NATIONAL goalkeeper Neil Etheridge found himself in a situation unlike any other in his five-year stint with the Philippine team.
With Filipino-German keeper Roland Muller also available, Etheridge—long the country’s top player between the posts—was relegated to the bottom of the pecking order in the AFC Challenge Cup Group E Qualifying.
Even Ed Sacapano was picked ahead of Etheridge in the match against Turkmenistan last night.
But the 23-year-old has taken his demotion professionally, stressing that he understood the decision of coach Michael Weiss.
“It would have been nice to have played but coach has made the decision and I have to respect that,” Etheridge, whose stellar play has been instrumental to the Azkals’ rise in 2010 and to key Philippine matches in the last two years, told the Inquirer.
“It’s a team sport and I’m here for the team and always ready to battle in the next game.”
His recent match was in a 1-0 win over Myanmar (Burma) in Yangon, where Etheridge was named Man of the Match along with goal scorer OJ Porteria.
Etheridge carried a one-game suspension to the tournament for his conduct in the third-place match against Palestine in the Challenge Cup in Nepal last year.
But he was not listed as part of the team in the Cambodia clash, which Muller started, and even in the key battle against Turkmenistan, after Weiss hinted that he was not keen on changing the lineup.
39 appearances for PH
“It’s upsetting,” said Etheridge, who arrived from London early last week in the hope of adding to his 39 appearances for the national team.
“It’s obviously a hard decision to make. I know my ability and I’m more than capable of playing for this team. I still obviously consider myself as the No. 1.”
Etheridge said he’s ready to win back his spot for the next competition. For now, he’s trying to make himself a model for teammates also caught in the same situation and struggling to get playing time.
The Azkals have plenty of depth in the side, but some of the key players in past campaigns failed to get playing time in the match against Cambodia where Weiss did not use any substitute.
Standouts on the bench
Regular starters Chieffy Caligdong and James Younghusband and the likes of Patrick Reichelt, Misagh Bahadoran and Marwin Angeles are also on the bench as proof of the squad’s quality.
“This doesn’t set me back or put me into the shell,” said the Fulham keeper.
“I’ll come out fighting and I’ll come out stronger. Hopefully, I’ve composed myself around the field and outside the field to help out other players who are in a similar situation.
“We have to think that we are a vital part of the squad, not just the starting eleven.”