Cardiff City keeper Neil Etheridge can inspire next generation of SEA footballers
Neil Etheridge has played in front of 90,000 roaring fans in Jakarta, but the Philippines No. 1 has an even bigger game on Sunday.
Cardiff City are 90 minutes away from the English Premier League, with three points at home against Reading enough to guarantee a return to the top flight they departed in 2014. And there will be plenty of fans in the Philippines hoping that the Bluebirds can do it.
"There is a lot of excitement," Chris Greatwich, Etheridge's former national teammate and head coach of Iloilo club Kaya FC, told ESPN FC. "Even at local games here this week, people are talking about it. We could have a bonafide Premier League player on our hands and that would be an incredible achievement for Neil and for Philippines football. We are really hopeful that Cardiff can get the right result."
It is not easy for fans among the 100 million population to watch live games in England's second tier. The Premier League is a different matter, however, and is easily accessible all over the archipelago. That just heightens the excitement and the nerves, especially after the one point from three games in the first half of April that threatened to derail the challenge. Cardiff bounced back however and just need to match the result of third-placed Fulham who are away at Birmingham City.
"I think he and Cardiff are going to be fine," Greatwich said. "We have talked during the season and he has been taking one game at a time, managing the pressure well."
An FA Cup tie against Manchester City in January provided a taste of the big time. "He wants more of that and to test against himself against the best players on the planet," Greatwich added.
It may have been a struggle for the Malaysian-owned South Wales team to get so close to the promised land but that is nothing compared to the journey that Etheridge, born in London to an English father and a mother from the Philippines.
It all started on Chelsea's youth books -- along with national colleagues James and Phil Younghusband -- before the shot-stopper joined top-flight Fulham in 2008. Desperate for game time, the goalkeeper initially headed out of the league to Leatherhead, a team way down the football pyramid. Then there were spells with clubs such as Bristol Rovers, Charlton and Oldham with first-team opportunities few and far between.
In 2015, Etheridge was released by Charlton at the end of a short-term contract. He was without a club and at that moment, had played more games in his international career than his domestic one and was contemplating club football in the Philippines. A lifeline was thrown by Walsall and suddenly there was regular first-team football. His two years in League One were enough to secure a move to the Championship and Cardiff City on a free transfer.
Initially signed to cover for the injured Lee Camp, Etheridge has performed so well that the Northern Ireland international was loaned out himself upon returning to fitness. Etheridge has played all but one of the 45 games, conceding a goal every 105 minutes, the third best in the league.
"It has been an incredible journey," Greatwich, also assistant coach of the Philippines national team, said. "Neil's hard work and attitude is amazing. He's gone out on loan to various lower league teams. All the while, he has maintained discipline and focus. He got his break with Cardiff and took the opportunity. Promotion would be the culmination of a lot of hard work."
It would be good news for the Philippines and Southeast Asia. For the country and the region to have a goalkeeper in the most popular football league in the world, is being hailed as a major step forward. There has already been considerable progress made by the country, the only one in Southeast Asia where football is not the national sport, in recent years.
The national team, for so long the whipping boys of the region, have emerged as a force and in March qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup and will make a first-ever appearance at the tournament. Clubs are performing well in the AFC Cup, Asia's equivalent of the Europa League. There is still some way to go, however, and there are serious concerns about the financial viability of the domestic league.
"To be at the Asian Cup is an incredible achievement that we would not have thought possible 10 years ago," Greatwich said. "We are seeing a lot more Philippines players going to other Southeast Asian countries and do well. Our clubs are doing well in Asian competitions. It has been an incredible couple of years but if Neil can get to the Premier League, it would give the domestic scene an incredible boost and could inspire the next generation."
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.