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The Etheridge Factor

We will all without a shadow of a doubt remember for as long as we live that ballistic missile with which Stephan Schrock properly introduced himself to Kuwait in that second leg match at the Rizal Memorial last Thursday. We may also remember – although, for the wrong reason – the 51st minute shot with which Phil Younghusband should have scored and sent Kuwait dazed and well and truly backed into a corner.

What can easily be buried in forgottenness was the sublime long ball that Neil Etheridge, after calmly collecting possession, quickly launched at the other end for Younghusband to bring down with an excellent first touch, work into a better angle and subsequently shoot at goal. The chance needed no finesse whatsoever to do justice to Etheridge’s pass. At that distance, all Younghusband ever needed to do was to just whack it. As happened, the shot lacked sting; and Nawaf Al Khaldi in the Kuwait goal was allowed to save.

In that split second of other-worldly decision-making, the young Etheridge showed all of us the oft-overlooked side of goalkeeping – the attacker and the passer. The man between the sticks – or, sometimes, the man who stands alone – has traditionally been thought of as a defender. By and large, yes; the goalkeeper is a defender.

When a team formation is released – such as a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 – no number is ever assigned to a goalkeeper because it is simply assumed as a matter of course that there will be a goalkeeper behind the defenders. However, the moment a goalkeeper safely collects the ball in his arms, he becomes the player from which his team’s subsequent attack will originate.

Often a goalkeeper plays the ball short to a defender or midfielder, which makes people overlook his potential as an attacker. It is when those long accurate balls are launched from deep in defence that we all sit up and take note of the fact that the goalkeeper can indeed be every bit a maker of goalscoring chances as any outfielder.

This is why, with his kicking abilities and an intellect that enables him to size up the entire field – as opposed to the immediate vicinity – Etheridge is highly thought of by the coaching staff at Fulham in the English Premiership. Lesser goalkeepers would have stalled for time to allow the defence a breather; but Etheridge had seen Younghusband and decided in a split second to send that ball upfield. The decision was made so quickly that even the television cameraman was caught off-guard and struggled to keep pace with the pass.

Those in basketball will tell you how much safer and accurate a pass to a team-mate is if it is made over a short distance as compared to one hurled along the whole length of the court. Mind, the pass – in basketball – is made with the hands. Those who have never kicked a football will have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to be as accurate as that 70- or 80-yard pass with which Etheridge found Younghusband.

Never mind the kicking ability; it was the vision that set the pass apart from others that the same goalkeeper had made over the last few matches. It is the same sort of vision that has made the Spanish international Pepe Reina so highly thought of in the English Premiership. It is the vision that highlights the goalkeeper as not simply a man who keeps out the shots but also potentially a man who can set up goals at the other end.

In a way, this Kuwait tie has been a coming-of-age for young Etheridge. In the Kuwait leg, while he let in three goals, Etheridge was still easily the better ‘keeper than his counterpart at the Kuwaiti goal, Al Khaldi. While the latter flapped at a couple of high balls that really ought to be bread-and-butter for any self-respecting goalkeeper, Etheridge’s handling was impeccable. The ball he punched to safety from a right wing cross when under pressure from onrushing Kuwaiti attackers was class personified. I had seen famous international ‘keepers flail at similar crosses; but Etheridge was spot on in his decision-making and timing.

At the Rizal Memorial, the youngster gave an even better display of top class goalkeeping. Who can forget the shot from deep in midfield that he pushed wide of the right post in the 23rd minute? What about the 44th minute shot that he managed to push with his fingertips against the left upright? His angles were probably slightly off before the shot; but the quickness of his recovery and his long reach denied Kuwait what would have been a deflating opening goal.

Time was when – even in top-flight football – 6-foot flat was thought of as reasonable height for a goalkeeper. In the modern game – with neurotic light footballs – more inches in terms of height and arm reach is thought of as a definite advantage. Etheridge is 6’ 3” – are we not the lucky ones?

To illustrate, when I was in college in the late seventies, we played this friendly against a visiting team of Swiss businessmen based in Hong Kong. They were not very good; but they had this 6’ 5” goalkeeper with arms that made King Kong look like a harmless pet monkey. We totally dominated play; but the ‘keeper kept us out. I remember having cut in from the right wing and let loose one low and hard right foot shot from top of the box that would have floored most ‘keepers. The Swiss giant merely stooped down to one side – he did not even bother to dive – and with one gloved hand stifled the shot. I felt insulted.

The Etheridge that we saw in the AFC Challenge Cup was perhaps not the same dominating figure that we saw in the Suzuki Cup. There were also moments – such as in the home leg of the Mongolia tie and the training game against the UFL All-Stars – when the lad could look utterly disinterested. This is where the coaching staff – both at Fulham and the national team – comes in. Consistency is one of the trademarks of a top-class goalkeeper – although even famous ones are also prone have to the occasional howler.

The essentials are already all in our young goalkeeper: height, reach, athleticism, skills and decision-making. It is, perhaps, in playing at the same level whether we are up against an expensively assembled Middle Eastern team or an upstart team from north of nowhere that we all would like to see more of. He will find that the stronger our team becomes, he will have prolonged moments within the course of a match with absolutely nothing to do. It then becomes more of a challenge to the mind than to the body when he will be called upon less to make the same sort of saves he pulled off against the Kuwaitis.

I do not think for one moment that most people fully appreciate Etheridge’s committing to play for our national team instead of the Three Lions. It is easier to understand Ray Jónsson’s expressing intent at the twilight of his career. Almost thirty, chances probably were that Jónsson would not be called up by Iceland for international football.

But Etheridge was 18 – albeit, by his own admission, he had to think long and hard about it. He was a schoolboy England international and now number 3 at Fulham. While England does not really have a shortage of talented shot-stoppers, who really knows when Etheridge is – at the present – a mere 21 and has a whole career ahead of him? All I know is that I will feel eternally grateful to his Mum for having migrated to the UK when she did. God knows what our recent opponents would have paid for him to have a Kuwaiti mother, instead!

One of these days, as the youngsters in the national team get more seasoned with experience and the whole team becomes more cohesive, we will play more and more with a higher defensive line because we will be able to take the game to our opponents pretty much like the Kuwaitis did to us in both legs of the World Cup tie. Experts will tell you that defenders become more confident going forward if they have a reliable goalkeeper at the back.

That, we do. Not just an excellent stopper, but also one who can – as we all saw at the Rizal Memorial – be the source of many split-second counter-attacks and possibly goals. How many teams around Asia – nay, the world – have such a ‘keeper? We do; and it offers our team a different and exciting dimension. It is called the Etheridge factor.

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