Cahill leaves Arsenal and others lamenting the 'one that got away'

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The man playing the records here last night appeared to be a heavy metal fan, so Sir Cliff's "The Young Ones" was never in with a shout.

It would, however, have been a more apposite choice than Black Sabbath, as Fabio Capello continued refreshing the team that performed so depressingly in South Africa 15 months ago and had reason to be delighted with the results.

Chris Smalling, 21, was commendably steady in his new position at right-back on his international debut and alongside him in place of the 32-year-old Rio Ferdinand, Gary Cahill, seven years the former captain's junior, suddenly looked like the long-term successor. A calmly taken goal in his third international was a delicious bonus.

Why would Arsène Wenger not stump up the money for him, Arsenal supporters must have been asking. For come the start of an international debut, there are invariably clubs, if not countries left muttering "it should have been us".

In Cahill's case the curses were also from Derby County, whose academy the South Yorkshireman once graced, and also the Republic of Ireland, for whom he qualified via a grandmother. Aston Villa, of course, could have had him as their lone England representative in opposition to Stiliyan Petrov last night, but Martin O'Neill allowed him to leave for Bolton because he could not be guaranteed a regular place. It was against Bulgaria at Wembley a year ago that he made a first appearance when Michael Dawson was injured before an hour had been played. A full debut against Ghana followed alongside Phil Jagielka and then Joleon Lescott, and here he had suddenly leapt above both in the packing order.

Comfortable early touches no doubt settled him down and the only danger after what followed in the 15th minute was that he might be carried away by sheer euphoria. When Gareth Barry chipped a half-cleared corner back into the penalty box, Cahill was calmness itself in chesting the ball down and knocking it past an unprotected Nikolay Mihaylov. Still on cloud nine, he was a little fortunate 60 seconds afterwards when Genkov just failed to reach a ball knocked past him, but a sturdy interception later and then a fine header away under pressure more than compensated.

Smalling was the busier of the two, his very presence a cause for regret to Millwall and Middlesbrough, through whose fingers he had slipped, with Boro probably the most disappointed. They lured him to Teeside from Maidstone United as an 18 year-old, only for homesickness to drive him back down south, at which point he was prepared to head for a business management course at university had his written requests for trials elsewhere gone unanswered. Fulham were smart enough to take him on, and were able to make a profit of almost £10m – passing on only a fraction to the impoverished Kent non-League club – when Sir Alex Ferguson spotted the potential that is now coming to fruition.

Manchester United agreed a pre-contract, secured him last summer and were rewarded with steady progress that took an unexpected turn at the start of this season when he was reinvented as a right-back. An excellent performance in the Community Shield took the eye of Capello, who had also received good reports from the European Under-21 Championship, where he was one of England's few successes. His place and form have been maintained in subsequent club games and so it was that he was preferred to a Manchester rival Micah Richards as the deputy for Glen Johnson.

Bolton's tricky if unpredictable winger Martin Petrov provided a test, not least by declining to stick to the touchline. Unlike the callow Arsenal right-back Carl Jenkinson against Ashley Young at Old Trafford last Sunday, however, Smalling declined to follow, the positional sense learnt as a central defender standing him in good stead. Once in the first half he was not tight enough, allowing Petrov one of Bulgaria's few chances, a shot across the face of goal. Once too he was caught underneath a long cross from the opposite flank that the lively Petrov could not control. In the credit column there was an excellent header to concede a corner after Joe Hart missed a cross from the right.

Like Cahill he went forward for the set pieces as well as making one early run up the right to supply a dangerous low cross which was scraped away by the Bulgarian defence. Once the goals began to go in, though, there was no need for attacking heroics. Untroubled defence was all that was required and it was duly achieved without any greater stress by Cahill too once the substitute Georgi Bozhilov replaced Genkov.

"Someone is ready, someone is probably a risk because he didn't play at this level in important games with the national team," Capello had said gnomically on Thursday. Smalling is ready. His even younger clubmate Phil Jones must wait another day.

Comments