IT was a moment Connor Malley will never forget. Nineteen minutes into Wednesday night’s game at Rotherham United, and with Grant Hall trying unsuccessfully to stem the flow of blood around his eye caused by the clash that resulted in his opponent, Matt Crooks, being sent off, it was clear that the centre-half was not going to be able to continue.

Without a recognised senior defender on the bench, Neil Warnock was going to have to be creative. The adaptable Jonny Howson was the obvious choice to drop into the back three, but that was going to leave a gap in central midfield. Having already made his senior debut in January’s FA Cup tie at Brentford, Hayden Hackney was the likeliest option to fill it. But as he cast his eye along Boro’s youthful substitutes’ bench, Warnock settled on someone different.

Nodding in Malley’s direction, the Middlesbrough manager instructed the Newcastle-born 21-year-old to get ready for action. A childhood dream was about to come true.

“It really is what dreams are made of,” said Malley. “Although I didn’t expect to get on as early as I did. I was thankful the gaffer trusted me to go on and do a job.

“I was the first out to get warmed up, hoping I’d get the nod! It was nerve-wracking, but once you're on, the adrenaline takes over and you do what you’ve been doing your whole life. It was great to get a few early touches, and the fact we had a man advantage helped me get on the ball and settle into the game.”

A couple of neat lay-offs set the tone for what was to follow, and even accounting for the space afforded by Boro’s extra man, the quality of Malley’s debut display was remarkable.

By the time the final whistle blew, he had been selected as Sky’s Man of the Match, with the award acknowledging more than 70 minutes of astute passing, energetic closing down and mature positioning.

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Malley, whose ginger hair has led to him being nicknamed ‘Scholesy’ on the training ground – “they've been calling me that since I’ve been up with the first team, the lads have been fantastic, they’re a great group” - had become the 940th player to pull on a Boro shirt since the club’s first league game in 1899. He is also the latest in a long line of academy products to have progressed through the club’s renowned Hurworth finishing school to make it into professional football.

He actually started his youth career with Sunderland, but he joined Middlesbrough in 2016, signed his first professional contract three years later, and is very much a product of the work carried out by Craig Liddle and the rest of the Rockliffe Park academy staff.

“I’m thankful to the coaches at the 23s,” said Malley. “Craig Liddle helped me day in, day out for when this day came around, and thankfully it has and I played well.

“My phone was going mad afterwards. I had a fair few messages from people I’m close to. I still can’t believe it really. The coaches at the club and the 23s staff have been nothing but great with me, and it’s thanks to them I’ve been able to progress to where I am now.”

With Boro now mathematically certain to finish outside the play-offs, Malley will be hoping for more game time in the remaining three matches of the season.

Like Josh Coburn, who also left the bench for the final three minutes of Wednesday’s game, the youngster will be desperate to impress before signing off for the summer. Then, when pre-season begins in July, the business of trying to stake a place in the senior squad for next season will begin.

Malley has put in time on loan, heading to Scotland for a brief spell with Ayr United before Covid struck in the second half of last season and making five appearances for League Two side Carlisle United in the first half of the current campaign, so while he appreciates the need to gain experience, his goal is to remain with Warnock’s first-team squad for the whole of next term.

“Of course, you want to make your name at the club you’re at,” he said. “That’s the plan for me. Hopefully, I can make an impression on the gaffer and he trusts me. Hopefully, I can carry on into next pre-season and next season, and make an impression.”