Friday 23rd August 2019 might be an irrelevant date to most, but for Cherries supporter and Ability Counts player Alex Binks, it was lifechanging.
Having attended a routine soccer school during his summer holidays, run by the club’s Community Sports Trust, an appearance from Chris Mepham proved to be the start of a special friendship.
The centre-back spent an hour of his time joining in with the session, which was specially tailored to youngsters with Down Syndrome, and saw him partake in small-sided games, shooting drills and help out with some group reading at the end.
Now 18 months on and three national lockdowns later, the pair are still in touch.
On World Down Syndrome Day, afcb.co.uk caught up with Mepham, as well as Alex’s mother Joanne, who tell the story of how a special relationship formed.
“I just remember looking forward to going to see all the kids,” began the 23-year-old defender.
“I always find it a really rewarding thing to do and it’s something that I’ve tried to do a lot of throughout my career.
“I just remember going down and I instantly saw Alex, who took a massive liking to me.
“To be fair, the whole group were really good but sometimes, when you go to these places, there’s often one that takes more of a shine than the others.
“I think straight away, as soon as I walked in, he just sprinted over and gave me a massive hug and I think it’s important to give the love back. I tried to do that and I spent a lot of time talking to him.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s also a day that sticks in the mind of Joanne, who recalls her son’s reaction when she went to collect him after the session.
“Unfortunately, I went away for the session and came back after it had all happened!
“But I’ve seen the footage and I’ve heard all about Chris Mepham non-stop from Alex ever since.
“He was very excited in the car afterwards and he had definitely made a new friend as far as he was concerned. Chris has been a firm favourite ever since.”
She went on to explain how the relationship has developed with the Wales international ever since, with a special Christmas treat three months ago still a fond memory for Alex after the country was placed in another national lockdown.
“Fortunately, through my eldest son, he had managed to get hold of Chris and got a telephone number, so he did a video call with Alex on Christmas Day.
“That was just amazing and I don’t think Alex could quite believe that he was getting a private phone call from his hero.
“Chris even suggested about them meeting up when restrictions allow – Alex is very keen for that to happen as you can imagine!”
Mepham continued: “I remember on Christmas Day last year, his brother got in contact asking if I could drop Alex a message one day over the next couple of weeks because he’d been a bit down due to the pandemic.
“As a result, I actually facetimed him that day and he was so surprised! I don’t think he was expecting it and it’s such a small thing for us to do but it goes a long way for someone like Alex.”
With the uncertainty in society over the last year and a ‘stay at home’ message being conveyed for the majority of the past 12 months, it’s been a challenging time for individuals like Alex, who haven’t been able to attend sessions or see team-mates.
Yet Mepham, who was recently awarded the club’s PFA community champion, has dropped in on various Zoom calls with young participants and was the ambassador for our Mental Health & Wellbeing campaign which was run in partnership with the NHS.
“I think sometimes us as footballers forget the power that we can have in terms of reaching out to the community.
“It’s something that takes up a couple of minutes of our day. Even the visits that we did before Covid, it’s only an hour out of our day and it’s something that benefits people like Alex and others in that group.
“It’s huge and it’s something that more and more people should do because we’re in a privileged position where we have that power to influence people.
“I went to that session and I wasn’t expecting to have impacted someone as much as I have done.
“I remember when I was younger, I was a QPR fan and I would always look up to their players.
“I’d always want to meet the first team players there, but I never had the privilege of a relationship one-on-one with any of them, but that’s something that Alex now has with me.
“Hopefully when lockdown ends, I can visit him and give him some boots or a shirt.”
Despite the restrictions and the pair not being able to meet in person for months, Alex is as fond of his hero as ever, with the latest Ability Counts virtual quiz, which he hosted for his teammates earlier this week, featuring all ten questions on Mepham!
Joanne explained more and went on to highlight how such events, run virtually by the Community Sports Trust, have been a huge help during such uncertain times.
“That quiz couldn’t be about anything else with Alex – Chris is the most important thing that people need to know about!” she laughed.
“But in lockdown, the community team have been absolutely fantastic. Hannah [Powis] and Steve [Cuss] have been brilliant at keeping in contact and keeping the enthusiasm going.
“Obviously Alex is missing playing football and is desperate for those sessions to restart but the Zoom calls have been brilliant and a really good way of staying in touch and feeling included.
“The club have been brilliant in offering opportunities to Alex. They’ve helped him with his fitness and football skills, which have come on massively.
“As I said, he is very keen for the face-to-face sessions to restart but he’s shielding at the moment and he’s not even going to college. Everything is online so some face-to-face contact and physical running around will definitely do him some good.
“He’s been watching the games and Hannah has arranged some watch-a-longs so it’s been great watching with his team-mates, shouting and cheering from home.
“For the Watford game, they even had some Watford fans on the call too which was really nice just to have that bit of banter and conversation going.”
Mepham concluded by echoing the importance of community activities and how he and the squad can continue to play their part.
“A lot of players have a good connection with the fans, but the connection with the community is different,” he said.
“It’s a different type of connection with the community. I think it is really important and, even if we can affect one person’s life, that’s better than impacting no lives.
“If more and more players can do that, and we’ve got a really good group here with lads who are more than happy to do so, then it can only be a good thing.
“The past year has been difficult with lockdown and not being able to do as much as what we want to do, but hopefully now going forward we can do more.”
CLICK ON THE VIDEO BELOW TO SEE HOW ALEX'S SPECIAL BOND WITH HIS HERO STARTED.