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Bournemouth's Mepham: I almost became a gardener after Chelsea rejection

09:00 BST 02/05/2020
Chris Mepham Bournemouth 2019
The Cherries defender spent his teenage years being told he was not good enough but has bounced back to realise his dreams

Chris Mepham is awaiting a return to Premier League action with Bournemouth and he has time to reflect on what could have been a very different life.

The Wales international may have been signed by the Cherries in a deal worth £12 million ($15m) from Brentford in January 2019, but early rejection could have led him into the family gardening business instead.

The pain of being told 'no' three times almost pushed the centre-back out of the game for good.

"I told my parents I wanted to pack it in," he tells Goal during an hour-long interview. "I didn’t want to keep getting told I am not good enough."

First, Chelsea released Mepham aged 14.

"Chelsea had Fikayo Tomori and Jake Clarke-Salter as the two centre-halves who were playing almost every week," he says. "I was sitting on the bench quite a lot near the end of the season and I went in to see if I was getting a new contract.

"They sat me down and said, unfortunately, that it was the end of the road for me at Chelsea. They were supportive but they said I wouldn’t get the game time I would want or need to progress my career further. It had been a big commitment for my family as we were driving down there and training every other day, then you have nothing."

It was a similar story following trials with both Watford and Queens Park Rangers.

"It was harder on trial," he says. "I had a six-week trial at Watford. They said, 'Sorry you are not exactly what we are looking for, we only sign players who are better than what we have got and we don’t see that with you'. I thought, 'fair enough.'"

The QPR knock-back was the hardest to bear. After all, Mepham was a regular in the stands at Loftus Road, and being told he had no attributes worth developing by his favourite club was particularly hurtful to hear.

"It was worse at my boyhood team QPR," he says. "Me and my dad were season-ticket holders and my dad still is. I went on trial there, which was amazing. To be honest, I felt the way I got treated there was really poor. I had a six-week trial to showcase myself.

"After two weeks we had a meeting. They asked me how I thought I was getting on and I felt after two weeks that it was hard to show my potential. They said it was the end of the road because when they sign a player, they look for one real standout attribute.

"They said I didn't have one. They said I had nothing they could work with. It was very hard to take.

"My uncle had his own gardening business and he got diagnosed with motor neurone disease. That business was passed onto my family and me but my parents already had full-time jobs.

"There were discussions that it would be me who would take on the business, maybe via another family member as I was only 16 at the time. I was still in school and I wanted to enjoy football again so I went to Sunday League to play with my friends and go to school."

It was during that period that, just as he was in danger of falling out of the game for good, Mepham unknowingly played in the most important match of his life.

"I joined North Greenford United and I got drafted into the reserve team, which was amazing for me at the time," he says. "I was a back-up as one of the youngest players in the reserve team but I got drafted in against Uxbridge away as our usual centre-half had to work overtime.

"A Brentford scout was watching a player in the other team. I was the youngest lad on the pitch and I had one of the best games I have ever had. This is a game my dad remembers the most. I marked an older, bigger player and got the better of him.

"[The scout] pulled me and my dad over which got us back into an academy. It was one of my most important games despite it being on a scruffy Sunday League pitch, which is weird because now I play in the Premier League and at international level."

Although he felt overlooked during his trials, Mepham has no hard feelings about his time at Chelsea which, he admits, he let pass him by.

"Chelsea's academy was world-class in every sense," he says. "For me, I didn’t understand how privileged I was in that position. I had started at such a young age that it became normal for me to go into Cobham and train in amazing facilities.

"I went away after that and I was playing in a Sunday League team on sh*t pitches. Then you realise how fortunate you were. Chelsea are a team I still hold in high regard. I enjoyed my time there. The coaches and staff were great.

"Even when they let me go, they were really helpful and I think they set up my trials. They wanted me to achieve my dream of becoming a professional footballer."

Mepham was in the same age group at Chelsea as lethal strike partnership of Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke. Solanke now trains alongside Mepham under Eddie Howe at Bournemouth as they both try to push onto the next stage of their careers.

However, they do so amid a turbulent season at the Vitality Stadium, who will have to fight off the threat relegation if the Premier League can return from the coronavirus-enforced shutdown. Mepham has made 17 appearances this season despite suffering a knee injury which kept him out for three months.

"I am quite an ambitious person so I always want to do better," he adds. "At 22, you are always going to have a lot of areas where you need to improve. I am still proud of where I have come from - Sunday League to Brentford to Bournemouth.

"Now in the Premier League you play against world-class players every week, it does test you. I am pleased but there’s improvements to be made.

"A game where I thought it was a bit of a wake-up call was Leicester City away. I was playing against Jamie Vardy and he gives the best centre-halves in the league a very tough time. I know he is a tricky customer but I have to admit he got the better of me in that game. Running in behind for the first goal, put pressure on me throughout the game, forcing me into mistakes.

"That’s an opponent I found it was tough. On the flip side, a game I felt really comfortable in was the Chelsea game. I came up against Tammy [Abraham], who was scoring every week. He was a man on fire. Considering it was an old team-mate of mine, it had added a bit of pressure to have played with him.

"It was one game where I was really pleased individually. We got the win and clean sheet. Individually it was one of my best games. Also, I was pleased with Burnley at home because I want to improve physically so to do well against Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes was good too."

Mepham recognises how fortunate he might have been in attracting the attention that afternoon in Uxbridge, but sees his own journey as a prime example of never giving up.

"You need someone to take a chance on you," he says. "I feel like it paid off for Brentford to take that chance on me. When you have Chelsea, Watford and QPR telling you that you are not good enough, I bounced back and achieved my dream goals to play in the Premier League.

"In my eyes, it takes a lot of character, strength and resilience to come through that when people are telling you otherwise."