By Gareth James
Chris Mepham believes Wales can cope without the likes of Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter, Joe Allen and Johnny Williams when they usher in ‘a new era’ in Croatia this weekend.
The four retirees will be watching from the sidelines as Rob Page’s new look side kick-off their latest European campaign in Zagreb.
Latvia – Tuesday’s opponents at the Cardiff City Stadium – Armenia and Turkey complete the Group D line-up, with the top two teams qualifying automatically for the finals in Germany.
A trip to the finals of a fourth major championship in Germany next year is the target and Mepham is ready to step-up as one of the senior figures to help his Welsh side build on their first World Cup appearance in 64 years in Qatar.
“We are more than capable of qualfying. We have to evolve and get better given all the legends who have retired, but the standards they set need to be maintained,” said Mepham.
“It is a big loss not having someone like Garth Bale in your side. He could turn a game on its head with one moment of brilliance.
“But Brennan Johnson is flying in the Premier League and he is going to be massive for us moving forward. I think he can step up and be the man.
“That’s the same for many other players. We’ve got such a good group, I think we’ll be absolutely fine and we’re in a good place going forward.“
The Bournemouth defender also revealed that the first thing the players did when they came into the first camp since returning from Qatar was have a meeting to review their World Cup performance.
“With quite a few new lads we wanted to talk about our principles, the way we are, the way we want to play, the team we want to be,” added Mepham.
“We probably didn’t give a full account of ourselves in Qatar. For whatever reason, it didn’t quite work out, so I think we wanted to sit down as a group, have a small reflection and see how we can improve going forward.
“We’ve just gone back to basics a little bit in terms of the team we want to be – compact, organised and ready to hit teams on the counter-attack. They are probably our big strengths when we play bigger teams.
“We’ve probably got the toughest game in the pool first up in Croatia. We will enjoy the challenge and the onus will be on the Croatians to take the game to us.”
The loss of so much experience boasting 327 caps has created a leadership vacuum within the Wales squad.
Aaron Ramsey has taken over the armband but vice-captain Ben Davies is absent through injury, as is the 108-times capped goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.
Mepham made his debut at the China Cup exactly five years ago and is now the sixth most-capped Welshman with 36 appearances in the party heading to Croatia.
“I think I’ve got good leadership qualities and I’m quite vocal on the pitch,” said Mepham.
“It’s not like anyone is saying to me, ‘you must be the one to be vocal now or you must be the one to lead’.
“But where I want to get to in my career, I think that could be massively beneficial. Trying to be vocal and helping guide young lads throughout.”
Chris Mepham says Wales can qualify for Euro 2024 without retired talisman Gareth Bale https://t.co/dxfJ8cmQkg
— Nation.Cymru (@NationCymru) March 22, 2023
Wales return to action in Split after a poor World Cup campaign which saw them score only once – a Bale penalty – and finish bottom of their group.
Honest reflections, as well as the way forward, have featured during the squad’s first post-Qatar camp.
“We wanted to give a good account of ourselves at the World Cup but, for whatever reason, it didn’t quite work out that way,” said Mepham.
“We spoke the other day with the new lads now about our principles and the way we are.
“I think we just kind of went back to basics a little bit in terms of the team we want to be.
“That compact, well-organised team that Wales have been for so many years.
“Counter-attacking is probably a big strength of ours where we play bigger teams, sit in and try to be as dangerous as we can on the break.
“We’ve got a lot of pace on the counter-attack and defenders that can be compact and put bodies on the line. That’s probably the team we want to be.”
Read more about Chris Gunter retirement
The Future For Wales Is Bright . . . But It Won’t Include Me, Says Departing Legend Chris Gunter
Read more about Joe Allen retirement
Read more about Gareth Bale retirement
Gareth Bale Has Put Wales On The Global Map . . . Now Robert Page Insists The Welsh Legend Deserves A Statue