Brentford’s Wales defender Chris Mepham is determined to thrive on the international scene after a journey which has taken him from Sunday League football to the Rose Bowl in California.
Mepham, who was released by Chelsea at the age of 14, was playing for North Greenford reserves four years ago before he was spotted by a Brentford scout and offered a route back into professional football.
The 20-year-old, who supported QPR as a boy and was rejected after a trial with the R’s, had a breakthrough season in the Championship, and on Tuesday he played a pivotal role in shutting out World Cup-bound Mexico in front of 82,345 fans at an iconic venue known as ‘America’s Stadium’.
The attendance was the largest for a Wales game since over 86,000 saw them play a World Cup qualifier against the Soviet Union in Moscow in May 1965.
And Mepham admitted that it was hard to take everything in after his remarkable rise from amateur to international footballer.
“I do pinch myself a little bit,” he said.
“I’ve loved my progress, but it’s been an absolute roller-coaster and one thing after another.
“It’s only when you have a bit of time to look back that you go ‘Wow, what an incredible journey it’s been’.
“It’s been a whirlwind few years but I’ve loved every minute of it.
“I just hope I can keep that going, stay grounded and focused and see where I go.”
Mepham made his Wales debut at the China Cup in March, coming on as a second-half substitute against the tournament hosts with an emphatic 6-0 win already secured.
But his first start in front of over 80,000 Mexicans was a completely different challenge altogether, and his task soon became even greater because of the rib injury suffered by skipper Ashley Williams.
Williams was replaced in the opening 20 minutes by Bristol Rovers defender Tom Lockyer, another international rookie, and Mepham took on a leadership role despite his tender years.
Mepham’s maturity and composure in the face of a second-half Mexican onslaught vindicated manager Ryan Giggs’ decision to start him in such difficult circumstances.
“Ash is a natural leader on the pitch, he gets the team going and organises everyone,” said the Hammersmith-born Mepham, previously capped at Under-20 and Under-21 level and who qualifies for Wales through his father’s parents.
“So losing him left us with quite a few inexperienced players and it was important I stepped up to the plate.
“I made sure I organised things myself and it was amazing.
“In football you always want to play at the highest level and I’ve got a taste of that now.
“Getting the clean sheet and with the performance the team put in made it all the better.
“I want more and more now and hopefully that’s the first of many caps.”