Football: Etheridge embraces leadership role in return to Azkals

Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge EPA-EFE
Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge of the Philippines reacts during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualification Final Round soccer match between the Philippines and Tajikistan at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila, Philippines, 27 March 2018. File photo. Mark Cristino, EPA-EFE

MANILA, Philippines — Veteran goal-keeper Neil Etheridge will have a new role when he makes his much-awaited return to the Philippine men’s national team for the FAS Tri-Nations Series.

Etheridge was called up to the Philippine Azkals for a pair of friendlies against Singapore and Malaysia at the National Stadium in Singapore. The Azkals will open their campaign against Malaysia on Wednesday.

“It’s the first time in a long time,” Etheridge noted on Tuesday morning. “Obviously due to COVID, it put football on hold for a long period of time.”

“And then last summer, having an injury that I needed to sort out before going to my season this year, and obviously then having the situation that I did with COVID, so yes, a lot of things,” he added.

“But it’s great to be back with the team.”

Etheridge last played for the Azkals in November 2019 during the second round of the FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. But the COVID-19 pandemic washed out most sporting events in 2020, and Etheridge missed the Azkals’ return to action last year due to injury.

Etheridge returns to an Azkals squad that features several new faces, including naturalized striker Bienvenido Maranon and defenders Diego Bardanca and Enrique Linares. The PFF also called up some players from the Under-23 squad, including goal-keeper Quincy Kammeraad and midfielder Oliver Bias.

There are still familiar faces to Etheridge: veteran midfielder Stephan Schrock remains the team captain and players such as Carli de Murga and Amani Aguinaldo are also in the fold.

“There are a lot of new players in the squad. Obviously, great to see them, great to see the old faces as well,” said Etheridge. “I guess a part of my job here now, obviously apart from playing, is to lead these players to some sort of success, to lead them on the field, off the field.”

Etheridge said he is ready to take on more of a leadership role for the Azkals now, in coordination of course with Schrock and other veterans.

“As the senior players, it is our responsibility to take this team forward and obviously, it’s a new generation that’s coming through, that needs experience and guidance in different situations off the field and on the field,” the goal-keeper said.

It’s a challenge that Etheridge is embracing.

“Players will probably look up to me, on the field and off the field, on how I conduct myself. So, it’s a different challenge for me,” he noted. “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.”

The 32-year-old Etheridge currently plays for Championship club Birmingham City, which are 19th in the league table. He has made 16 appearances so far as the club’s first-choice ‘keeper. The veteran has kept a clean sheet in two of their last three matches.

“It’s always nice to play games, week in, week out. It’s nice that I’ve got a nice run of games leading into this couple of games,” said Etheridge. “It’s nice to be playing games back in the UK. I wanna bring that run of form and experience over here in the Azkals.”

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