuse when coming off the bench to play last week – in his home town of Sydney, no less. But for someone so big on legacy – his own, mostly – Cahill knew that he was risking that a little by coming to the A-League. Time will tell if his stint with City sullies the reputation he has earned through his heroics with the national side.
But what of Cahill on the park? Are City are a better team with him than without him? We don’t know the answer to that just yet but from the outside looking in there’s an odd-couple feel to Cahill and Bruno Fornaroli as an attacking duo. With Cahill playing a big-man role, despite his small-man body, Fornaroli has been forced to drop deeper for the ball when he’d be better placed leading the line.
Statistics show that, so far, City were much more dangerous in attack last year when Fornaroli was partnered with the complementary Harry Novillo – and the pair had the luxury of Aaron Mooy, in Rolls-Royce form, behind them, dishing off assists like a wealthy benefactor. City scored 63 goals in 27 regular season games last year at an average of 2.3 goals a game. So far this season they have 17 in 11 at an average of 1.5. It doesn’t yet feel like Van ’t Schip has found the best way to use his marquee player.
FFA has found a way, however, and it must be pleased with how the Cahill era has gone so far. Though no doubt working towards even better things, Cahill, too, has every right to feel his homecoming is coming along nicely.
This article was written by Paul Connolly, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 20th December 2016 19.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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