Neil Warnock’s been in the headlines again after Cardiff clinched a vital three points courtesy of Kenneth Zohore’s late winner over Bristol City at the weekend. GetWestLondon’s Ryan O’Donovan reckoned the wily old warhorse might have been trying out a bit of kidology in claiming that the Bluebirds were still aiming for the play-offs whilst championing Fulham as the division’s best side. Warnock signed on for two more years at Cardiff this afternoon – and while he tries to reduce the pressure on his players with the Championship’s run in approaching, it is worth reflecting on the man who has helped keep Cardiff’s miserly defence as disciplined as ever.
We never really saw the best of Neil Etheridge at Fulham. His potential was undeniable and well before the young goalkeeper got near the senior squad he’d picked up invaluable international experience in goal for the Philippines, having made his bow for the national team as a callow eighteen year-old in 2008. Etheridge’s single taste of first-team action for the Whites was one he’d sooner forget. Drafted in after an untimely injury to Mark Schwarzer, Etheridge was in goal when Martin Jol’s side somehow let a two-goal lead against Odense slip and were knocked out of the Europa League. To make matters worse, the young keeper failed to set up his wall properly before Hans Henrik Andreasen’s brought the Danish side back into it and then was glued to his line when substitute Djiby Fall headed an equaliser deep into stoppage time.
An inexperienced goalkeeper was hardly helped by some shambolic defending – and the failure of Kerim Frei and Orlando Sa to put the tie to bed moments earlier shouldn’t be forgotten either – but in football’s cut-throat world it was hardly surprising that Etheridge never got another look in. The 28 year-old, whose pedigree as an agile young keeper saw him on Chelsea’s books, is now close to becoming the Premier League’s first player from south east Asia and has enthusiastically embraced his role as an ambassador for the game in his adopted country, having been born in London to an English father and a Filipino mother.
His route back towards the English top flight has seen him put in the hard yards as well as taking those gruelling flights to retain his position as the Filipino number one. After being released from Craven Cottage when Fulham were relegated in 2014, Etheridge signed a two-month deal with Oldham but failed to make an appearance at Boundary Park before being loaned to Charlton, where he impressed then Addicks boss enough, to earn a permanent move. He made just two further appearances for the south London before resurrecting his career with Walsall, where he quickly established himself as the club’s number one, making 81 appearances and being offered a three-year deal before Warnock came calling.
Not even Etheridge expected to be the Bluebirds’ number one keeper when he moved to Wales on a free transfer, with Lee Camp and Brian Murphy having amassed far more Championship experience. But Etheridge impressed the Cardiff coaching staff over pre-season and quickly scotched any doubts as to his ability by keeping three clean sheets in succession at the start of the campaign. He’s missed just one league fixture all season and made a truly world-class save to preserve a crucial clean sheet at Derby in October. Etheridge has kept sixteen clean sheets to date this year and, even though there’s a long way to go, his renaissance in the principality could cost Fulham an automatic promotion place. They’d be some irony in that.