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First team

Euro star Chris on the right track

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AFC Bournemouth AFC Bournemouth

With his Euro 2020 mission accomplished, Chris Mepham returned to Vitality Stadium to continue working on another tough assignment – winning back his place in the Cherries team.

Defender Mepham played a key role in helping Wales book their place at a second successive European Championship over the international break.

He won his ninth and tenth caps as Ryan Giggs’s team kept back-to-back clean sheets in 2-0 victories against Azerbaijan in Baku and against Hungary at Cardiff City Stadium.

Mepham, who qualifies for Wales through his late grandmother, will be hoping to add to his cap count when they take part in only a third major tournament in the country’s history next summer.

The 22-year-old told afcb.co.uk: “After my debut, they were probably the two biggest games I’ve been involved in. They were both high-pressure games we needed to win and we did.

“We had a tough summer, losing two hard away games against Croatia and Hungary. It’s hard to pick yourself up because it looked like an uphill task after that.

“We had to rely on other results going our way which, fortunately, they did. Beating Azerbaijan left it in our hands for the final game and it was must win for us and Hungary.

“It’s difficult not to think too far ahead because I’ve got club games to focus on and that’s the most important thing to me now. But it’s nice knowing you’ve got the finals to look forward to and, hopefully, it will be a memorable summer.”

Mepham played the full 90 minutes as Wales won three of their last five qualifiers, with a calf injury ruling him out of draws against Slovakia and Croatia in October.

Having started three of the Cherries’ first four Premier League matches – and scoring against Sheffield United on the opening day – he went into international combat with limited game-time under his belt.

However, despite having been restricted to a brief substitute appearance in the 3-1 win against Everton and a start in the Carabao Cup defeat by Burton Albion, Mepham’s exploits with Wales were testament to his fitness and preparedness.

He added: “In my career, I know there are going to be times when I’m in and out of the team. I enjoy a run of being in the team and then there will be a time when I will come out, like at the moment.

“But it’s important to keep working hard and making sure you carry on improving as a player. When the opportunity comes, you need to be at your best and equipped to take it with both hands.

“I think this Wales camp showed I was ready. I hadn’t played much with Bournemouth but, luckily, the manager put faith in me to play in these must-win games.

“Individually, I reaped the benefits. Two clean sheets, two learning experiences and two big occasions. It just shows you need to be ready when called upon.”

Although the excellent form of Nathan Ake and Steve Cook for the Cherries may have kept Mepham on the bench in recent weeks, the Londoner says he has “loved every minute” of his time at Vitality Stadium since his January move from Brentford.

“A lot of opportunities have come my way,” said Mepham. “I have had a lot of experiences, both positive and negative.

“All in all, I feel I’m improving as a player and we’ve got a great set of lads which always helps. You come in every day and everyone’s always smiling.

“In a good way, it feels like I’ve been here a lot longer than 11 months. I’m really settled and recently moved into a house in Bournemouth so that has been nice.

“I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made since I’ve been here but I definitely don’t want to settle for what I’ve done. I want to get back in the team and really kick on to the next level.”

With England and the Netherlands also having qualified and Scotland, Norway and the Republic of Ireland hoping to join them, Mepham and Wales team-mates Harry Wilson and David Brooks could meet at the tournament some familiar faces in the shape of Callum Wilson, Nathan Ake, Ryan Fraser, Joshua King and Mark Travers.

Mepham said: “It’s always nice for the club to have as many lads as possible representing their countries in big tournaments. It’s good for the fans and the club’s profile.

“On a personal level, it’s always nice to come up against people you’ve either played with in the past or are currently playing with. It makes it a little more special so, hopefully, a lot of the lads will be involved in the finals.”

In common with most football followers, Mepham admits he has “no idea” how complicated Euro 2020 rules will apply with matches set to take place in a host of different countries and Nations League placings coming into the qualification equation.

Mepham, the son of a London taxi driver, said: “I’ve spoken to my dad and he doesn’t seem to know either!

“I asked him because he reads all the papers and listens to talkSPORT every morning in his cab.

“It’ll be tough whoever we get in our group but it’ll be an unbelievable experience.”  

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