As the current Azkals captain, Neil Etheridge has come a long way in his football career.
Neil Etheridge may have grown up in Enfield, London, but his name bears much weight in Philippine football circles.
Born in the United Kingdom to an English father and a Filipina mother, Etheridge admitted that he grew up telling people that he was English, “Because I was born here,” as he tells Sky Sports. But, the former Premier League keeper now makes sure to emphasize that he is half Filipino — a part of his heritage that he has grown more deeply connected with in his years playing football representing the Philippine flag.
The English-Filipino footballer started playing for the Philippines in 2008 in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, where he impressed with three clean sheets. Since then, he has flown back and forth between playing in the UK and in the Philippines and has become an integral part of the Philippine National Team. Now, he even takes on the honor of captaining the Azkals.
Here are five things to know about Neil Etheridge.
He started as a forward
Although Neil Etheridge has become one of the Azkals’ most reliable goalkeepers, when he started playing football as a kid, he actually began on the opposite side of the pitch — as a forward. However, one of his coaches suggested that he try out the role of goalkeeper. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, he has made 56 appearances for the Philippines (as of writing) and recorded 22 clean sheets in his international career. On top of this, he also made a name for himself in the UK after he helped Championship side Cardiff City win a promotion to the Premier League and became the squad’s first-choice keeper.
He met the Younghusbands in Chelsea
As a young footballer, Neil Etheridge started his career in the Chelsea Academy in 2003 in the Under-14 squad. And by some stroke of coincidence, this is also where he met fellow half-Filipino youngsters, James and Phil Younghusband, who would also go on to become household names in Philippine football.
He spent three years under Chelsea’s development team before he made a switch to their local rivals, Fulham, where he continued his youth career before eventually entering the team’s senior squad.
He is the first Southeast Asian to play in the Premier League
Although he did not get to play in the Premier League for Fulham, Neil Etheridge would eventually make his debut in the Prem with a different squad.
After moving from team to team, he played for Cardiff City in the Championship, a tier below the Premier League, in the 2017-2018 season. That season, the Filipino helped the Welsh side keep 19 clean sheets, a big boost in their promotion bid. When Cardiff finally did move up to the Premier League, not only did Neil Etheridge become the first Filipino player to compete in the English league, arguably the biggest league in the world, but he also became the first player of Southeast Asian descent to do so.
He initially turned down an invitation to play for the Philippines
Neil Etheridge first received an invitation to play for the Philippines in 2007 given his eligibility to play thanks to his mother’s heritage. However, he first turned down the offer, as he was unfamiliar with the language and football set-up in the Philippines. But the following year, given a change in leadership in the Philippine Football Federation, along with the encouragement of fellow Azkals Phil and James Younghusband, Etheridge eventually switched allegiances to play for the Philippines.
“Filipinos are all over the world and I’m very proud to play for the Philippines. It’s a responsibility that now I’m getting a bit older, I enjoy having,” Neil told Sky Sports.
He wants to be a part of the development of Philippine football
Neil Etheridge may not have been born and raised in the Philippines, and he may have turned down his initial invitation to represent his mother’s home country, but he is definitely Filipino at heart. Ever since he started playing for the Philippines, he’s seen himself not just as a team player, but also as a role model with a responsibility to give back to the community.
In 2015, he started a goalkeeping academy in Manila to help develop the homegrown talents in the country who hope to excel in the same position as he plays. “It was [about] starting something up to help others. Especially being a goalkeeper, it’s a very specific specialized position. So even more so. And there are other friends that I have who have footballing schools in the Philippines,” he shared.
Now, continuing to play for the country as the Azkals head into their next World Cup qualifying campaign, he is simply hoping that he can be one of the players who helps push Philippine football in the right direction.
“Looking forward, maybe in 20, 30 years time, if I could say I was a part of the first early development stages of where it gets to, I’d be extremely happy,” he said.
Images from Neil Etheridge on Instagram.