Kuala Lumpur: Cardiff City and Philippines goalkeeper Neil Etheridge has established himself as one of Asian football’s biggest stars after becoming the first player from Southeast Asia to play in the English Premier League and helping the Azkals climb up the continental rankings.
In the first of a two-part interview with the-AFC.com, the 30-year-old custodian talks about life under lockdown, the challenges of the last 12 months and the difficult decision to not play at last year’s AFC Asian Cup Finals.
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By his own admission, Neil Etheridge has been lucky. As others around the world while away endless hours in confinement binging on streaming services and trying not to visit the fridge too often, the Cardiff City goalkeeper has been able to keep fit.
“I’ve been quite fortunate because I was in the process of bringing in a gym just before the lockdown, so I’ve got a bike, got weights at the house and all the racks I need,” he tells the-AFC.com by phone from his home outside the Welsh capital.
“So I was very fortunate to get that in just before we went into full lockdown here and I’ve been keeping quite active. I’m doing something every day, or five or six times a week."
“Now we’re being told by the English Football League (EFL) that we will be going back to training on May 16 if all goes well. We’ve received an email from the club thanking us for the work we’ve been doing, but to taper it off a little bit now or we’ll be burnt out.
“So it’s time off now, but at the same time it’s not easy because it’s not like you’re on holiday. I find I’m telling myself to just go into the weights room or go on the bike and do 10 miles. I’m keeping fit, or as fit as you can.
“As a goalkeeper you can’t replicate what we do day in and day out in a situation like this. You can’t fly around the garden, so that makes things slightly harder. So I’m keeping fit, and keeping strong and mentally healthy.”
Maintaining his focus and staying upbeat is something Etheridge has been able to practice regularly over a two-year period that has seen the England-born Philippines international goalkeeper go through numerous ups and downs.
In August 2018 he became the first player from Southeast Asia to feature in the English Premier League after playing a pivotal role in Cardiff earning promotion to the top flight and having also helped the Philippines qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in their history.
Etheridge made an instant impact on the Premier League, saving a penalty in a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Bournemouth in Cardiff’s first game in the top flight of English football for four years.
That penalty save was a feat he was to repeat in a 0-0 draw with Newcastle United in the following game before a string of impressive performances marked him out as one of the stars of Cardiff’s brief return to the summit of the English game.
But while last season was a high point in Etheridge’s career, the current campaign has been more turbulent.
Starting with an injury less than an hour into the club’s opening game of the season against Wigan Athletic that forced him off the pitch, matters have been far from perfect. That enforced absence followed by faltering form have seen him lose his starting place between the posts to Alex Smithies.
“It goes back to the first game of the season,” he says. “There was a lot of expectation on myself and the club going into this season, after being relegated from the Premier League. To pull my hamstring the way that I did after 60 minutes of the first game was extremely disappointing because I believe I had a very good preseason and I was ready and firing. That was a knockback to be on the physio’s table."
“I found myself back in the team and then out of the team, so it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster season and now this disruption. It’s been a season of ups and downs, but I’m staying positive and we’ll see what happens when we go back to playing football.
“Now it’s about supporting Alex Smithies when he’s playing, the way he did for me last season. It wasn’t easy for him because he was signed by the club and then sat on the bench for the whole of the Premier League season, but he was very important and it would be wrong of me to kick up a fuss with the situation we’re in.
“We’re competitive on the training ground and the manager makes the decisions and I just have to support whatever decision he makes.”
It was the strength of Cardiff’s goalkeeping roster that led to Etheridge deciding not to join his Azkals teammates at last year’s AFC Asian Cup Finals in the United Arab Emirates, despite having played a key role in the country’s first-ever qualification for the continental championship.
Etheridge’s emotional post-match interview following the Philippines’ 2-1 win over Tajikistan that clinched their place at the Finals underlined what it meant to the goalkeeper to help his country qualify, but concerns that he might not be able to regain his place in the starting line-up at Cardiff City Stadium meant he chose to stay at home.
And while he does not regret the move, he acknowledges it was one of the most difficult decisions of his career.
“It was a really tough decision to not go,” he says. “You can’t beat about the bush about it. When I joined the national team 12 years ago the Asian Cup was a distant thing we never thought was going to happen. Then to make the decision that I wasn’t going to be part of that was a major decision in my career.
“But at the time I thought it was right and I don’t look back on it now and regret my decision. Football is a strange game. At our club our goalkeeping department is a strong one and we’ve proven that this season. Who knows, if I’d have gone to the Asian Cup and missed a couple of games would I have come back and got my spot back? I don’t know.
“Looking back on it, it was regretful because I wanted to experience the Asian Cup, but at the same time I’m not sure what would’ve happened if I had come back and not played the rest of the season in the Premier League.”
The current enforced break has not tempered Etheridge’s desire to return to the Cardiff starting line-up once the season eventually resumes.
“Of course it’s never nice to not play because you get into the sport - or any kind of passion that you have - to be able to perform and when we’re talking about football nothing can replace that making a save on a match day or walking out in front of thousands of people,” he says. “You can’t replace that.
“I’ve still got years left on my contract, I’m still involved in the team, I’ve been successful last season and I’m determined to get back playing and proving to people what I can do again.”
* In the second part of our one-on-one with the Philippines shot-stopper, Neil Etheridge talks about his hopes for the Azkals’ Asian Qualifiers campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 and how far the country has progressed in the last decade.
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