Villaflor: Resurgent Etheridge

Noel S. Villaflor

SOMEWHERE in the United Kingdom, an Azkals veteran is painstakingly making a name for himself, rung after rung in the multi-tiered English football system. That Azkal is no other than goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who plays club football with Cardiff City FC in the Championship division.

Etheridge has been instrumental in the Welsh club’s campaign for promotion to English football’s top tier, the Premier League. Currently second in the Championship, the Bluebirds are just 10 matches away from outright promotion should they stay in the top two.

The performance of the 6’2” goalkeeper has been nothing short of phenomenal. This season alone, he holds at least 14 clean sheets in both Championship and FA Cup matches, making save after spectacular save. Cardiff’s official Facebook Page even posted a video called “Top 5 Etheridge Saves,” which drew superlatives in the comments section (many from Filipino fans, of course).

And in his last outing against stubborn Birmingham, Etheridge stopped a point-blank shot off a corner to deny the visitors an equalizer, and eventually help bring The Bluebirds’ tally to 73 points, just three behind sputtering league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers.

As top goalkeeper of the Philippine Men’s National Team, Etheridge will most likely see action in their penultimate AFC Asian Cup qualifiers match against Tajikistan at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on March 27. The Philippines only needs a draw to book a trip to its first Asian Cup tournament. Three days after fulfilling international duties, Etheridge will resume club action at home against cellar dwellers Burton Albion.

Despite having 58 international caps with the Azkals to his name, Etheridge was largely under the radar in English football. Since his injury-plagued stint with then Premier League side Fulham during which he was loaned a number of times, until ending up with third tier club Charlton Athletic, Etheridge’s lackluster appearances were few and far between.

His fortunes changed when he joined another third-tier club, Wallsall, where he excelled in two seasons playing 93 matches in all. Impressed, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock signed Etheridge in July last year. The Azkal quickly established himself as the number one keeper, and Cardiff hasn’t looked back since.

It seems 2018 is fast becoming Neil Etheridge’s year at the club and international levels. And perhaps it might not be a stretch to say that the fates of both Cardiff and the Azkals now lie in the capable hands of a resurgent goalkeeper.