‘Cahill: Working hard, playing well’
So reads the headline on Chelsea’s website for their latest feature on Gary Cahill, almost parodically mundane. You can imagine searching for further features on Chelsea’s central defender and seeing a list of four or five stories, each with a similar headline: ‘Working hard, playing well’. ‘Playing well, working hard’. ‘Playing hard, working well’. ‘Working well, playing hard’.
This is the Cahill mantra. He is the Premier League’s ultimate no-frills footballer, famous for being middle of the road in a division of ball-playing defenders or towering physical presences. Cahill is dull without even being exceptionally dull; he is the back-up to BoringMilner. The town Dronfield, where Cahill was born, means ‘open land infested with drones’. That’s not even a joke.
Perhaps it is this understatement that costs Cahill his reputation. Without the sliding tackles to thwart danger or confident dribbles out of defence, he never has one of those immense, memorable games that great centre-halves have in their show reel. A Youtube video entitled ‘Gary Cahill | Headers, Tackles, Passes | 2016/17 | HD’, set to pumping drum and bass, would not be popular. You only notice Chelsea’s captain when something goes awry.
That is happening more often than Antonio Conte would like of late. Chelsea have now gone 11 matches without keeping a clean sheet. Not only is that the longest run in the Premier League, but only three other clubs (Sunderland, Stoke and West Brom) have gone more than two games. Against Southampton, there was again an unusual amount of defensive disarray for a likely title victor, enough to provoke regular touchline outbursts from Conte.
In that sense, Cahill is a personification of Chelsea’s season as a whole. A difficult September was followed by resurgent form during autumn and winter, and even a late wobble will fail to take the shine off a magnificent season. Like Chelsea under Conte, Cahill excels in getting the job done.
Rather than resent his supporting actor role, Cahill has flourished. It is no coincidence that last season, when asked to be the leader of the defence in the absence of John Terry and before the return of David Luiz, he and Chelsea struggled. Cahill tops up the air in the tyres and checks the oil; others can drive the fast car.
In fact, Cahill has been more conspicuous in the opposition penalty area than his own this season. Of the team that started against Southampton, only Eden Hazard and Diego Costa had scored more league goals for Chelsea. It was Cahill’s determination that gave Chelsea a half-time lead that was barely deserved, risking a kick in the face to head past Fraser Forster.
“For me, Gary, he can play also as a centre forward,” Conte joked after Cahill’s goal against Stoke last month. “He has a good quality, he is acrobatic, he is very good during corners and set-pieces.” It was ever thus for Cahill; Mr Right Place, Right Time.
We are also discussing one of the most successful English defenders of the modern era. Cahill will surely win his second Premier League title before May is out, and put that honour alongside FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and Europa League winners’ medals. One of the four recent English players with that same set came on with five minutes remaining at Stamford Bridge, and will leave this summer. The other two (Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard) have already moved on. Cahill is the last of the old guard.
If that roll of honours jars against our assessment of Cahill’s abilities, perhaps we are in the wrong.
Yet if Cahill is unnoticed by the wider football population, his peers do not make the same mistake. He has been voted into the PFA Team of the Year in three of the last four seasons, a feat matched only by Harry Kane, David de Gea and Eden Hazard. True to form, Cahill is the name you’d guess last of that quartet.
In typically humble fashion, Cahill last month rejected the idea that he could replace John Terry’s influence at Chelsea when the club captain leaves: “I would never try to fill John Terry’s boots. You can never fill that position. When I took over as captain this season, either through him not being picked or not being available, it was a privilege to do that.”
Cahill may never match Terry for passion or visual displays of leadership, but only because that is not his style. While the former has been moved away from centre stage by a strong-willed manager, Cahill has become Conte’s unlikely teacher’s pet. If you want a defender who is determined, selfless and hard-working, you could find few more loyal subjects.