WHEN England walk out at the Ta’Qali National Stadium in Malta tonight to take on the Netherlands in the final of the UEFA European U17 Championship you would not blame Connor Mahoney for thinking what might have been.

The starlet was just establishing himself in John Peacock’s squad when the rollercoaster ride he had enjoyed since signing for his beloved Blackburn Rovers to a sudden halt.

The winger, having impressed on his England U17 debut, was selected by Young Lions boss Peacock for February’s Algarve Tournament.

But Mahoney never made it to Portugal after he complained of a shin problem that would ultimately rule him out for the remainder of a remarkable season which began at Accrington Stanley.

Blackburn-born Mahoney made six first team appearances for the Reds before sealing a move to Rovers in December.

The former Witton Park High School pupil was soon invited to train with the first team and came off the bench as Gary Bowyer’s side lost their FA Cup third-round replay at Manchester City.

Mahoney’s lively cameo in front of 35,000 fans at the Etihad Stadium meant he became the third youngest player in Rovers’ history at 16 years and 337 years.

However it remains his sole senior-team appearance after injury put paid to his campaign.

Eric Kinder, who spotted Mahoney’s talent, admits Rovers will have to take a softly-softly approach with the 17-year-old when he returns for pre-season training.

“Connor will be ready for pre-season but we’ll have to go a little bit easier,” said Kinder, who is in charge of Rovers’ U21 side.

“What we don’t want to happen is for Connor’s injuries to come back with a heavy workload.

“I’ve never known anything like what happened to him from the beginning of December when he signed for us until the end of January, early February.

“I kept saying to him, ‘football is not like this. It doesn’t keep going uphill and uphill, you don’t fly all the time’.

“And suddenly one day after training he said to me his shin was sore and we haven’t seen him play since.

“But the good thing is he has developed a body. He’s worked ever so hard in the gym.

“We are really pleased with him and we are looking forward to seeing him again in pre-season.

“It will be like having a new player again.”