Released at 14 by Chelsea and soon told he wasn't good enough by other Football League clubs, Chris Mepham needed to take the hard road to make it to the Premier League.
Now a fixture in the first team with the Cherries, the centre-back spoke with afcb.co.uk at Mr. Mulligans Adventure Golf at BH2 to talk about settling into life as a top-flight player and the ups and downs he went through to finally get here.
Your journey started with Chelsea, what was it like there and how did it come to an end?
It was tough at the end, it had been a big commitment for me over the course of six years, from under-8s to 14s, and for my parents as well, doing a lot of travelling to and from Cobham. Obviously, it’s your dream to make it, then when I was 14 they brought me into a meeting and said that they didn’t feel I was better than what they had.
It was fair enough, an honest reason and I could sort of see it coming as there were others starting ahead of me and I seemed further away from game time. But when you get told officially it’s hard to take, it was a tough one.
We read a lot about the academy set ups at the big clubs, what was it like for you?
I really enjoyed my time there and ultimately it’s helped me to where I am now. The coaches were really good, the lads were good, training was really enjoyable and there are really good facilities at Cobham.
Chelsea are a big team so as a young lad playing for them was a good story, but I felt like it was the right time for me to leave, albeit getting released, but I think it was important that I got away because it wouldn’t have been enjoyable for me sitting on the bench every game, especially when you’re young and want to be playing every week.
At 14 and after leaving Chelsea, what happened next?
We sat down in the meeting and they said that as a club they could get me trials. At the time I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, I took a couple of weeks away and talked to my parents about where I wanted to go next.
There were a couple of trials lined up, the first was at Watford and after six weeks they said I wasn’t better than what they had, which is fair enough. Then I went to QPR, my boyhood team, the team I supported and the team I went to watch every week, and it was quite exciting for me going to a team I know.
That was the lowest time, after three or four weeks they cut the trial short, saying they didn’t see anything they could work with and it would be a waste of time me staying on. That was the hardest one to take because it came after a couple of knockbacks, and the final one where I thought maybe football wasn’t going to work out and maybe I needed to be more realistic.
I spoke to my mum and dad and said I didn’t want to go on trial with any other teams, that I was fed up of being turned away. I wanted to play Sunday league and enjoy it again with all my mates who were at that level.
Did you have plans or ideas of what your life away from football might have been like?
At that point, being turned away by Chelsea, Watford and QPR, I thought it was time to focus more on what I could do away from football. It was hard, because it’s a lot of lads’ dream to be a professional footballer, I was trying to think of what I could do at school, college and university, being more realistic.
You seem like a confident player now, but that must have been quite a knock…
It was really hard for me at that point, confidence is a hard thing to gain and you can’t just click your fingers and get it. It took me to go into Sunday league and going semi-pro for me to enjoy my football and I noticed when I was enjoying it that I was playing with more confidence. I didn’t feel like there was any pressure on me because, with all due respect, at that level there’s not the pressure to impress.
When I started enjoying it I found myself playing better and was playing up with the men’s team at North Greenford, my local semi-pro team. That in itself was good because you’ve got a lot of fully-grown men playing and I was 16 at the time, I was just a young lad and that’s when I started playing better.
How did the jump from North Greenford to Brentford in the Championship happen?
There was a lot of stuff in between, I got my scholarship with Brentford, signed my professional contract and all those things eased me into it. There were things along the way which meant I adapted, from the youth team – even then I wasn’t getting a lot of game time – but then in my second year I kicked on a lot, got more game time and started training and playing with the under-21s. Even then it felt like it was moving quite quickly.
What was the step up then to getting your first chances in the first team?
My first start was against Norwich in the cup and 12 minutes in I gave a penalty away, they scored from it and we ended up losing the game 3-1. You wait for that moment to come where you walk out in front of your home fans and make your debut, then give away a penalty.
But then where I talk about things turning around quickly, the week after I was on the bench for a Championship game against Derby and the centre-half got injured at half time and I got pulled and told, ‘Meps, go and get yourself warmed up, you’re coming on for the second half’. You then need to take everything away and focus on the game, I didn’t want to go out there with the Norwich penalty in the back of my head but go out there seeing it as an opportunity to impress.
I played 45 minutes that game and we went from losing 1-0 to drawing 1-1, I played quite well and the following week I made my first Championship start against Middlesbrough. From then on I got a run in the team and started to enjoy my football.
Soon after you began that run AFC Bournemouth started being linked with you, how was that year of speculation from your perspective?
I was trying to focus on the Championship and I’d only played six games when the speculation started to come, I was still finding my feet. It was important that I just focused on where my head should be and let the rest look after itself.
I didn’t want to push for a move because I was very inexperienced at the time, so after that first window I was looking to get more experience, thinking something might happen in one of the windows to come. It was the window after the next one where the move went through, and I was delighted.
It must be quite strange going from being told you weren’t good enough to getting a Premier League move…
Yeah, a big change. I was getting turned away saying there was nothing they could work with, then a few years later there was a couple of top teams saying they were interested. It was flattering, but ultimately I just had to keep my focus and keep performing, that’s the reason I am here, from working hard and playing well.
Bournemouth were the team I was most keen on throughout, when I’d just played a few games they were interested, right from the start.
In just two and a bit months since you signed here a lot has happened, it feels like you’ve been here a lot longer than that…
Yeah, it does, and that’s credit to the players who have made it easy for me and I’ve got a lot of good relationships with a lot of the lads. I see Nathan Ake for example quite a lot outside of training and he always invites me round to watch Champions League. He and his girlfriend cook for me, which is good for me…
…Not the other way round yet?
Not yet! I need to return the favour. I hang around with a lot of the younger lads, so David Brooks, Kyle Taylor, Matt Butcher, Mark Travers, I’ve got really good relationships with them and there’s a really good feel within the team and I sensed that from the first day at the club. The team’s very tight knit and we do a lot together away from football.
Your debut, 3-0 up against Chelsea and soon 4-0. What was that like for you, making your Premier League bow against the team it all started with?
It was the icing on the cake, I wasn’t expecting to come on, but then I don’t think many people were expecting us to win 4-0. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on me coming on, I don’t think I touched the ball or had any influence but to get any game time, it was nice of the manager and then I got a couple of sub appearances after that then made my first start against Wolves, a really proud moment for me.
Steve Cook’s injury opened a door in the team for you. How was it to get your chance quite so quickly?
No-one wishes injury on anybody but it’s part of the game, and it’s no different with Steve Cook. I got the opportunity and what was important was that I got my mind in the right place, trying to take on as much information as possible to allow me to go out and perform. I made my first start against Wolves and we got a fairly good result and I felt as though I’d done fairly well.
You’ve come up against Aubameyang, Sterling, Aguero and Salah in your first Premier League appearances, a real baptism of fire…
I said when I joined that they’re the players I want to be playing against every week and sometimes it’s hard when you play Arsenal, you’re losing and it’s a tough game, with these world-class players kind of exposing you. But I came away from that game seeing it as a learning curve, you have to, sometimes you can learn more from losing than winning.
Then the week after you play Man City knowing it’s not going to be easy, marking the likes of Sterling and Aguero. When you walk onto the pitch it gives you a real buzz and encourages me to get to that level, then if you come away and you’ve played well it gives you a massive boost.
You’ve had to adapt a lot during your career so far, how well have you adapted to the Premier League and how much more is there to come?
There are areas of my game that I need to improve on and I think you’re never going to be the finished article, I need to go out onto the training pitch and recognize where I need to work to strengthen my strengths and improve where I need to improve. I try to make a conscious effort of doing that every day, so most days I do stay out doing defensive drills and working on my aerial duels, because I think they are two areas that I can still improve.
It’s good when you work on those areas and then do something during the match where you can see your improvement.
The last five years have been a rollercoaster for you, do you ever stop and think about the journey you’ve been on?
I try to, my parents remind me every day of how proud they are of me and my mates are buzzing for me and the journey I’ve been on. A lot of people outside look at the journey but when you’re caught up in the moment, training every day and playing matches every Saturday, it’s hard to sit back and look back on the past couple of years because everything’s happened so quickly.
The summer is normally the perfect time to let your hair down and think back over the year. Hopefully this summer I’ll be able to look back and think that I’ve given it my all, improved as a player and looking forward to hopefully getting more and more game time.
As we’re here at an adventure golf course, I should ask you about your hobbies and what you do to relax as a Premier League player…
I do get bored easily, but luckily there are a few people in the same boat as me. We came here a couple of days ago and there were five or six of us playing a round of miniature golf, it’s important to get out of your house and enjoy what Bournemouth has on offer. It’s good to go out, go to the cinema, have a Nando’s and I try to do that when I can.
…So who won the round of golf?
Mark Travers won, he takes it really seriously while all the other lads are just mucking about. It’s just important not to lose or you’re paying for the meal…
I’m guessing that wasn’t you then…
No, that was Kyle Taylor. He was fuming by the last hole, really clutching at straws and trying to get other people to mess up, but it wasn’t to be for him.