Cahill completes long journey from Down Under to derby day

The Australian international tells Phil Shaw why he can't wait for the chance to represent the blue half of Liverpool in today's Merseyside derby
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On the doorstep at Bellefield, Everton's suburban training complex, a dozen schoolchildren wait to be shown around. Sue, the genial matriarch who runs the front office, asks whether any are Evertonians. Hands shoot up, but one crew-cut, bespectacled boy of about 13 pipes up proudly: "I'm a Liverpudlian", stopping just short of adding: "And no guided tour's going to change that."

On the doorstep at Bellefield, Everton's suburban training complex, a dozen schoolchildren wait to be shown around. Sue, the genial matriarch who runs the front office, asks whether any are Evertonians. Hands shoot up, but one crew-cut, bespectacled boy of about 13 pipes up proudly: "I'm a Liverpudlian", stopping just short of adding: "And no guided tour's going to change that."

Whether you're a Blue or a Red, the build-up to any Merseyside derby, let alone today's 200th collision of the clubs at Goodison Park, is a time for declaring your colours. Which is why Tim Cahill, Everton's Australian midfielder, is anxious to dispel the "myth" that, as a youngster in Sydney, he was a Liverpool supporter.

One newspaper presented the fallacy as fact recently, leaving Cahill feeling "stitched up" and bringing him in for merciless ribbing from his team-mates. In Liverpool, boyhood fans of one team often go on to represent their rivals. Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher all traded blue scarves for the red shirt, Peter Reid and Dave Watson going the opposite way.

David Moyes's close-season recruit from Millwall is adamant, however, that his long-distance allegiance was to English football rather than one club. "My mother is from Western Samoa and her side of the family were big on rugby union, but my old man was originally from Dagenham, which was the biggest factor in my wanting to come over here," explains Cahill, who turned 25 on Monday.

"As soon as my dad gave me a round ball, it felt right. He's a very passionate football man. His father had been a West Ham supporter, but he loves all football and he instilled in me the idea of being open-minded. Back home, you could watch the big Premiership teams almost every night on television. I loved the game here because it was fast and energetic. I was excited by the supporters and the stadiums, too."

Who were his role models? Cahill's list reveals a clear bias towards the red, but of Manchester United rather than the neighbours from across Stanley Park. Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Peter Schmeichel are the first three names, while Eric Cantona was "a big favourite" because he was "so controversial". Perhaps mindful of how an innocuous admission of admiration might be twisted in some quarters, he adds hastily that he was also a devotee of Italian football.

No one who has watched Cahill play his part in Everton's unexpected rise to third place (nine points ahead of Liverpool, one behind the champions Arsenal and with more wins already than they mustered all last season) could question his commitment. Mark McGhee, formerly his manager at Millwall, describes him as "driven", identifying a strong, some would say typically Australian self-belief founded on a combination of physical and mental strength.

The manner of his arrival at the New Den demonstrated a tenacity and ability to settle in an unfamiliar environment that has served him well at Goodison. At 16 he left school to come to England in search of a trial, which Millwall eventually granted him. "Everything just fell into place then," he recalls. "There was an element of culture shock, but I didn't dwell on it too much. The sacrifices were worth it for the chance to develop, to give myself a chance of becoming a professional footballer."

His dogged pursuit of a contract pointed to a tenacity that was soon reproduced in games. When Moyes looked to take him up a level he had to be sure his talent and temperament would cope with pressure-cooker occasions like today's. Cahill provided proof last spring by scoring in both the quarter-final and semi-final as the London underdogs reached the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

To his new manager's possible relief and surprise - Everton were widely touted as relegation candidates and few players now make the once-traditional step up from the lower divisions - the £1.5m signing instantly looked at home at the higher level.

"I had a fantastic time in my seven years at Millwall," Cahill says. "They're a great club full of terrific people, on and off the pitch. I really saw the highs and lows, and it was a pity I couldn't get into the Premiership with them. But I had to progress and the club needed the money. The fans accepted that I'd given everything and were very supportive of me.

"Coming here was a massive opportunity. I knew about the history and potential through talking to two colleagues at Millwall, Nick Chadwick and Tony Warner [who started with Everton and Liverpool respectively]. I felt I was coming to a club that was going places."

Places like the Championship, many argued, especially after Wayne Rooney defected to Manchester United. During the saga of his £30m transfer, the clubs tangled at Old Trafford. "I came back from playing in the Olympics and went straight in for my debut before a 67,000 crowd," Cahill says. "That's when it felt real. It was sink or swim and luckily enough I swam. The lads made me feel comfortable, which enabled me to do what I did naturally at Millwall. We got a good point and we've carried it on from there."

Everton's next away fixture, also in Manchester, brought an early indication of his facility for timing his runs into striking positions by heading the winning goal against City. He was promptly sent off for pulling his shirt over his head in celebration, the over-zealous enforcement of ill-conceived legislation. "I treasure the moment despite the red card," Cahill states diplomatically.

His extraordinarily eventful introduction to top-flight football continued with another headed winner, at Portsmouth, followed by a knee-high, potentially career-threatening challenge on him by Tottenham's Jamie Redknapp. "It's just crazy how much has happened in so little time," Cahill says.

He recovered swiftly and now reflects on the incident as no more than an unfortunate part of the rich tapestry of Premiership life. "It was a bad moment. When something like that happens, you think bad things initially. When you find you're OK, you take a step back and think of your overall situation. I was fine with it because I was all right."

Adding insult to injury, Redknapp and his cohorts won. Pundits and punters alike predicted a rapid tailing off in Everton's results, but it has still not happened. Asked whether he honestly expected to be on course for Europe, Cahill's response epitomises the work ethic and spirit fostered by Moyes.

"It's definitely fair for us to be third at the moment, but where you are at the end of the season is where you deserve to be. We haven't set any targets and we're not saying where we're going to finish. All I know is that game by game, we're going to be putting in everything."

Many Everton fans believe the loss of their one obvious star cemented the camaraderie of a relatively small squad, making them want to prove they were no one-man team. "I don't know Wayne Rooney; I didn't play with him," Cahill counters. "We just had to do it for ourselves."

Nor does he hold with the notion that splashing some of the cash received from United may fracture their unity, even if the likelihood of his being left out would increase. "You need to keep strengthening. You're happy because it's a squad game. You can't play all the matches. You have to be prepared to take a back seat sometimes and give your body a break."

Lest anyone interprets this as a plea for a rest from a summer Olympian, he adds: "You do get tired, but it doesn't matter when you're winning. I feel fit and want to play as much as I can. I want to be a part of everything, good and bad."

A derby magnifies such extremes. Cahill has sampled fierce parochialism before, when Millwall faced West Ham, against whom he scored three times last season.

Yet he acknowledges that Everton against Liverpool will be more intense, especially with Steven Gerrard sparking a resurgence at Anfield. "I've never experienced anything like this," Cahill says, "and can't wait to get stuck into it."

So far, the hostility has been tinged with scouse humour. "People are really friendly up here," Cahill says. "I've met Reds, and they were nice, although of course it would be great to get one over Liverpool. In a way, we already have." Spoken, it should be said, like a true Blue.

They came from Down Under

Australia's top-flight exports

Mark Viduka

Clubs: Middlesbrough, Leeds United

2000- present Apps: 177 Goals: 79

Transfer Fees: £6m, £4.5m

Has been a consistent scorer since coming to the Premiership but has been dogged by questions over his attitude.

Harry Kewell

Clubs: Liverpool, Leeds United

1995- present Apps: 289 Goals: 75

Transfer Fee: £5m

Mercurial midfielder sparkled in early days at Leeds but has struggled to recapture the form that took them to a Champions' League semi-final.

Mark Schwarzer

Clubs: Middlesbrough

1997- present Apps: 312

Honours: League Cup 2004

Transfer Fee: £1.2m

Capable keeper who has improved with age and helped Boro to their first ever trophy. Occasional blunder has perhaps stopped his career going further.

Lucas Neill

Clubs: Blackburn Rovers

2001- present Apps: 128 Goals: 3

Transfer Fee: £600,000

Versatile defender for Rovers, but his poor disciplinary record causes concern.

Mark Bosnich

Clubs: Chelsea, Man Utd, Aston Villa

1989-2003 Apps: 272

Transfer Fees: Free

Fantastic for Villa, came to United in 1999 as successor to Peter Schmeichel, but off-field events progressively distracted him from his career.