"You're my favourite player," 11-year-old Ellie told Saints captain James Ward-Prowse as they walked hand-in-hand onto the pitch at a packed St Mary's stadium.

"That's a coincidence," confided the wiry England mid-fielder, "because you're my favourite mascot."

Standing in the circle of the verdant pitch as the crowd revved up for the match to begin, all Ellie Wheatley's childhood dreams unfurled into reality.

Born with Congenital CMV, the football-dotty Winchester youngster plays at the Saints Foundation coaching programme when not attending Mary Hare specialist deaf school, in Newbury.

After being mascot, she watched entranced from the stands as her team took on Everton - then collapsed giggling the next day when she spotted herself on Match of the Day.

"It was, without doubt, the best day of Ellie's life," said Mum Christine.

"She's obsessed with Saints and playing for the foundation has transformed her.

"For Ellie, being their match mascot was way better than winning Strictly.

"It was just a shame, given the final result, that she wasn't a lucky one!"