Max Taylor: Manchester United teenager on his cancer, recovery & return to football
One name stands out in Manchester United's squad for their Europa League trip to Astana on Thursday.
Defender Max Taylor has never played a first-team game for United. The local-born 19-year-old is another example of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's commitment to the club's youth.
Yet for Taylor, it is the latest stage in a remarkable story of resilience and mental fortitude after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in November 2018.
"If anything, it has increased my ambition," Taylor tells BBC Sport. "I take things head on. Just go for it. Don't be scared."
Taylor's world was turned upside down in June 2018, five months after he had signed his first professional contract.
"I'd been checking and felt a lump. The doctor ran a scan and thought it was a cyst, which is quite common in people my age. But when he repeated the scan, it had got bigger. He sent me to a specialist, who sent me for another scan. That's when I got told inside the area of infection next to the cyst was a tumour, most likely a form of testicular cancer."
Taylor heard the news sitting alongside his mum, Stella, and stepfather, Matthew.
"It was surreal. We just looked at each other thinking: 'Has he really just said that? That it is cancer?' The specialist said the cells inside the testicle would have to be taken off. He said removing the testicle was the first thing to happen but I would also need a CT scan to check the rest of my body and I might need chemotherapy.
"My mum broke down straight away. I was so taken aback I didn't cry. I got out of the clinic and thought: 'Oh my God.' You hear the word cancer. My mind was running 100mph. 'What will happen? What's next? Will I play football again? Will I be alive?' It repeated in my head, over and over."
United told Taylor to take a break. He was in Portugal when his phone rang.
"I knew who it was. I had told them that as soon as they had any information, I wanted to know. The specialist said he really didn't want to tell me the news over the phone but he had the biopsy back which confirmed I had primary cancer in my testicle. I was expecting it. When I came home I had another CT scan. That's when I thought: 'This is actually quite serious.'
Taylor was transferred to Manchester's leading cancer hospital, The Christie.
"The cancer had spread to the abdomen. There were also a couple of specks on my lungs that might have spread too. They told me I would need quite heavy chemotherapy; a short, but really intense, course. They said the chemotherapy was very effective but I may still need surgery. I knew the percentages but I was scared. One hundred percent I was scared. I had been unlucky enough to get cancer in the first place so when they say there is a chance it might keep spreading, it worries you.
"You're in a bubble here [at Manchester United]. It's football, football, football. Training one day. Match the next. Training again. That night, I shut my door at home and thought: 'What's next?' I knew I would have to go along with whatever they said, and I had no idea how my body would react. Everything had been taken away. Not just football - meeting new family members, having a normal Christmas. It was all so unknown."
The emotional toll on Taylor and those close to him was huge.
"I put on a brave face for my mum but she could see through it. She knew when I was down and my girlfriend, Lydia, was with me a lot of the time on the nights when I was struggling. My first thought was: 'Will I play football?' But then you get to the point when you're by yourself, you can't sleep and all you're thinking is: 'This could end my life.'
"Realistically, the chances of that actually happening were tiny - but you overthink everything. 'What if the chemo doesn't work? This could go further than anyone expects.'"
Taylor had his chemotherapy treatment outlined. Three lots of three-week hits. The cycle began on 21 November 2018.
"The first week it was Monday: eight hours of chemo, four hours of hydration. Tuesday: six hours of chemo, four hours of hydration. Wednesday: two hours of chemo and the rest hydration. Then I would go home and come back a week later for two hours of chemo, and finally come back a week later for another two hours of chemo. I did that three times.
"It doesn't sound too heavy, but the chemo I was having was quite toxic. The first night was the worst. You're up, shaking and sweating, but you feel freezing cold. Then the sickness starts. That first night I realised it was going to be a hard nine weeks."
Taylor found it easier to cope with this bit. He could compare it to nerves building up before a big game and disappearing once it starts. Fellow cancer-suffering footballer Joe Thompson offered his support.
"I spoke to Joe the night before I went in. He really helped. He said when I was being sick or at the toilet to remember it was making me better. My immune system was so low I couldn't be in a room with more than six or eight people because of the risk of infection. I wasn't allowed to go and see friends - but I didn't want to. I didn't want them to see me in that state or feel sorry for me. I wanted them to see me on the other side.
"At the same time, I needed people around me. It's harder to watch someone you care about going through it, than it is to go through it yourself. My family and girlfriend were the ones seeing me look ill, lose my hair and struggle. At the start they tried to shield it. Once I became more open about it, they could talk about how I was feeling mentally, how they were feeling mentally, what they were struggling with and ask any others questions."
As at other hospitals, every cancer patient at The Christie rings a bell to signal the end of their treatment. Taylor completed this symbolic moment, knowing it did not mean his journey was over.
"Two weeks after my last treatment I went for another scan. In terms of nerves, it was worse than any game. I was with my mum and we were both shaking. The doctor said the cancer was cleared but I still needed an operation because my lymph nodes were swollen after the chemotherapy and one had attached itself to the main blood vessel.
"Around this time, it was announced publicly I was clear of cancer. Everyone was sending me messages but I still had another big hurdle to go. It was six weeks from the end of my chemo before I could get that surgery done. It was a five-and-a-half-hour operation. Waiting for that was the hardest part because I was in no man's land. My immune system was still low.
"Everyone thinks you are normal but I couldn't do anything. Mentally I did not feel normal and physically I was still feeling the side effects. I don't think I slept more than six hours a night. I was struggling quite badly mentally. The [club] doctor used to come round to the house to put my mind at ease. You need reassurance from people telling you to give it time. After the operation I spent five nights in hospital, with an epidural pump in my back and all these wires that were slowly taken out. I still felt ill. I was still bald. I would look in the mirror and think: 'I do not look good.' It was a good three months before I started to feel right."
Between Taylor first being diagnosed and his recovery, Manchester United had changed their manager. He had already been heartened by Jose Mourinho's support. He soon found Solskjaer was aware of his story as well.
"Mourinho was great. I remember walking down to the gym one day, he put his arm around my shoulder, asked me what had gone on, what was I preparing for and giving me words of support. When I came back, the first day I came in to see [coaches] Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick. Ole took me into his office, then invited me out to watch the first team train. I was just stood there talking. It was a great way to come back - very uplifting. That was massive for me. I was thought people might not remember."
On 22 October, Taylor returned to the pitch, as a substitute in an under-23 game at Swansea. On 22 November, he came on at Old Trafford as United Under-23s beat Sunderland 3-0. Now he is getting his first experience of first-team duty in Kazakhstan, with Solskjaer resting many regulars because they have already qualified for the Europa League knockout stages.
"There is a side to Manchester United that a lot of people don't see. It is like a family. When I came back, people who are not at the forefront of the Manchester United show - the cleaning staff, the chefs - asked me how I was getting on. It meant so much.
"Once I started training again, I just wanted to be treated the same as everyone else. I have known some of my team-mates since I was 14. They are my best friends. It took until the first nutmeg for them to take the mickey out of me. Funny as it sounds, that moment was really good. I am not going to neglect the fact I had cancer, but I don't want it to be what people remember me for. I want to be a good person, a great footballer and someone who gives back."
Last week, 12 months on from his own diagnosis, Taylor returned to The Christie cancer hospital in Manchester.
"There were a few young lads in there, football fans. Jesse [Lingard] gave me a shirt to take in for a little lad called Kieran. He is 11. His whole family has to come down from Scotland. They are spending 39 nights away from home, in a hotel. It is Christmas. Why should any child have to go through it? I know what he is going through. If I can make one day out of, in Kieran's case 40, better than the one before, he will remember it and there might not be as many lows."