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Tiebreaker Times


‘Girl dad’ Etheridge welcomes senior role in Azkals

After almost three years, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is back representing the Philippine Azkals once again as they are set to compete in the Tri-Nations series against Malaysia and Singapore this month in preparation for their crunch third-round 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Mongolia come June.

“It’s the first time in a long time, to be honest,” commented the 32-year-old shot-stopper who last featured for the Philippines in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification match against Syria, which ended in a 1-0 away defeat, last November 19, 2019.

“Obviously due to COVID-19, playing football (was) on hold for a long period of time. And then I think last summer, having an injury that I needed to sort out before going into my season this year and then obviously having the situation I had with COVID. So yeah there were a lot of things but it’s great to be back with the team.”

When Etheridge debuted for the Azkals back in 2008 against Brunei in the qualification tourney of the AFC Challenge Cup, he was still a young player trying to find his way in the sport.

Fast forward to competing in the English Premier League and various international campaigns with the Philippines, it is he now who provides advice to his younger teammates.

“It’s a different responsibility for me now,” said the former Cardiff City star. “Coming here out with the team as a senior player, players will probably look up to me on the field and off the field and how I conduct myself.

“It’s a different challenge for me and obviously like anything that’s been put in my way before, I never really shied away from it but it’s obviously a new task for me to achieve.”

One major change now for the 6-foot-2 standout is that he is now a father to a baby girl named Manila Elaine Etheridge, who was born last February 13. Being a parent changes everyone and he is experiencing all of those challenges and happy moments as a new dad.

“I think there’s always a massive motivation to become a professional athlete,” said Etheridge. “You need to obviously be extremely motivated. To have a new addition coming into your life, obviously a daughter for me, just puts a different spin on life itself, to be honest.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have (my wife) Alex by my side. She’s taken on a lot of the responsibility. She’s taken to it extremely well and she’s allowed me to continue everything that I do – obviously playing a lot of games in the UK. She’s taken a lot of responsibility doing the night feeds and everything like that,” he gushed.

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“I’m sure in my off-season, I’ll be on daddy duty for a long period of time. You know, I think it’s something you need to work out in terms of all the timings and for those who have newborns, they’ll understand that it’s not just as easy as putting them down to sleep,” he quipped.

“They constantly need attention so when I am around, I love to be with her and the family. But it’s not as easy obviously (with) me travelling but that’s part and parcel of this industry and obviously, like I said, I’m sure I’ll be at daddy daycare at the end of the season.”

As a ‘girl dad’, Etheridge and his wife strongly believe in women empowerment. Just a few months ago, Philippine football was shaken up dramatically after the Philippine Women’s National Football Team qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, which made the veteran goalkeeper very proud to witness.

“They can definitely hold their heads up high going into that competition with nothing to fear,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected that with all due respect to them. For them to get to where they are, they can play with some sort of freedom when they get there.”

With two matches in hand against their ASEAN neighbors, the Azkals are raring to go. Like always, though, the nature of international football leaves a lot to be desired in terms of team chemistry on the pitch, but Etheridge and his colleagues are ready to take the challenge head on despite just settling in Singapore on Tuesday.

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“International football is a very hard task due to the fact of the lack of time that we get on the training field,” said the London native. “It’s not as easy as just getting players in and them gelling straight away.

“But I think we all understand that this is a new team that Scott (Cooper) has put together obviously with some older faces, familiar faces. But it’s gonna take time. It’s not gonna happen overnight. We got a great squad on paper but at the end of the day, you don’t win games on paper. You have to go out and perform on the field,” he said.

“Obviously with the game tomorrow (against Malaysia), it’s not easy. Of course, it won’t be easy. They are a good team. We’ll probably field a starting 11 that hasn’t played before. We’ve only really had one proper session together,” he continued.

“Obviously when it comes to tomorrow night, there won’t be any excuses. We’ll have to perform to the best of our abilities but these two, I’d say, friendly games are for the players to impress the coaches and for the new players to come in and show everyone else what they can do.”

When the Azkals first qualified for the 2019 edition of the Asian Cup back in March 2018, Etheridge played a key role in the campaign but club commitments with Cardiff forced him to skip the tournament proper in the UAE. He deserves another chance to play in Asia’s biggest competition and that is what he hopes to do with the Philippines come 2023.

“Ultimately, it’s about trying to win the game but it’s not the be all and end all if we lose to be honest because it’s about us moving forward for the (Asian Cup) qualifiers coming up in June.”

Written By

Lorenzo's a frustrated author who knows a thing or two about Football and Basketball. Went all green from Ortigas to Taft. Supports Liverpool FC, FC Bayern Munich and the Alaska Aces

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