It was a cold December night, Christmas was only days away and Rangers had defeated St Johnstone 2-0 at a sub-temperature Ibrox. Dujon Sterling wasn’t going anywhere fast as the clock ticked past 11.

Fresh from a man-of-the-match display in the League Cup Final days before in a totally new position, he spent upwards of 45 minutes signing autographs and taking pictures with fans while exiting the ground at the Copland Road end.

The increased interest was viewed as confirmation - Sterling was really a Rangers player now.

The biggest compliment you could pay the 24-year-old is that he looks every inch a central midfielder. That’s a sentence few would’ve imagined uttering just two months ago. Sure, Sterling was versatile enough to cover positions across the defence and has plenty of translatable attributes, but a right-back who’s never played a senior game in the centre of midfield migrating there altogether? Watching on at Easter Road last night in Rangers’ convincing 3-0 win over Hibs, you’d never know.

It’s easy to forget that it was only last month Sterling played in the middle of the park for the first time. Since then, he has stood out in an Old Firm game, stood out above others in a League Cup Final and increasingly looked the part.

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A fast ball-carrier over distance, technically astute and a dominator of duels, far from simply acting as cover Philippe Clement’s team looks better when Sterling is playing. Much like the Englishman’s career story to date, there’s been no shortage of adversity during a short spell at Ibrox. The path walked has not exactly been easy but now, Sterling is reaping the rewards for patience and persistence.

Signed as a back-up right-back to challenge club captain James Tavernier, Sterling joined the club after leaving Chelsea in the summer where he’d been since the age of six. Following four loan spells and an illness which threatened to end his career in 2020, it was time for a fresh start.

A strong loan move with Stoke in the Championship last season saw Premier League interest materialise in Sterling. The key to his Rangers move was timing. While a transfer to England’s top flight could’ve materialised later in the window, Sterling wanted his future sorted as quickly as possible. There was a belief that Sterling simply required the correct platform to move from promising loan moves to becoming an established first-team player.

The size of the club, pull of Europe and desire to get his future sorted quickly led Sterling to sign on at Ibrox before pre-season had started.

Alongside competing with and pushing Tavernier, the move to a back three with Tavernier higher up the pitch and Sterling operating as a wide centre-back to drive out with the ball was also discussed with Beale. Things didn’t exactly go to plan for either party, however. Beale was quickly fighting for his job at Ibrox this season and dropping the team captain, even for rotational purposes, is uncommon in such circumstances. Sterling picked an injury which stalled momentum but chances were limited regardless. Come the end of Beale’s tenure in October, Sterling had started just two matches.

While Sterling grew frustrated at his lack of minutes beyond Beale’s dismissal, he’s no stranger to battling tough times. In 2020 he suffered a rare illness which could’ve ended his football career before it had truly started. Sterling worked after hours at Chelsea’s Cobham training base on his rehab with few outside of a close inner circle understanding the severity of an illness which kept him out of the game for a whole year. Sterling reappeared in January of 2021 physically stronger and mentally motivated to capitalise on a football career that could’ve been taken away.

Clement, who takes man-managment just as seriously as any tactical detail, is viewed as a turning point for Sterling. The manager has spoken publicly of desiring players who will put the team above their individual interests - a trait Sterling epitomises.

As fate would have it, the Belgian manager was looking for solutions. He had a slot open in midfield and needed someone who could “think outside of the box” with no natural replacements alongside John Lundstram. Sterling came off from the bench at half-time against Dundee in early December with the hosts down to 10 men in midfield. Rangers’ last remaining midfielder, Jose Cifuentes, had been sent off shortly before the break while Ryan Jack and Nico Raskin were injured. Clement, who’d been forced to work with limited resources ever since arriving at the club, needed a solution and Sterling was ready to step out of his comfort zone. It was the player's first senior appearance in centre-midfield. As fate would have it, Sterling’s breakthrough at Rangers has since arrived in a position he’d never played before. Both parties have been rewarded for their willingness to think outside of the status quo.

It quickly became apparent that a midfield role suited many of Sterling’s attributes. He almost scored a stunning strike from range against Dundee, has the technical ability to play across the pitch, can win the ball back with ease and dominates his zone powerfully.

Sterling would be awarded Rangers’ Player of the Month for December playing in midfield, an incredible leap having never even trained in the position at the start of that month. The crowning moment aside from his showing in the League Cup Final was a historic 3-2 away win at Real Betis. Clement had told Sterling in the lead-up to the game he could’ve come on in a variety of positions. As it would so happen, his half-time substitution into the midfield shut down Isco’s influence on proceedings and helped catalyse victory. It felt like a coming-of-age moment for the summer arrival.

“Players, like Dujon, are giving me solutions because of his work in training, You can put him in positions because he believes in it,” Clement would say at a later press conference reflecting on the move.

“He’s really versatile. Not only a good defender but he also has good feet, a good pass, a good shot, good physicality. That’s why with all the problems we had in the last weeks we need solutions. I need to sometimes look out of the box but Dujon is also looking out of the box.”

It was telling during recent winter break friendlies that Sterling didn’t see minutes at right-back, with Leon King himself moving from centre-back to cover for Tavernier. Sterling was also trialled at right-wing against Hertha Berlin in La Manga, a position he played at youth level. Coming off the bench in midweek against Hibs, however, he continues to look every inch a midfielder. What is clear is that while at points it’s up for debate where Sterling will play, it’s not up for debate if he will play. In the big games especially.

READ MORE: Dujon Sterling's story: Beating adversity, impressing Conte and midfield versatility

Sterling always had the technical base and football understanding to play in the middle of the park and has played at left-wing back, as a wide centre-back and across other areas. His versatility has always been known, but a role in midfield is different. There are more angles to consider, more chances to lose possession in dangerous pockets. But new challenges have not proved a stumbling block.

“Against Dundee, that was the first time I'd ever played there. I'd never even trained there once in the senior game,” Sterling said talking recently of his move to the middle.

“When I was younger I used to play up quite a few age groups. They taught me to play in different positions and trusted me to do that. When you are playing at right-back or left-back all you have on the outside is the touchline whereas now I am in midfield I basically do a 360 and scan all the time to see who is over my shoulder. As soon as I got that, I was able to just play the game.

"The manager has trusted me because he sees what I can do in training. I can win the ball back easily, I can dribble past players and drive with the ball. I can make the right decisions, when to press forward and when to hold. He trusts I can translate that into a game.”

It’s important to remember that Sterling was a standout for Chelsea, one of the best youth teams in the world, as he broke through winning three FA Youth Cups. In the England youth set-ups as a teenager, only Trent Alexander-Arnold was ahead of him at right-back. When he made his debut against Nottingham Forrest in the FA Cup as a 17-year-old, Sterling was ahead of now-Chelsea captain Reece James in the pecking order. Technical quality has never been an issue.

When Antonio Conte left that summer and Maurizio Sarri arrived so did Sterling’s chances at the club. Loans would follow across the next number of seasons. Now a more permanent home in senior football has been found in Glasgow.

Sterling, who signed a four-year deal at Rangers in the summer, is also now a far more valuable asset than the start of December. Parallels have been drawn to Calvin Bassey’s rise in 2022 after also seeing his chance in the team arrive in a new role. Now he’s had his platform to shine, should things continue on an upward trajectory Sterling has all the attributes to play in the top five leagues and make Rangers a healthy return on investment down the line. For the moment, however, all focus is on life at Ibrox and building on the platform he’s long-awaited. Sterling is very happy, focused and motivated, thriving on a platform he's long craved.

In many ways, Sterling’s rise these past two months is representative of Clement’s time at Rangers to date. Finding solutions in difficult circumstances but thriving all the same.

So many success stories in football rely on timing and circumstance. In recent years Sterling could be forgiven for believing both have gone against him, but not anymore.