Neil Etheridge has made the leap from Academy goalkeeper to international performer in the blink of the eye.
The gifted stopper joined Fulham as a 15-year-old hopeful, but quickly became one of the Club’s brightest talents. His performances caught the eyes of the England youth selectors, but having represented his country of birth at Under-16 level, it has been his mother’s home nation where he has arguably made his greatest impression.
Having won his first full cap for the Philippines in 2008 during the AFC Challenge Cup, Enfield-born Etheridge has been catapulted to star status.
“It’s a bit surreal to be honest,” explains Neil. “There is a lot of interest whenever I go back there and it’s funny because over here I live a quiet life – not too many people recognise me if I’m honest.
“But in the Philippines they’re crazy for the team - you get mobbed. Obviously, because I’m part of the set-up at a Premier League club, that’s massive for them. The fans want to hear all about it – and that’s nice.
“I try and take it all in my stride, and as a result I’ve had to grow up very quickly. It is like living two different lives. It was difficult to get my head around at first, but it’s a fantastic experience to be part of.”
Consequently, Etheridge has seen parts of the world that few in his situation would witness. Running out against the likes of Brunei, Bhutan and Tajikstan is a far cry from the Surrey confines of Motspur Park.
At 21, he has 19 caps to his name and looks set to become an important player for the Philippines for many, many years to come.
“That’s not a bad amount of international caps for someone my age,” says Neil. “I’m seeing places that I never thought I would see and at the recent South East Asian Games I played in front of a crowd of more than 100,000.
“We did really well to reach the semi-final, the furthest the country had gone in a very long time, so it was a special moment not just for myself, but the whole nation. It was an unforgettable experience for us.
“To play in front of that many people was mind-blowing, and I’m sure that when the day comes that I make an appearance for the First Team, it will be something that will have stood me in good stead.
“Football in the Philippines is on the up and a lot of time and money has been invested. The game means so much to the people, and already the hard-work is showing results. We have lots of new coaches and facilities, and that’s very positive.
“I like to think that I have become a key member of the squad, and I want to be part of the journey for as a long as I can. I look forward to being involved and helping the team – it’s exciting.”
Etheridge was initially on the books of SW6 rivals Chelsea in his early teens, and whilst he admits that his opening education there taught him a lot, he cites his six years at Fulham as being the most beneficial.
“It’s at Fulham where I have made my progression,” reveals Neil. “I’ve learned a lot here and I feel, particularly in the last 18 months, that I have come on leaps and bounds. I feel more confident and a real part of the First Team squad now.
“It’s difficult when you first come up from the Academy – it takes a little while to assert yourself. I’ve worked my way up through the scholarship and I’m very proud of that. It wasn’t that long ago that I was playing for the Under-18s, although it does feel like a long time now.
“I try and keep in touch with the players I came through with - it’s only Matty Saunders and Matthew Briggs that remain here from that group now. That just shows how fine the line is at this level and you just don’t know where this game will take you.
“As a result I’m determined to prove my worth and hopefully be a part of things here as well. You have to adapt quickly and show what you can do – for a goalkeeper sometimes that can be extremely difficult.”
Having spent part of the 2008/09 season out on loan at Isthmian League Division One South club Leatherhead, Etheridge has maintained a regular place in Billy McKinlay’s Development Squad starting XI.
His advancement has also seen Mark Hughes name him on the bench for 10 of his First Team squads as David Stockdale moved up to fill in for the absent Mark Schwarzer – an indication of the regard in which Etheridge is held.
“I may not have played, but I still look back on that period at the start of the season and then at the turn of the year as pivotal moments for me,” he says. “It was just such a rewarding experience to be part of the squad on matchday.
“I got to go to grounds like Anfield and, of course, walk out behind the team at Craven Cottage. At this stage of my career I can’t ask for much more. Training with the First Team every day is one thing, but travelling with the Manager and the players on the day of the game is what it’s all about.
“It was another surreal experience, but one that was also very, very enjoyable. It goes without saying that I want more of the same.
“It would mean a lot for myself, my family and my country.”
UP CLOSE WITH NEIL ETHERIDGE
My main strength is my shot shopping – if it wasn’t I’d be in the wrong position!
Although my weakness is probably my footwork perhaps?
The biggest influence on my career has been Pascal Zuberbühler - a mentor and father figure.
My favourite Fulham player is Mark Schwarzer. I aspire to be like him.
Growing up my footballing idols were Peter Schmeichel and David James.
The best moment of career so far was making my international debut.
Three words that best describe me are: confident, cheeky and hard-working.