After overcoming hurdles at the beginning of his career the centre-half has an insatiable hunger to keep improving
It was as talk turned away from learning the game the old school way, sponging up knowledge from grizzled, battle-worn bruisers as a loanee at Turf Moor or Bramall Lane, that Gary Cahill's patience seemed to snap. Not in an aggressive way, admittedly, but betraying a tinge of frustration nevertheless. Mention had been made of his partnership with Phil Jagielka in the England set-up, a combination upon which, fitness permitting, the country will lean heavily in Brazil next summer. After all, that pair has started each of the national team's last six games.
"But, because neither of us has been at a Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United since we were 17, or been sold for £40m, people question us," said Cahill. "When we started everyone was talking about the two big stars [John Terry and Rio Ferdinand] who had dropped out, and how they had left a massive void. I've had that throughout my career. You're forever having to overcome hurdles because you've not got that background. Frankly, it makes me feel better about where I am now, the fact I've gone through all that. I've gone on loan, dropping down from Villa, to come back up again and get where I am now. You have to grasp what you can, and that's what I've done."
Cahill has spent the last 22 months filling his boots. The centre-half competes on a weekly basis to earn selection at Chelsea ahead of either a former England captain in Terry, or the current Brazil skipper, David Luiz. A year ago, in an interview with the Guardian, he had conceded competition for places inevitably made selection each week an uncertainty. Nothing has changed 12 months on even if the 27-year-old is a European Cup winner, a Europa League winner, a regular for his country and a player who ended last season at the Maracanã and, potentially, could do the same again this time round.
Club and national teams have kept 10 clean sheets in his 16 matches this season, elite coaches from José Mourinho to Roy Hodgson, via Owen Coyle and Rafael Benítez, having recognised his worth. The current Chelsea manager has stressed publicly how much he trusts a player whose endeavour can never be questioned and yet, at around lunchtime on Saturday, Cahill will either be elated or deflated as Mourinho announces his lineup to confront West Bromwich Albion. The necessity for regular involvement is obvious given the carrot of the World Cup next summer, but there is a realism to Cahill that is refreshing. This is a player who constantly has had to struggle for recognition, and yet rarely feels as if he does not belong.
Rewind, for instance, to those spells on loan from Villa. The centre-back's first taste of professional football was with Steve Cotterill's Burnley, lining up alongside a veteran in John McGreal, a "class influence" at his side in a partnership at opposite ends of their careers. McGreal had watched from the stands as the new arrival debuted in a League Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur exactly nine years ago. "I was a lad from reserve football up against Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane," he recalled with a shudder. "They gave me the absolute runaround." But the teenager lapped up the experience, learned and eventually returned to Villa Park a better player to continue his apprenticeship next to Olof Mellberg.
A four-month loan spell back in his home town of Sheffield, at United rather than his beloved Wednesday, later accelerated the process. "Back then I'd needed games, too, and I'd asked [the then Villa manager] Martin O'Neill five times in a week if I could go and find somewhere to play, and eventually he let me leave. I sat on the fence a bit with my allegiance, but Sheffield United had just come down from the Premier League and it was an opportunity for me. I went in there and met Chris Morgan, my partner at centre-half and the captain, and he offered his hand to me, this kid up from Villa. I say 'offered', but he actually crushed it. But that was him. You knew as soon as you met him why he was captain.
"You have your modern-day centre-halves who bring the ball out and do this or that but, for me, Chris epitomised the old school: no messing, no nonsense, just defend at all costs. And, to be fair, 90% of managers out there would still agree that ultimately, if you're a defender, go out there and defend. Chris wasn't a father-figure exactly, but he was an old pro, experienced, someone who put an arm round me to welcome me into the group but also to guide me. A man with a presence. I can see why some people might be intimidated, but, for me, when I've come into a new group – United, Chelsea, England, wherever – I've always believed I'm there for a reason. I've earned my place.
"After that, though, you have to learn from those who have done more than you, those team-mates who can give you advice. I'll take on board what anyone says, whether it be good, bad, indifferent, if they've been in the game for a long time. And that's why, with time, my game has become cannier and more assured. Of course you know when you make mistakes. These older guys don't have a go at you for them. What you'd expect an ear-bashing for is if your attitude's not right, if you've been told to track a runner and you've left him. Anything approaching laziness and generally not having the right attitude, then [you get] both barrels.
"As a young player in among all these great experienced players, as long as you show an eagerness to learn and try and do the right things, they appreciate it. Even now, when young lads come and train with us, you might say something to them and they take it on board straight away and it's great to see. That's the way I was when I was younger. Others don't, but not everyone has that mentality. That's why not everybody makes it. Personally, I think the people who have that mentality make it more than those who don't."
That eagerness to improve and work has fuelled Cahill's career. The defender was sitting in the cubby-hole of an office at the reception to Chelsea's plush Cobham training complex, immediately above him a photograph of David Cameron, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel watching coverage of the 2012 Champions League final while at a G8 summit. The prime minister is raising his arms in celebration, regrettably exposing sweat marks on a light blue shirt, as Didier Drogba heads home the English club's equaliser against Bayern Munich. Merkel appears unimpressed.
Cahill, semi-fit, had been out on the turf that night as his team's rearguard action achieved the club's most glittering success to date. He might aspire to hoisting that trophy again at some stage in the future though, for now, the target is regaining the Premier League title. Last week's unexpected loss at Newcastle, a game the Englishman sat out, checked momentum. Midweek success in the Champions League must now be pursued by the dismissal of Albion at Stamford Bridge. There can be no further accusations of complacency.
As it is, the Mourinho effect continues to propel this team. The Portuguese is the fourth Chelsea manager to instruct Cahill in his brief time at the club but, four months in, he has already left an impression. "There's an aura about him, a confidence that rubs off on the players," added Cahill. "He has that presence and, in a dressing room with massive players, he has the authority. The handful of lads who had played for him before said he was class. Some of them hadn't even played that regularly under him, but they still said – and this is unusual – that he was a great manager.
" The expectation level he has suits the expectation level the club has, and that which all the players have. That's why it works so well."
Cahill, through diligence and industry, is starting to generate his own reasonable expectations. Another year of progress beckons.
Cahill and his team-mates will be donating their match shirts, embroidered with the Poppy, to raise funds for the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal. To find out more info about the day and how to bid visit www.chelseafc.com