Horsham-based footballer Max Sanders said it was a dream come true to step out onto the Old Trafford pitch on Saturday.
The Brighton & Hove Albion under-23 midfielder was included in the first-team squad for the first time in the side’s Emirates FA Cup quarter-final tie against Manchester United.
Chris Hughton named the 19-year-old on the bench and while he did not get on as Albion suffered a 2-0 defeat, he was delighted with an ‘amazing’ experience at ‘the biggest club in the world’.
Sanders, a former Trafalgar, Greenway and Tanbridge House School pupil, started playing football at the age of four in Horsham Park under the watchful eye of local coach Ted Streeter, a former Albion youth development officer.
Having played at AFC Wimbledon from the age of six, Sanders eventually went for a successful trial at Brighton aged eight and went on to play in the under-18 side having signed a deal in 2015.
On travelling with the squad, he said: “I’ve been at the club since I was eight and since then I’ve always wanted to have that involvement in the first team. I was so happy to be involved.
“I found out that I would be involved with the first team after training on the Thursday and Paul Trollope said, ‘you’re travelling tomorrow by the way.’ I was just buzzing when he told me that. He told me the squad list was going up at 1pm, but was pretty sure that I’d be travelling.
“It was the first time I had ever travelled with the first team for a game. It really hit me when I was at the ground, and it felt like a dream.
“When I went out onto the pitch, it was so surreal and there were so many fans there. I’d never had that experience before. All the lads were saying that it was a fantastic place to be involved with the team for the first time. It’s the biggest club in the world, so to go to a packed stadium with a lot of Brighton fans there too was unbelievable. My girlfriend, my parents, my grandad and my agent were all there at the game, and even though I didn’t get on, it was an amazing experience.
“I’ve had loads of messages from my team-mates in the under-23s saying, ‘well done, you deserve it,’ which has been really good. A lot of people that I’ve known from ages ago also messaged me, which was really nice.
“Now I want to try and keep playing well for the under-23s and keep the unbeaten run going for them. Hopefully I can get on the bench for the first team again and maybe make my debut.”
Max’s dad Jon said: “It was fantastic news that he was to be travelling with the first team, he’s worked so hard to get to this point, my wife and I are very proud of him.
“My wife and I, his grandfather and Max’s girlfriend, travelled up to Manchester, and got a message an hour before kick off that he was on the bench.
“It was a mixture of happiness and nerves as it started to sink in what was happening.”
Sanders is making similar progression to fellow local Albion under-23 player James Tilley.
The Billingshurst youngster, who made his first-team debut back in 2015 and netted his first goal in their 1-0 Carabao Cup win against Barnet last year, was also coached by Streeter as a youth.