It is impossible to identify one dominant factor when attempting to explain Everton's rapid demise during the second half of 2005, but Tim Cahill's declining influence in front of goal is surely significant.
The ebullient Australian epitomised the endeavour, desire and determination which underpinned the Goodison Park club's remarkable rise from perennial Premiership strugglers to Champions' League qualifiers.
Significantly, Cahill's failure to rediscover the form which brought him 11 goals last season has coincided with an Everton slump which, prior to Saturday's trip to Sunderland, was casting an increasingly dark cloud over the blue half of Merseyside.
"Tim is vitally important to us," confirmed the Toffees' veteran goalkeeper Nigel Martyn after his colleague's injury-time winner guaranteed all three points at the Stadium of Light. "We look to him. Last season his goals were crucial to us and he propelled us to fourth."
Incredibly, a player who has averaged a goal every five games throughout his career had managed just one in 16 this season before his dramatic late touch on Wearside. Towards the end of September Cahill scored against Dynamo Bucharest as Everton slipped out of European competition with a whimper, but even the Sydneysider struggles to remember the strike.
"The win and the goal were a long time coming," he agreed in the aftermath of a vital victory. "It was a massive game for us and it felt great to get the winner. I'm buzzing but then I'm always buzzing. I feel confident even when things aren't going well and that's just the type of character I am. You won't take that away from my game, no matter how bad things get."
Everton cannot afford to rest easy after a first win in five matches halted an abysmal run, but the club's position appears far more secure ahead of today's home fixture with Charlton. The same cannot be said for Sunderland who, despite dominating a thrilling second half, suffered a 15th League defeat of the season.
This was a match the home side deserved to win following a confidence-boosting draw against Bolton Wanderers on Boxing Day, but Cahill capitalised on the Black Cats' failure to make their pressure count. Martyn was in imperious form but Mick McCarthy's pool of willing strikers are simply ill-equipped to make an impression at the highest level.
"I don't think we're losing hope," said Sunderland's Scotland international defender Steve Caldwell. "There are still more than enough games remaining to get the points we need to stay up. But obviously things are getting more and more difficult.
"Everton are a team we are trying to catch and we've allowed them to pull away. It was a sickening defeat, but we have to make sure we are prepared for Fulham."Reuse content