The clock had just struck 60 minutes at Tannadice. Dundee United goalkeeper Mark Birighitti threw the ball quickly to Dylan Levitt on the edge of his penalty box. The playmaker looked up and launched a pinpoint pass to Middleton on the right flank. Cornered by two AZ Alkmaar players, he skipped by them and drove towards the AZ goal. The United fans got excited. Middleton found Jamie McGrath and then burrowed into vacant space. McGrath returned the pass, Hobie Verhulst’s goal came right into view and the 23-year-old had the presence of mind to use AZ captain Bruno Martins Indi as a screen and curl the ball beyond Verhulst and into the net.
Cue bedlam in the stands. A fan came on to hug Birighitti. It’s the most important European goal of the 21st century at Tannadice, a stadium that has been starved of tangible continental fayre since the 80s. Dundee United 1, AZ Alkmaar 0. So it remained. Heading to the Netherlands next week, United have a chance of making the play-off round of the Europa Conference League.
“I have watched it a few times already,” said Middleton of that moment. “I didn’t get much sleep on Thursday night. We have to enjoy it. It doesn’t happen that often and when it does happen you need to enjoy it.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, in front of my family. I looked up to my family in the Eddie Thompson Stand, everyone was there, my mum, dad, sister and girlfriend. I then walked back to the halfway line and it was an unbelievable feeling. It is a moment that will never leave me.”
Middleton already has a European corker to his name, scoring for Rangers in a 4-3 defeat by Spartak Moscow in 2018. “That was an unbelievable feeling but this maybe surpasses that,” he argued. “I can’t complain about either of the goals and I am hoping there are more to come because it would be good to get another next week.”
While United have the one-goal advantage, when the two meet again at the AFAS Stadium this Thursday, AZ are still favourites. They were missing a clutch of key players and are strong in their own backyard. It will take another peak performance from the Tangerines to get the job done.
However, in terms of recent victories at this stage by a non-Old Firm club, this ranks right up there, probably the best since Aberdeen vanquished Rijeka 3-0 in Croatia back in 2015.
“They have shown that they are able to go toe-to-toe with a good European team,” said Dundee United manager Jack Ross.
“I now don’t need to work on that [winning mindset] before the second leg. We will be aware of the threat they pose. We are going to have to deal with it again and carry a threat again.”
First, though, United must deal with Livingston. Their manager David Martindale was part of the capacity crowd watching on as he prepares for a Premiership trip to Tannadice on Sunday. It’ll be hard to escape thoughts of what next week could bring, though, for a club riding the crest of a European wave.