When Robert Cornthwaite announced his retirement in July this year, it came as a shock as he was only 32 years old, not an age typically associated with a footballer in the modern day given the advancement in technology and medicine. Yet after a thorough soul-searching, Cornthwaite decided to close the curtain on his 14-year playing career that saw him showcasing his talents with teams across Asia.
Starting out his professional career with Adelaide United, the South Australian team is the team that Cornthwaite has spent the largest part of his career with, 7 years over two different spells. Jeonnam Dragons in South Korea, Selangor in Malaysia and Western Sydney Wanderers were the next destinations, followed by his last stop in Perak.
It was halfway through Perak’s 2018 season in the Malaysian league that Cornthwaite closed the cap on his playing career but Ipoh caught his heart even though he was only there for a short spell. The city that is a two-hour drive up north from Kuala Lumpur is where he is currently residing in his retirement days, occasionally going back to Malaysia’s capital for television work in programmes relating to football as well as live commentary on the league matches.
“I don’t know why it’s surprising for some people (to stay in Ipoh). For me it’s beautiful, easy to get around and got that local feeling,” Cornthwaite told Goal in a quaint little café in Ipoh. “I got to a shop and café, people know you and you can make new friends.
“I enjoy that easy kind of lifestyle because I was from a small city in Australia that’s similar to Ipoh. When I lived in South Korea, it was an even smaller town than Ipoh. I just enjoy the more family view, it’s perfect. And I think Ronaldinho could live here (chuckles).”
The former Barcelona, AC Milan and Brazil star was of course linked to Perak when he came to Kuala Lumpur for an UEFA Champions League promotional tour when the former World Cup winner did mentioned that he might be opened to a move to Malaysia.
Like Ronaldinho, Cornthwaite is also no longer playing competitive football and it comes as no surprise that he misses the environment that comes with being around a team. The former centre back recalls the adrenaline rush from days past as something special.
However unlike his peers who would normally go straight back into football whether as a coach, a technical director or other position within a club, Cornthwaite is not in a hurry to fill that chapter of his book yet.
“You will always miss the feeling of game day, when you win and the emotions after that made it such a fond day. When I was younger, I used to go to the hotel with my roommate and say to each other that when we come back here in a few hours, we would be buzzing.
“And when you go to the game and you win. Everyone is so happy and when you get back, you could never sleep. I’d end up watching the highlights, talking about it. Just that feeling of winning and being with the team are the things are miss the most.”
“I always think that when players have success at one club, there’s always that romantic feeling of one day coming back and coach. But coaching is not something that I’m really fond about while I was playing. That said, I’ll be doing my badges and already in the process of working that out.
“But I’m doing it for two reasons - one when the opportunity present itself, then I’m ready, secondly I want to see the game from a different point of view. I’ve always seen the game as a player and as a fan. When you have a coaching background, you see things a little differently.
“So whether I have a career in the media, as a coach or not even in football; I think that’s another dimension to see things in another way. The more education you have, the more doors you can open. But I do think that some days, I might go back to coach Selangor or one of my teams in Korea but that’s a long way down the track.”
In 2007, he was part of the Adelaide side that went all the way to the AFC Champions League final but Gamba Osaka proved to be one step too far and his team only finished as runners-up. But the result enabled Cornthwaite and Adelaide to be part of the 2018 Club World Cup.
The Socceroos was also keeping a close eye on him but because competition was high for the Australian national team, Cornthwaite only made seven appearances for his country, with the last cap coming in 2013.
Two years after that he got his first taste of Malaysian football when the then 32-times Malaysia Cup champions, Selangor came calling. After 10 long years of failing to win the prestigious trophy that is so associated to the club, Cornthwaite’s arrival signalled the 33rd Malaysia Cup triumph in his first season.
He returned to Australia briefly to join Western Sydney and was even made captain of the club that saw him test his quality against top English Premier League side Arsenal in 2017 when Arsene Wenger took his team then to the southern hemisphere for a pre-season.
But arguably the period of his career that left the deepest mark on him in a positive way was the time he spent in South Korea with Jeonnam. Comparing Korea to Malaysia, Cornthwaite outlined the difference between the two countries in respect to football.
“A lot of it comes down to culture and history. In Korea, they have military background and respect is the biggest thing. Whenever someone say you do it, no matter what they do. When someone says today you train three times, no one says anything and they’ll be happy to just follow. To change that mindset to becoming like a beast is difficult. Certain players have it, certain players don’t.
“Without being disrespectful, I think where the Malaysian league is at and the salaries, they don’t match. The salaries are very high for the level. And that’s because of the popularity and the government investment. TMJ is investing in Johor and that makes everyone else have to play a little more. Maybe over time that will settle and balance itself.
“But compared to three years ago, certainly the gap between Johor and the rest of the teams are much much bigger. The sort of top 5 or 6 in the league are quite solid. Then the rest of the teams until the second division are pretty much even. To produce more players, I’ve always said it’s down to facilities.
“So even the top Malaysian teams whether it’s Perak or Selangor, the facilities are still not great. Most of the clubs don’t even have their own gyms and if they do, it’s quite old. The training ground aren’t usually really good and this is the top level, imagine what it’s like for the youth and younger players coming through. How are they expected to reach the likes of Japan and Korea if they are not given everything to be successful?”
Commenting on Super League matches as well as the Malaysia Cup, Cornthwaite has been able to see the game from the other side of the white lines on the pitch and having worked through numerous matches and watching so many players, there are those who have impressed him.
Having been someone who has been brave enough to accept offers from abroad to broaden his horizons, Cornthwaite is hopeful that the two players in particulars will soon be making the same decisions if they are to fully expand on their respective potentials.
“Most players only train for two hours a day. What do they do for the rest of the 22 hours? Are they looking after themselves, are they eating right, sleeping well or playing video games or going out to the mamak shops.
“I’m not saying Malaysia have to do what the Koreans are doing but you’ve got to filter all the way back because when you get to 17, you’ve already got all your bad habits. Akhyar and Safawi are very good players and they are the two players that in the next year or two should go overseas just to pick up discipline.
“I don’t know them and maybe they are already very disciplined but don’t stay here too long and be the biggest fish in the pond,” explained Cornthwaite.
From footballer to pundit, Robert Cornthwaite may yet one day be tempted to don the coach’s shirt and look to convey his experience back to into the game. But for now, the former Australian international and Malaysia Cup winner is happy to just share his thoughts through the lens of a camera.
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