The Suzuki Cup has always held a special place in the heart of Azkals’ goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, as it was under his watch six years ago that Philippine football came to prominence, going through for the first time past the group stages en route to its first ever semifinals appearance.
Since those heady days of 2010, Etheridge has consolidated himself as the first choice goalkeeper for the Philippines, but has not been able to represent the country in the Suzuki Cup again.
And with the prestigious biennial tournament not falling under the FIFA Calendar, Neil Etheridge will miss this year’s edition, yet again.
“It’s frustrating that the Suzuki Cup doesn’t fall within international dates, but for the past years now I guess I have been used to not being involved,” says Etheridge.
“It’s disappointing for me on a personal level because the experiences that I gained from that cup competition when I was younger were second to none, the atmosphere, the intensity and the teams pulling together to gain victory.”
The Philippines is hosting the tournament for the first time in its history, a fact which makes it tougher for Neil.
“The competition being played on home soil of course is even more frustrating but there’s nothing I can do about the games being held outside international dates so I try not to think about the situation, but no doubt I will be watching and cheering the Azkals on from England.”
Etheridge however, has full confidence in the team and is optimistic of the team’s chances this time around.
“The team has looked strong and resilient in the past games that I have played in. I know we still have some injuries but the squad has looked compact and together with a great changing room atmosphere which plays a big part.”
After going through to the semi-finals three times in a row, the Azkals and the fans are understandably looking forward to going one step further and booking a place in the final.
But Etheridge cautions fans not to take the task of getting out of the group lightly, even with home field advantage.
“I don’t think it really matters what group we were drawn into, both look extremely hard, maybe with our group being slightly more difficult. I believe the team needs to really take each game on its own merit. Each individual game will be tough and have its own hurdles to jump.
“But, thinking about the semi-finals too early may be a down fall.”
“First the team will need to concentrate of getting out of the group and then have a strategy, playing both home and away, in the knockout rounds.”
Domestically, Etheridge has been in fine form for English League One side Walsall FC, earning plaudits from media and fans alike.
But with Walsall currently at the lower half of the table, he knows that there is a lot of room for improvement.
“The season started with a great win followed by a few results that didn’t go our way but I could see potential. The team is completely new from last year, very young and some with minimal experience.
“As the season goes on I’m sure we will gel even more on the field, as behind the scenes the team has a great work ethic and atmosphere.
“On a personal level, I have been playing well and I know I need to keep it up throughout the season to play my part in this team.
“The league this season is extremely hard. Former Premiere League side Bolton were unbeaten until they came to our place. And that also shows maybe the importance of home court advantage.
And it is that home court advantage that Etheridge hopes the Filipino fans would capitalize on, in the Suzuki Cup in Manila.
“The supporters in Manila will play another large factor, getting behind the team and cheering them on, acting as the 12th player. Our past home performances have been good so I hope that this can continue into the Suzuki Cup.”