LONDON – Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge could become the first Filipino to play in the English Premier League if he is chosen for Cardiff City’s season opener against AFC Bournemouth on Saturday.
Even though he established himself as Cardiff’s first-choice stopper during last season’s promotion-winning campaign, the 28-year-old is not expecting or taking anything for granted.
"First of all, I need to play in the Premier League, and from then I would like to play as many games as I can. I've got to do it first. I spent a lot of time at Fulham on the bench," Etheridge said.
"At the moment I'm still in the same situation as I was years ago, but I've got to break that record and step on the field. I'm taking it step by step," Etheridge added.
The match between Bournemouth and Cardiff City on Saturday kicks off at the Vitality Stadium at 3 p.m. UK time, 10 p.m. Philippine time.
Despite being a regular for the Philippine national team, the British-Filipino lacked match experience on a domestic level in England and was willing to take the step down into the lower leagues to earn it – but things didn’t come easy.
Etheridge spent the next 5 months out of the game and seriously considered packing up and leaving the UK for the Philippines.
A last-minute offer from League One (third tier) Oldham Athletic AFC prevented him from boarding a plane. During his one-month spell at the north-west club, Etheridge slept on a friend’s couch.
A six-month stint at Charlton Athletic FC (second tier) followed.
He then joined League One side Walsall FC (third tier) in 2015, where he finally enjoyed regular first-team football, playing close to 100 matches in two years.
He was eventually signed by EFL Championship (second tier) side Cardiff City in 2017, where he secured his status as the Bluebirds’ first-choice keeper.
In his first season, Etheridge claimed 19 clean sheets in over 40 appearances, helping Cardiff gain promotion to the top tier of English football, the Premier League.
Asked how it feels to be on the verge of making his EPL debut, Etheridge chuckled and said, "I’ve been around the houses to get to where I am now."
He believes the struggles he has faced as a player have helped him grow.
"Of course, it makes me proud. From where I have been and what I have had to go through, climbing up the leagues, to now potentially and hopefully playing at the pinnacle of club football would be a great achievement," Etheridge said.
"It’s been a long, tough road. But nothing comes easy to get to the top," he said. "At the time, it was hard to see a path back to the top or any professional level of football, but now I’m here I can look back and say it did me the world of good."
Etheridge hopes his experiences will inspire fellow Filipino footballers to pursue their dream of playing professionally, or even just to play for fun.
Cardiff City is expecting a tough season ahead, but Etheridge believes the Welsh club has what it takes to survive relegation.
"It’s going to be tough – we know that – but we have a great manager and dressing room. So, whenever times get tough, I’m sure we will be able to pull together along with the supporters and get out of tricky situations," he said.
Etheridge also welcomes Cardiff’s signing of fellow goalkeeper Alex Smithies, saying it is not a surprise and that the extra competition is welcome.
"Competition is great. At this level or any level there will always be competition – that’s what makes you as a person and a professional get better and stronger," he said.