Gary Cahill interview: Chelsea defender keeps coming out on top in his climb to success

As Chelsea prepare to parade the Premier League trophy, the England defender’s part in their triumph can seem underplayed. He tells Ian Herbert about being written off – and then proving people wrong

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The Independent Online

If Gary Cahill had been a £30m buy with all the glitter that such a purchase brings, we would have been reading endless paeans of praise to his qualities in the two weeks since Chelsea won the Premier League trophy they will parade this weekend.

Speed, physicality, positioning, scores of recovery tackles: this is what Cahill has delivered across the course of nine months in which he has revealed that the traditional English centre-half is alive and well.

Yet still the sense remains that he is a player whose assets have gone under the radar and he has not been as appreciated quite as he might. The trophy Cahill will lift tomorrow completes the full set of five – with the Champions League, FA Cup, Europa League and Capital One Cup – in just three and a half seasons. No player has accomplished all that in such a short time in the modern era.

 

Cahill is a throwback in so many ways – a player whose modesty does not fit with the glitz and glamour of these days and whose arrival as a signature player for the English nation has taken some time. It was something of a shock to him to arrive at the World Cup in Brazil last summer to find himself a cult figure, for his part as a bass guitarist in a band put together for a Budweiser advert, with Samuel Eto’o, Hulk and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida also part of the four-piece assembled for filming at Shepperton Studios.

“Outside the comfort zone,” Cahill says at a hotel in Cobham, Surrey, after a morning at Chelsea’s nearby training ground. The popularity of the video might explain why the 29-year-old’s second-largest Facebook following is in Brazil, though his emergence as a quintessential England international has continued within these shores. An imaginative film the Football Association produced of him and a supporter to mark St George’s Day was hugely well received last month. Testimony to the way that the quiet man can win through.

His part at the core of Chelsea’s title demonstrates the point far more. Jose Mourinho’s return two years ago – Cahill’s fourth Chelsea manager in 18 months – raised all the usual questions about whether he would remain a part of the picture and the purchase of Kurt Zouma last summer amplified them. But Mourinho has seen what Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez all observed in him.

“Yes, straight away the question marks are: ‘Can he do this? Can he play in the Champions League?’” Cahill says of the initial reaction to his £7m move to Chelsea from Bolton in 2012. “But I probably think mentally differently to maybe you or other people who think, ‘He is going in there as a squad player to see how he gets on’. In my head I looked at it differently. No way would I let that idea get in my head.”

And within six months, he became one of a very select group of players whose first trophy-winning appearance was in the Champions League final, playing a big part on Bayern Munich’s own turf despite pulling a hamstring early in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona, which Chelsea had not dared risk testing in a game environment until the Allianz Arena. “It was a bit dodgy. I had to recover it. You don’t know how it will be, do you? But in my head I always knew I was going to be fit. Unless I physically couldn’t walk I was going to be in that game.”

There is a misunderstanding, Cahill says, that a player who makes the step he made that season – losing 5-1 at home to Chelsea in early October with Bolton and lifting European silverware come late May – in some way “improves” the way he defends. The changes are subtler and above all entail better positioning. “Knowing where to be, when to be there. Making mistakes and questioning why you’ve made them. A lot of positions now are second nature,” he says.

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Chelsea defender Gary Cahill

What Mourinho has added in the past two seasons has been an improvement to the collective, rather than any kind of detailed focus on precisely what an individual player like Cahill might do better. “He’s not coming to you every two minutes and saying: ‘I think it should be this position, or that position.’ It’s like he knows what he wants, puts that across. The players at this club don’t need to do a coaching drill on this is how you do the first touch or pass a ball.”

The scrutiny is the part of Chelsea and England that you have to learn to live with, knowing that it only takes a second to rewrite your entire perceived contribution to a match. It is worse for defenders, he says, relating a conversation he and Cesc Fabregas found themselves having at a club Q and A session last week. “So many times I think to myself, ‘I haven’t put a foot wrong in this game’ and going into 80, 85 minutes and I’m thinking on the quiet ‘I’m on for a nine out of 10 here.’ And then just one thing. That’s just the nature of the position…”

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John Terry and Cahill have proved pivotal for Chelsea again

He does not flinch from a discussion of the conceded goal which sums up that bind – the one where Mario Balotelli was lurking to score for Italy when Antonio Candreva’s cross looped over Cahill’s head to reach the striker in Manaus last summer. “Yeah for sure,” he says to the suggestion that one cut him. “It’s hard, isn’t it? Because no one’s a robot. You put yourself in a position in the box where the cross [for Balotelli] is from so wide that you think, ‘Right, this will have to be some cross to deliver.’

“When you look back at it you know you should have been tighter to clear that but at the moment in the game you think, ‘This will be some cross to go back post, over my head when I’m 6ft 4in and right on the button of his head without the keeper coming out’. There are some instances where that’s just football.”

Certainly, more was made of that than of his quiet accomplishments this season. “Where you have a little setback or you are out of the team you’re considered a different player but you know you will come out of the other side of it,” he says. The Cahill who runs out on tomorrow will have started no fewer than 54 games this season for the side, has been voted into the Premier League team of the season by his peers for the second successive year and is part of the partnership, with John Terry, that Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has described as the overwhelming reason why Chelsea are champions.

He is not hugely confident about his gradually growing public persona. “I’m so-so about it,” he says. “It’s nice to give people insight into what’s going on but for me it’s all about football really.” So the sweetest of those five trophies then? “The Champions League,” he says, his face creasing into a grin. “It happened so quickly. It was the first time I’d ever won anything and for that to be the trophy – you just couldn’t make that up!”

MY OTHER LIFE

I’ve been in a band, though not as you’d know it. It was a shock when the group – Samuel Eto’o, Hulk, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida and I – “formed” for a Budweiser ad (below) which was televised all around Brazil last summer.

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Cahill formed a band with Samuel Eto’o, Hulk and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida

I took some stick from the England squad and I’ll be sticking at the day job. Through playing for England I’ve also come into contact with the Honeypot Children’s Charity, which helps young carers. It’s a great organisation and it has been brilliant to be involved.

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