If Newcastle United fans had known the epic journey that Neil Etheridge had embarked upon just to get to the English Premier League, they may not have been quite as distraught at his last-minute penalty save on August 18th. It was the second spot kick stop from the Cardiff City number one in just his second game in the top flight, showing an agility matched by a mentality strengthened by the way the Philippines goalkeeper finally made it to the big time.
In May 2014 Etheridge was without a club after being released by Fulham, who he had joined back in 2008. He never played a league game for the Londoners and spent much of the six years on lower league loans that never really got going.
This is not however the typical career of the journeyman bouncing around the nether regions of English football. As Etheridge started to doubt that he would ever make it in England, he also realised that he had played more times for his country than all his clubs put together –quite a stat for a goalkeeper in his mid-twenties. It was no surprise that he was thinking about heading to the Philippines in order to get some regular playing time. He even sold his house and car in preparation.
The London-born goalkeeper would have had no problems finding a club in his mother’s homeland. Etheridge was the country’s number one, first selected by the national team as an 18 year-old in 2008. The team, nicknamed the Azkals, had long been a minnow in Southeast Asia and the only country in the football-loving region that didn’t care much for the beautiful game.
The former US colony was all about the ‘three B’s’’ (basketball, boxing and billiards) but the football team, led by young British coach Simon McMenemy, made headlines with success at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s biennial bash. Etheridge was one of a number of ‘Fil-foreigns ‘ – players born and raised overseas with a Filipino parent – drafted in.
Prior to 2010, the Azkals had lost 19 out of 21 games in the tournament, conceding 75 goals in the process. Unsurprisingly, expectations were low even after an impressive and hard-fought 1-1 draw against Singapore in the opening game.
The crunch clash game against the hosts and defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 fans in Hanoi. Amazingly, the Philippines won 2-0, one of the biggest shocks in Asian football this century with Etheridge excellent. A goalless draw against Myanmar followed to ensure a place in the last-four, with two legs played on a home and away basis.
It was so unexpected that there was no stadium in the entire archipelago ready to host such a game. That meant both legs were played in front of 90,000 fans in Indonesia, Etheridge couldn’t hear a thing and both Jakarta games ended in 1-0 defeats.
This then was a goalie who had international experience that many of his counterparts backin England could only dream of. “I was 18 in 2008 when I started playing for the national team and playing in front of 90,000 fans,” says Etheridge. “Unless you are a superstar, you don’t get that if you are a young player in the lower leagues. That experience really did help me.”
He didn’t go to the Philippines in the end. A two-month loan deal with Oldham Athletic in October meant that he stayed in England. Then Charlton stepped in until the end of the season. Released again, League One club Walsall came calling in the summer of 2015 and this was the turning point. For the first time in Etheridge’s career, he was first choice goalkeeper for a professional club.
“[In terms of] my story that I didn’t break through as early as most people expected… There is not one route for players, especially goalkeepers. I went on loan at an early age, and didn’t start playing regular football until I was 24 or 25 and most people had written me off. There is no right or wrong way.”
There were two solid seasons in the Midlands. That got him noticed by Neil Warnock at Cardiff City and in May 2017, he was signed as cover for Lee Camp. Camp was injured and so Etheridge started the season in the Championship. Three clean sheets in the first three games set the tone for the rest of the campaign and Cardiff’s defensive record was the best in the division along with Wolverhampton Wanderers. Camp was surplus to requirements and, once fit, loaned to Sunderland.
Southeast Asia – the Philippines apart – is the part of Asia that loves English football the most but has never had a player in the Premier League (the three Thai players that headed to Manchester City in 2007 when former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra owned the club don’t count). There is plenty of pride in the country and in Cardiff where fans are happy that Etheridge did not pack his bags four years ago even if English Premier League penalty-takers are not.