“Meps’ game is built on honesty; if you talk to him he’s always willing to listen. He played a backpass which fell a bit short, but he dusted himself off and kept going which shows a lot of bravery and maturity at such a young age. I think he’s been our best player during the last two games.”
Despite having found the back of the net against Aston Villa, Romaine Sawyers was in no mood to bask in his own achievements following Brentford’s Boxing Day victory over The Villains. His focus fell on the other end of the pitch. On the performance of Chris Mepham following another assured outing at the heart of The Bees backline.
Such a glowing assessment of Chris’ abilities should come as no surprise to those who have stepped through the Griffin Park turnstiles this season. The 20-year-old has gone from strength to strength since making his First-Team debut in last year’s FA Cup, signing a new five-year contract in the summer and turning in a series of impressive displays for both Club and country.
Here, Chris sheds light on an eventful campaign so far.
You were part of the group that transitioned from an Academy set-up to the B Team system. What have you made of the changes at Jersey Road?
Shortly before the B Team system was introduced I’d been offered a professional deal; I wasn’t sure if it would change my contract situation but luckily it didn’t. The main change I’ve noticed is not having the scholars around on a day-to-day basis. Whereas we once had a range of age groups, there’s now an emphasis on creating one other team and providing those players with experiences against top Academy sides.
There’s a greater reliance on the B Team to kick on and get involved with the First Team, whether it be the 19th man in the matchday squad, being named on the bench or playing in friendly games. The B Team was put together to create a clearer pathway. Because no other club had done the same it was difficult to know how successful it would be, but looking back on it I think it’s worked very well. Some of the games I played in, and the European trips I went on, were key to my development.
With yourself, Theo Archibald, Ilias Chatzitheodoridis and Justin Shaibu all gaining First-Team minutes this term, there’s a clear bridge between the two squads isn’t there?
With any new idea, you’ve got to be prepared for the fact that it might not work. I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but speaking to Rob Rowan now, and some of the players in the squad, the belief is that there is a clearer pathway to progress. Training with the First Team was unheard of when we had the Academy set-up, but now we have as many as four B Team players getting involved in senior training sessions. It’s great for the B Team boys to look across and see that the Head Coach is willing to put his trust in younger players.
You’ve displayed plenty of composure on the ball in recent weeks. Is that something you’ve always had in your locker?
As a centre-half, being calm and composed in possession is a big part of the game. When I first came to Brentford, a lot of work was put into improving my left foot and my range of passing. With a lot of the games I played in for the B Team, I had to be good on the ball. It’s a style of play that comes down from the First Team; we try and replicate that philosophy. I was at a good level with the ball at my feet when I first arrived at the Club, but the coaches here test you to the limit to bring the most out of you.
How much of a boost was it to sign a long-term deal in the summer?
It was a massive moment for me. I got a phone call from Rob when I was away with the Welsh Under-21 squad, telling me that the Club wanted to offer me a new contract. In my head I thought I’d be offered two years, maybe three, so when I heard five years I couldn’t believe it. It shows how much faith the Club has in me. I had no hesitation in signing – I wanted to put pen to paper as soon as possible. Brentford is a great Club; the players are very welcoming, the staff are lovely and it’s a great footballing environment to be part of. Hopefully I can go on to achieve a lot during the next five years.
There’s been plenty of praise coming your way in recent weeks. How much does it mean to you to hear such positive endorsements from your team-mates?
Every player in the squad has been very complimentary towards me. I still feel as though I’ve got another gear to move in to, but I’ve been very pleased with my recent performances. The lads have made me feel very comfortable, both on and off the pitch. I speak to Andreas (Bjelland) all the time. Most days I pull him to one side for a chat; it’s great to learn from players who have such experience. I’ve made the most of having lads around like Andreas, John (Egan) and Yoann (Barbet) – they’re more than willing to pass on their knowledge.
You captained Wales during a UEFA Under-21 Championship qualifier against Romania in November. How much did that mean to you?
It was a massive moment in my short career to date. We’d lost the previous game to Bosnia, so we were looking for a reaction against Romania. Our centre-half and captain who had played the previous game was injured, so I knew that someone else would be given the armband. I haven’t been in the system for very long and there’s lads who have been part of the set-up from Under-15 level, so I thought they’d be more appropriate for the role. The Manager pulled me to one side and said that he saw me as leader – a vocal character who can organise the back four and drive the team on to a result – so I was given the responsibility. To stand there with the armband on and sing the national anthem was a moment which made myself and my family very proud.
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