Robert Cornthwaite returns to Malaysia having 'nothing to prove'
Back for his second stint in Southeast Asia under ex-Melbourne Victory manager Mehmet Durakovic, former Socceroo Robert Cornthwaite will be hoping to taste Malaysia Cup glory once again. But he says his abrupt departure from Western Sydney Wanderers still lingers on his mind.
The ex-club captain admits that his world was turned upside down when manager Tony Popovic quit before the start of the 2017-18 A-League season last October, to be replaced by Josep Gombau.
Within weeks, Cornthwaite found himself on the bench as the ex-Adelaide United boss rang the changes. Last month, the 32-year-old exited the club to join Perak TBG for the 2018 Malaysia Super League season.
Speaking exclusively from Perak's base in Ipoh, Cornthwaite conceded that he was dropped after a disagreement with ex-Barcelona youth coach Gombau and declared that he "had nothing to prove" after turning his back on a "stagnant" A-League.
"Once you're not enjoying things, it's hard to perform well," Cornthwaite said. "Working with Tony Popovic was one of the best learning experiences I've had as a player because I loved his attention to detail, with a no-nonsense, winning mentality -- at all costs.
"When there was a change of managers, the club started to head in a direction that I didn't really enjoy anymore. [Gombau] is a lot more relaxed than 'Poppa' and a different style of coach who wants to be friends with the players. It certainly worked well for him in the past, but I prefer more of a boss."
Cornthwaite's third foray into Asia -- he also spent four years in South Korea with Jeonnam Dragons -- takes him two hours north of Kuala Lumpur to an improving side looking to emulate the feats of his former Malaysian club, Selangor.
In the 2015 season, Cornthwaite was a key figure under ex-Selangor captain Durakovic as the Red Giants lifted the Malaysia Cup for a record 33rd time after a 2-0 victory over Kedah at the iconic Shah Alam Stadium. Durakovic became the first foreigner to win the Malaysia Cup as a player and coach as the imposing Cornthwaite -- he's 6-foot-5 -- carved his name into local football folklore with an authoritative defensive display.
So much so that when Cornthwaite, Durakovic and other key personnel were swept out of the club at the start of the 2016 season to clear the way for the arrival of new coach Zainal Abidin Hassan, the seven-time capped Socceroo was quickly reinstated after a massive fan backlash on social media.
"Playing for Perak is a lot different to Selangor ... for a start, it is in a quiet area away from Kuala Lumpur, and the expectations are different," Cornthwaite said.
"But Mehmet and I have a good record working together in Malaysia and I know that he is the type of coach who suits my game. We have a very good squad so I'm hopeful that we can have a successful year."
Apart from Philippines striker Misagh Bahadoran, who qualifies as an ASEAN import, Perak have a trio of Brazilian attackers, including Leandro, who featured in the 2015 Malaysia Cup win. There's also ex-Sydney FC midfielder Brendan Gan, one of Cornthwaite's former rivals from his A-League days at Adelaide United.
Australian-born Gan, whose father was born in Malaysia, now plays for the Malaysian national team, having earned eight caps and appeared in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea.
Cornthwaite bristles at the suggestion that returning to Asia is an easy option after one-and-a-half seasons back in the A-League. He played 36 times across all competitions for Western Sydney between mid-2016 and January 2018, scoring three goals.
His former Adelaide United teammate Bruce Djite recently joined Indonesian club PSM Makassar while Matt Smith -- two-time A-League winning captain with Brisbane Roar -- has just begun his fourth season with Thailand's Bangkok Glass.
"People think you can just walk into a Southeast Asian league once they can't find anything in Australia, but it's not like that," Cornthwaite said. "There's a list as long as my arm of players who want out of the A-League but can't find anything.
"I've spent over half my career in Asia and not many players have survived 12 months in any league. I'm into my seventh season. I don't have anything to prove.
"Unfortunately, the A-League is stagnant and players want to set up their futures. There's a lot that needs to improve in the running of the game in Australia. Let's hope something gives sooner rather than later."
After four matches of the 2018 MSL season, Perak are in mid-table in the 12-team league but within reach of the top three. The highlight was a 3-1 away win against 2017 Malaysia FA Cup champions Kedah on Feb. 8, with Cornthwaite scoring the go-ahead goal in the 87th minute.
Despite his sometimes ungainly style, Cornthwaite has a knack of grabbing late goals and scored three times at international level, including the winner as Australia beat South Korea 2-1 in Hwaseong in 2012. Another late strike helped Adelaide United beat Kashima Antlers in the last four to advance to the final of the 2008 AFC Champions League.
He still has a soft spot for Adelaide and concedes that an A-League swan song in his hometown might be the perfect ending once his second chapter in Malaysia is over.
"You never know in football. I've always had a dream to play for my home city again one day. But most players don't get a fairy-tale ending. Whatever happens is what's meant to be," Cornthwaite said.
"As for my Western Sydney chapter, captaining the club is one of the highlights of my career. I only wish I had had Tony Popovic as a coach when I was just starting out in football."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.