An underdog all his life, Neil Etheridge proves worth among elite
MANILA, Philippines – At the start of the season, no one expected Cardiff City to even make it to the Championship playoffs, especially after finishing 12th of 24 teams in the 2016-2017 season.
In his debut with the team last year, starting goal keeper Neil Etheridge was only tasked to keep 15 clean sheets that will guarantee the Bluebirds a playoff berth.
"Our goal was to have 15 clean sheets this season and that will get us into the playoffs," said Etheridge in a phone interview with Rappler.
But for the Filipino keeper, he surpassed all expectations with a total of 19 clean sheets that helped catapult Cardiff City back into the English Premier League.
As the final whistle blew, Etheridge drowned in emotions as the match ended with a 0-0 draw against Reading FC, marking his 19th clean sheet in the Championship season.
"The whole game was completely emotional to be honest, it’s tough when you don’t know whether you’ll win halfway through the game, it’s sort of like losing. Obviously we still wanted to go win the game," explained Etheridge.
"But when the game ended, it was a mix of emotions of plain happiness and relief, enjoyment and success, really. A mix bag of emotions, something that normally people don’t get to experience, which is a great thing."
Never giving up
Etheridge made history once again this year as he becomes the first player from Southeast Asia to be promoted to the Premier League, which was just months after the Azkals earned a historic Asian Cup berth.
But based on the 28-year-old's experiences earlier in his career, the taste of glory did not come to him in a silver platter.
In 2014, Etheridge was 5 months out of work after Fulham released the keeper, who made zero caps in the club. At that time, the Azkal was almost convinced to forget about his football dreams in the UK and head to his mother's country.
"I sold my house and I sold my cars and I was about a week away from going back to the Philippines," said Etheridge during the post-game conference according to The Guardian.
Hope only sprung when he received a call to join Oldham Athletic for a brief spell, but this entailed him to live on his mate's sofa to survive. After no appearance, Etheridge paid for his training at Charlton Athletic until he was picked up by Walsall in 2015, and he eventually found his way to Cardiff in 2017.
After 46 games with Cardiff and a Premier League promotion, Etheridge told Rappler that he is leaving his past struggles behind, as he sets his sights on his dream.
"That was many many years ago, different times, so I’m just concentrating for now with my career. It has been fantastic in the last couple of years. I’m looking forward to playing in the Premier League next year."
With his hopeful Premier League appearance and the upcoming campaigns of the Azkals in the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Etheridge hopes to inspire his fellow Azkals and players from all over Southeast Asia with his achievements.
"[Being the first Southeast Asian to qualify for the Premier League] is a great achievement and it’s something that I’m really proud about. It’s very interesting to see what happens next year and hopefully I can promote this in the Philippines and to the players of Southeast Asia," said Etheridge.
However, his work does not stop there as there are tougher tasks ahead of him this year: To stay in the Premier League next season and to make a good run with the national team.
"The Premier League as you know is the toughest league in the world, so it won’t be easy. Obviously, our main target next year is staying in the Premier League," said Etheridge.
Despite having renewed confidence in himself, Etheridge still believes that both of the major tournaments of the Azkals will be very tough, particularly the Asian Cup. And despite being seeded in the last pot, he reminds his Azkals teammates to relish being in the company of Asia's elite squads as they gear up for the tournament.
"Our group is very strong, so as a lot of groups. It’s not easy being seeded in the last pot, obviously, you got the stronger teams in the other pots, but the boys just need to go out and enjoy it." – Rappler.com