MEET the mini Mackem Messi. Sunderland fan Charlie Smith signed from his beloved Black Cats just days after his eighth birthday – the minimum age for club deals.
The young season ticket holder’s football skills have already won him comparisons with Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi, labelled the world’s greatest player.
The football-mad youngster started playing at the Soccarena centre, in Durham City, aged just four-and-a-half.
During three seasons with Redby Reds youth team, Charlie, of Gilesgate Moor, Durham City, scored more than 100 goals and created countless more.
But he gave Middlesbrough the brush off and shunned interest from Newcastle to sign for his beloved SAFC.
The St Joseph’s RC Primary School pupil – whose hero is James McClean – trains four times a week at Sunderland’s Academy of Light.
In his first match for the under-9s he set up four goals in a 7-2 win over Hartlepool.
Charlie’s dad Michael Smith, who represented England at schoolboy level, said: “We are elated. It’s a dream come true.
“I would walk to the Academy of Light with him on my back every night just to give him this opportunity.
“A lot of people have said eight is too young, but the coaches say once they are 12 it is too late to change them.”
Charlie’s mother Seineade Smith said: “We have heard how ruthless the clubs can be, but they are teaching him teamwork and respect too.
“I say work hard and enjoy it while you can.”