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Robbie Cornthwaite: My favourite match

Friday, May 8, 2020
Adelaide United (AUS) vs Kashima Antlers (JPN) - AFC Champions League 2008  Quarter-finals (6)

Adelaide: Football can be a cruel game. For every last-minute winner, there is a beaten goalkeeper. For every player who benefits from a stroke of luck, there is another who suffers.

Adelaide United defender Robbie Cornthwaite had the misfortune of scoring an own goal in a match he considered the biggest in his club’s history, but unlike most players, the 22-year-old managed to turn his calamity into triumph.

Speaking to more than a decade on, Cornthwaite recounts the tale of his own goal in the first leg of the 2008 AFC Champions League quarter-final against Kashima Antlers, and how he went from villain to hero just a week later.

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“When I look at things that happened in my career, I’m lucky, in a way,” said Cornthwaite, now back at home in Adelaide after a career which took him around the Asian continent.

“Not to say that these moments are famous around the world, but there’s a couple, sort of iconic moments that I was involved in, and that’s one.”

Robbie Cornthwaite: My favourite match

In September 2008, Adelaide United and Cornthwaite were in uncharted territory.

Just five years into their existence, the team from Australia’s fifth largest city had become the first from their country to reach the AFC Champions League knockout stage, going unbeaten against Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese opposition to set up a two-legged quarter-final clash with defending J-League champions Kashima Antlers.

Adelaide had qualified for the 2008 tournament by virtue of their second-place finish in the 2006-07 A-League season, but they had struggled in the more recently completed 2007-08 league campaign, meaning it was a side which had finished sixth in their eight-team domestic league which was now aiming to become champions of Asia.

Kashima looked far more likely to challenge for the title.

In addition to winning five league titles in just over a decade, with a sixth to come later in the year, they scored 28 goals in their six group stage matches, further underlining the quality that Oswaldo de Oliveira had at his disposal.

Star Kashima names like Atsuto Uchida, Shinzo Koroki, Marquinhos and Danilo were all present, and the fact that Adelaide were only weeks into their new season meant the Australians were considered strong outsiders when they arrived in Ibaraki for the first leg of the tie.

“We knew that we were going to be up against it, like most of the games,” Cornthwaite told

“They still are obviously, but (Kashima) were a powerhouse of Japanese football, and they were the best side over the previous couple of seasons.”

But, far from suffering the same fate as Kashima’s group stage opponents, Adelaide showed no signs fear in their first ever competitive match on Japanese soil.

“We went ahead early,” Cornthwaite recalled.

“Travis Dodd scored a really, really good header, and I don’t think we were really expecting to get much out of that game, so when we went a goal up, that obviously gave us a lot of confidence.”

Dodd’s 37th-minute goal had given Adelaide a dream start, but it quickly turned into a nightmare for Cornthwaite, when his attempt to clear a relatively harmless Uchida delivery just before half-time ended in disaster, with the big defender slicing the ball into his own net before keeling over in despair.

“It was a bit of an in-swinging ball. I think there was a man behind me. I had to just clear it away on my left foot.

“It was late on in the first half, and it just sort of skidded off the surface, then skidded off the top of my foot. I didn’t really make any sort of meaningful contact. Obviously, I got enough on it to guide it into the bottom corner.

“I was really, really disappointed. Such a huge game – the biggest game in the club’s history at the time and (as a) a young player, to do that on such a big stage was really disappointing, but we still had a second half to play and we knew that, if we could get away with a draw, then that would give us a chance going into the second leg.”

Adelaide did hold on for a 1-1 draw, and while there was still a job to be done in the return leg at Hindmarsh Stadium, they knew they would be able to count on the backing of a city which had fallen in love with their local football club, particularly when they hosted Asia’s top sides.

“It was massive,” said Cornthwaite. “For the Kashima game we were watching visions of the pubs in Adelaide, and the bars were full of people going to watch it.

“It was the hottest ticket in town. We knew that the mid-week clash at Hindmarsh (would sell out). People still talk of it now. People still say: ‘Remember the ACL run and the crowds we used to get on Tuesday, Wednesday night’. It was just phenomenal.”

Seven days after the ‘biggest game in the club’s history’, Hindmarsh played host to an even bigger one, with nearly every vantage point in the compact 17,000-capacity stadium occupied by red-clad fans.

Adelaide’s players may have been fatigued, having travelled to Sydney for a league match, - and being defeated 3-0 by Sydney FC - on the way back from Japan, but, with Dodd’s away goal in hand, there was a vibrant, if not expectant atmosphere in the stadium prior to kick-off.

Retained in Aurelio Vidmar’s (pictured above) starting side, Cornthwaite believed the best way to atone for his error in Ibaraki would be to turn in a mistake-free defensive performance, but, for the second time in a week, it was the homegrown youngster who made all the headlines.

“Leading into the (second leg), it wasn’t something like I was thinking ‘I have to score’,” he said.

“If I was a striker, I probably would have been thinking ‘yeah, alright, I have to score to make up for my mistake’, but as a defender I was thinking, ‘let’s just keep a clean sheet’. If we can get away with a result and go through, everyone’s going to forget about my mistake anyway.

“But, to be the one that scored – it’s just one of those things in sport where it was like it was just sort of meant to be. For whatever reason, it happened.”

‘It’ happened with just over 15 minutes remaining.

Vidmar’s men had turned in a commendable display, but despite a series of promising moments in attack, they had been unable to take an outright aggregate lead, meaning one goal from the visitors still had the potential to put a swift end to Adelaide’s Asian odyssey.

Regular goal scorers like Dodd and Brazilian forward Cristiano had found themselves on the end of scoring chances for the hosts, but Kashima goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata wasn’t required to make a single save until Paul Reid sent in a long-range effort in the 72nd minute.

A few seconds, and one pinpoint cross from Brazilian full-back Cassio, later, Cornthwaite emerged – this time at the right end of the pitch – to send Hindmarsh into ecstasy, and Adelaide into the semi-finals with a close-range header that slipped under Sogahata and into the net.

“I remember Paul Reid had a strike from range, which the keeper sort of beat away,” recalled Cornthwaite.

“At the time Travis Dodd was playing in front of me, and he sort of drifted into the middle of the park into midfield. As the keeper parried the ball out to the left-hand corner flag, it found its way to Cassio, and as he got his head up, I knew there was no one in front of me."

“It was a half-diving header, almost like a falling header, and I knew if I kept it down it would be difficult for the keeper to save. In the end it only just went to the side of him and I think the fact that I did head it down into the ground made it difficult for him. It sort of skidded on and he just parried it into the back of the net and then from there… I went into pandemonium.

“The most memorable thing about that goal is my family used to sit in that corner and I ran, literally three of four metres away from them. That was really special to be able to celebrate it right in front of them.

“It’s just a wonderful memory.”

It was Australian commentator and former professional Andy Harper who arguably summed up the moment best, saying: “Football can be a cruel game, but it has offered the ability for redemption for Robbie Cornthwaite, whose head was hanging at half-time in Kashima. It’s flying high at Hindmarsh!”

To say that Cornthwaite was an unlikely matchwinner, particularly in the manner that he became one, is a significant understatement.

At that stage he had scored twice before in his career - and his 195-centimetre frame would make him a regular threat from set-pieces in years to come - but as he revealed to, the goal against Kashima was the only one he can recall from open play in his 14 years in the professional game.

“I had scored in that competition already, and I’d scored in the league, but never in that manner. It was usually a set-piece. I’m trying to think of goals in my whole career, now that I’m retired, that I’ve scored in open play and I can’t actually think of any.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever scored from open play other than that goal,”

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Putting Rivaldo on his arse back in 2008 champions league #ACL #adelaideunited #football #kleague

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Unlikely as it may have been, Cornthwaite’s header took Adelaide to a semi-final clash with Uzbekistan’s FC Bunyodkor, who boasted a strong squad which also featured none other than Brazilian World Cup winner Rivaldo.

The Reds won 3-1 on aggregate thanks to a 3-0 first leg win at another jam-packed Hindmarsh, with Cornthwaite involved in another memorable moment, this time audaciously standing over the former Barcelona star after an early collision.

“In truth, I never actually said anything to him. Being young, I just thought it would kind of look a bit tough, to be honest," Cornthwaite laughed.

There would be no more fairytales in the final, with Adelaide well beaten by an excellent Gamba Osaka outfit, who eased to their first Asian title with a 5-0 aggregate victory.

It was, however, just the beginning of Cornthwaite’s Asian adventure. He played four seasons with Korea Republic’s Jeonnam Dragons starting in 2011 and won the Malaysia Cup with Selangor in 2015; a win he considers among the high points of his career.

He also represented Australia seven times, scoring three goals – all from set-pieces – and, since his 2018 retirement, has become a familiar football media personality in both Malaysia and Australia.

But despite his many achievements both on and off the field, unheralded Adelaide United’s run to the 2008 AFC Champions League, and the significant role he played in it, holds a special place in Cornthwaite’s memory.

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Finish 2nd in the league and win first Malaysian cup in 10 years with best defensive record isn't always enough. Expect the unexpected! To all the fans who wear Red and yellow thanks for an amazing year. I leave with my head held high. 'Misi 33' complete! Management confirmed that they wish to go another direction next season! I wanted to stay but was out of my hands #RNYTWD

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“It actually felt like the whole city was behind us,” he said.

“Everyone was talking about it and we were the real flavour of the month, I suppose, and to be a young player, coming through and experiencing that, it was unreal.

“I actually lived with (Melbourne City captain) Scott Jamieson at the time, who was another guy that was in the squad with me, and we still speak about it now, about how those were just some of the best days of our career, and we had them so early on.”

Adelaide’s United run to the final was an unprecedented achievement at the time, and while they didn’t lift the trophy, Cornthwaite’s topsy-turvy week in late September 2008 reminded us all that, while football can sometimes make you hang your head, it can also give you the chance to fly higher than you ever thought possible.

Photos: AFC, AFP

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