Developing in the youth system of a Premier League club can be a cushy existence. Of course, there is the daily grind of hacking at the oft-impenetrable ceiling into the senior setup, but having aspects of your life such as diet and accommodation arranged while playing football isn’t a bad way to live for a teenager.
So, when Neil Etheridge elected to represent the Philippines, the birthplace of his mother, at the age of 18, it proved to be a wake-up call for a goalkeeper who had learned his trade at Chelsea and Fulham.
“As westerners, we are sheltered to the poverty that the country does have, even when I was growing up I never got to see that and was sheltered from it to a certain degree,” Cardiff City’s Etheridge told theScore. “My family come from nothing.”
Etheridge’s mum, Merlinda, was the eldest of 13 siblings from Tarlac, a province with a strong agricultural footing. She left her large family after meeting Martin Etheridge in Hong Kong, and the couple has been together for nearly 30 years since. Etheridge speaks with a worldliness influenced by his parents, and also fostered by a career that has survived significant setbacks – he was without a club for four or five months and, after subsiding on short-term contracts at Oldham and Charlton Athletic, was given a lifeline at Walsall. International duty has also taken him to the Maldives, Laos, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, and many other locations far removed from his native north London.
“We’d stay in whatever was affordable. Training camps were very different,” he said of the differences from the well-oiled mechanism of Premier League football. “The national team never used to play inside international dates, that’s how different it was. They didn’t even know what an international date was because they never really had any experience of players playing outside of the Philippines. The Philippines 10 years ago never even had a national football league. It’s been a very interesting journey.”
Most of Etheridge’s teammates weren’t borrowed from clubs, but were rather employed by the army or navy. There were some players who had experience in Europe – like the Younghusband brothers who were in Chelsea’s youth academy, and former Wimbledon and Rushden & Diamonds centre-back Rob Gier – but that representation was often slim compared to rivals in the Asian Football Confederation. The sport’s standing in the Philippines is “extremely far off” the overwhelming favourite basketball, and a considerable lack of investment in the country’s football setup meant the national team was left to fend for itself in Etheridge’s early days in the squad.
And, in 2010, that’s exactly what the Philippines did. The squad scraped through qualification to the 2010 AFF Championship – a knockout competition reserved for Southeast Asian countries – and entered the tournament widely tipped as cannon fodder for giants of the region such as Indonesia and Thailand. A last-minute equaliser from England-born Chris Greatwich – his brothers Phil and Simon also won caps for the Philippines – in the group opener against football-mad Singapore proved the western Pacific archipelago wasn’t there just to make up the numbers.
“It was a massive shock to Southeast Asia that we’d not just gone there to lose,” Etheridge recalled. “We were there to battle. In the second game, we beat the reigning champions Vietnam comfortably 2-0, and people then started to recognise that the Philippines needed to be taken seriously.”
When the Philippines made it into the semi-finals, the derisory facilities laid out by the federation meant the country could not host a game. The Philippines did not have a national stadium recognised by FIFA.
“We ended up playing both games away from home in front of 100,000 and 80,000 people,” Etheridge recalled of a 2-0 aggregate defeat he credits as beneficial to a career that almost ended in 2014 when he couldn’t find a club. The shot-stopper said the 2010 squad “blew up massively” in the Philippines, and other footballers from around Europe subsequently declared their allegiance to the country.
Results have fallen off a little from eight years ago, but for Etheridge, the mission remains the same.
“As players, we want to start putting football on the map and inspiring the younger generations to play and enjoy football,” Etheridge said, before assessing the Philippines’ alternative perception of the sport. “Football over there is still classed as, what you’d call over here, a middle-class to upper-class sport, which around the world is not the case. There’s learning to be done over there and a lot of changes to be made for people to understand.”
Etheridge was a vital cog in Neil Warnock’s pragmatic Cardiff side last season. The Bluebirds unexpectedly – and, in typical Warnock fashion, with the worst passing accuracy but most aerials won in the division – secured promotion from the Championship in 2017-18, and are embarking on a campaign where Premier League survival must be the priority. Among some shrewd buys from Cardiff is the arrival of Alex Smithies, a long-respected Football League goalkeeper who threatens Etheridge’s place in the starting XI.
Naturally, Etheridge’s focus is on maintaining his spot in the lineup, but representing a modestly backed and supposedly lesser sport in your respective country comes with responsibilities. The Enfield lad is an ambassador for the Philippines.
“It would definitely be recognised and appreciated, but I don’t think it would be top headline news,” he said when asked what the response would be if he was the first Filipino to appear in England’s top flight. “But for me, it’s about getting the people who are interested in football to be able to say there is someone involved in the Premier League who is Filipino. Hopefully, from there it can gain more interest and help people to start playing the sport.”
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)