The appointment of Steven Gerrard in May resulted in the former Scotland defender returning to his role as coach of the club’s under-20s. The 18-year-old winger, meanwhile, has travelled in the opposite direction. The scoreless draw against Villareal in the Europa League on Thursday was his first European start at Ibrox and fourth full outing under Gerrard in the past month.
Yet, this time last year Middleton was languishing in the Norwich City development side. The Championship club were only too happy to cut him adrift in the January transfer window when Murty, who had coached him in the Midlands, came calling, believing the wide player deserved better.
“I can never thank him enough for that,” said a youngster now pinching himself at the opportunities he is being given at his boyhood club. “He sort of saved me. I was going through a tough time and I will always be grateful for that.”
Norwich, among the leading group in England’s second tier, may not yet have great cause to regret dispensing with Middleton’s services, but he hopes that his recent progress might provide them with certain pangs – especially if he can help Rangers to claim pole position in the Premiership with a win over Hearts at Tynecastle this afternoon.
“I always believed in myself. I always believed that I would prove them wrong, if you like,” he said. “One club tells you that you are not good enough and then six to eight months later you are playing at this level. I need to keep taking it bit by bit and showing people what I can do. It’s all about opinions. It was unbelievable to play the other night. From day one I have always said that I’m grateful for these opportunities. Hopefully I can keep impressing the manager and he continues to have trust in me. At Norwich I’d have been playing in some form of under-18s game on a Saturday, under-23 games on a Monday night. So it’s been a bit mad and unexpected.
“I set myself targets but this has surpassed anything I could have dreamed of. It’s been a bit crazy but at the end of the day I have only made a few starts now. I need to keep it going and can’t get too carried away. If I’m in the squad on Sunday, whether I start or am on the bench, I need to take it bit by bit. At the start, when we played the qualifiers, I felt grateful just to be involved and part of the squad. But now going forward, I would like to see myself as a player the manager can trust to play in these games.
“It’s not going to be easy. Myself, Daniel [Candeias], Eros [Grezda] and Ryan [Kent], when he’s fit again, will all fighting for our place. But when two of us are playing, the other two always have our backs. Against Villarreal, it was myself and Danny. We are a really close team. Everyone is there for each other.”
Against the Spaniards, Middleton looked as if he might be there to give Rangers the winner that would have prevented Gerrard’s side requiring to win their final Europa League Group G game at the home of Austria Vienna in a fortnight to progress to the last 32. He had the ball in the net midway through the second period the other night, but was correctly adjudged to have strayed beyond the last defender in a call that prevented him adding to the goal he netted in the 4-3 defeat away at Spartak Moscow last month, one of an impressive five strikes he has claimed this season.
“I had a feeling I was offside but you have always got to claim…” he said. “I thought I had done it but when you see the flag go up you just switch back on and hope you get another chance.”
Middleton hasn’t had to wait too long for those coming along in this campaign.