They came to bid farewell to a legend but as one hero departed, did Australia witness the arrival of another? Goodbye and good luck Tim Cahill. Hello and welcome Martin Boyle, whose two goals and an assist in an electric performance showed the Socceroos do indeed know how to finish chances in the absence of their all-time leading goalscorer.
Cahill started on the bench and got the farewell he deserved late on in a comfortable 3-0 win over Lebanon, but it was Boyle, making the first start of his nascent international career, who may have provided an answer the most important question facing Graham Arnold: who will step up and become Cahill’s heir?
It’s a question that will have occupied much of Arnold’s thinking since taking over the national side after this year’s World Cup campaign and, with no player as yet having truly staked a claim to Cahill’s throne, Boyle stole a march on other hopefuls with a hugely encouraging performance in Sydney.
Lebanon, ranked 82 in the world, hardly provided the same level of opposition that Cahill at times tormented over the course of his lengthy and successful career, but particularly in the first half the Hibernian striker posed problems time and again for the visitors to ANZ Stadium and, crucially, took his chances when they came.
Contrast for a moment the Aberdeen-born Boyle, who made his debut against South Korea at the weekend, with Tomi Juric, in the side for Jamie Maclaren, who himself managed just four touches of the ball and no goals during the match in Brisbane three days ago. Juric failed to convert a number of chances on the night – a header straight at the keeper and a shot over the bar in the first half and a fluffed effort from close range in the second – and cut largely a frustrated figure.
Boyle was full of pace, persistence and some skill – in short a defender’s nightmare. With his head down, running at the back line, at times he resembled a young Craig Bellamy, in a complimentary way. As part of a fluid front three, along with Juric and Awer Mabil – the latter also making his first Socceroos start – Boyle delivered an early indication of his intent with an acrobatic volley at the far post that Mehdi Kahlil managed to stop, although the Lebanese keeper knew little about it.
Boyle only set foot in Australia for the first time a few weeks back, but for a man supposed to be unfamiliar with his surroundings he very much looked at home on the ANZ pitch.
And he didn’t have to wait long to open his account. Having skewed a shot wide of the post and laid on a couple of half chances for Mabil – the man with more stepovers than Cristiano Ronaldo – and Juric, his time came in the 19th minute. The shot may have taken a hefty deflection off Joan Oumari, but neither Boyle nor his team-mates – all 10 of whom rushed to congratulate him – were complaining.
A second came just before the break to put Australia in complete control of a game they were already dominating as Boyle showed a predatory instinct, reacting first to prod home after an unmarked Milos Degenek crashed his header from a corner against the bar.
He then showed another string to his bow as he turned provider after the break, laying on a third goal for Mathew Leckie, who swept his cross home with aplomb.
“We look all over the world for players,” Arnold said afterwards. “When I went to Hibs to see Mark Milligan and Jamie Maclaren, I spent a day there. Watching him train, it was a no brainer, if I could convince him to play for Australia. And to be honest I didn’t have to work too hard to convince him. He was very keen to do it.
“He’s fit into the group so well. He’s a fantastic kid. It was a pretty special night last night when we presented him with his debut jersey. He got it from Timmy. I just said to him, ‘you may have to be No 4 now’.”
Still, it was Cahill who the crowd has turned up to see, not any aspirant to wear his jersey, and the 33,286 inside the stadium got their wish in 82nd minute when the 107-cap striker came on to make his final appearance in a Socceroos shirt.
The romantic script said he would replace Boyle, a ceremonial passing of the baton, before ending his long and distinguished international career with a goal of his own. But it wasn’t to be: Cahill replaced Aaron Mooy and then barely touched the ball during his 10-minute cameo. Just once did he get to flex his neck muscles, in that ever so familiar way, in front of goal, but just as it appeared the crowd would be treated to a dream ending, a defender’s head nicked the ball away from him.
Instead, they had to settle for a compilation video of his career highlights on the big screen at full-time. The real thing would have been a more fitting ending to the greatest Socceroo career of all.