It’s been an emotional couple of weeks of Adelaide’s Robbie Cornthwaite.
The club’s foundation defender has not only found himself unwittingly dragged into a spitting storm but he’s also been the target of abuse from his own supporters for scoring a horror own goal in the away leg of the AFC Champions Judi Onlen League quarter-final against Kashima Antlers
But on Wednesday night in Adelaide, Cornthwaite banished all those demons with a tie-winning headed goal which secured a 2-1 aggregate win over the 5-time Japanese champions and a passage into the final four.
The relieved 22-year-old Australia defender dived to nod home Cassio’s precision centre for the only goal of a pulsating ACL encounter at Hindmarsh, afterwards revealing the anguish he’d suffered after putting through his own net a week before to jeopardise Adelaide’s chances of making history.
No Australian club has previously reached the semi-final stage of Asia’s premier club competition.
“I did try to put the own goal out of my mind as much as possible but the thing is other people do not let you forget it,” Cornthwaite told local football website The World Game. “Even before kick-off while I was warming up I heard one of our supporters urge me ‘to score for us and not for them this time’. It’s always there at the back of your mind.”
The player affectionately known around Adelaide as Cornflake debuted for the Reds as an 18-year-old and has steadily developed into a reliable first-teamer under coach Aurelio Vidmar.
He suffered heartbreak earlier in the year when overlooked for a berth in Graham Arnold’s Olympic squad for Beijing after breaking into the under-23s during May and June.
But the significance of being handed the No.2 shirt last worn by retired Reds legend Richie Alagich has not been lost of the lanky defender and he described his well-taken winner against Kashima as an “amazing feeling”.
“It’s something I’ll remember for a long time. It was like scripted for me after what happened in the first leg,” he said.
The goal will have also erased the tension of a fortnight which has seen Cornthwaite embroiled in a spitting controversy involving Melbourne’s Ney Fabiano.
The Victory’s Brazilian import was earlier this month banned for nine matches – reduced to six games on appeal – for expectorating on Cornthwaite in the sides’ heated round four clash.
Melbourne have since relentlessly proclaimed Fabiano’s innocence, pointing to his previously clean disciplinary record and even going all CSI by enlisting a biomechanist and a speech pathologist to support their argument that spittle had been projected because Fabiano was shouting in his native Portuguese.
Cornthwaite has remained tight-lipped on the latest incident in a simmering feud between two clubs which invoke a degree of hostility whenever they meet.
His supporters believe Melbourne’s passion to overturn their star signing’s ban ignores Cornthwaite’s unblemished A-League reputation and the fact that, although occasionally naïve in his defending, he remains a reliable professional.
Few consider Cornthwaite a player who would, or even probably could, fake his reaction to Fabiano’s discharge in his direction, whether accidental or otherwise.
The challenge most likely stems from Melbourne’s desire to reinforce their encouraging opening to the fourth A-League season.
Top-of-the-table and unbeaten after five rounds despite twice finishing with 10 men, Ernie Merrick’s former champions are clearly serious on putting a chequered 2007/08 behind them.
Sydney are level with Melbourne on 11 points with Adelaide four points adrift in third. The Central Coast Mariners and reigning champions Newcastle Jets are tied for fourth place.