• Sam Byrne

Rooney departs Edgeley Park - how and why mercurial midfielder's County spell came to a natural end

Image credit - Mike Petch

John Rooney has departed Edgeley Park to re-join former side Barrow for an undisclosed fee, bringing to an end a mixed eighteen-month spell with The Hatters.

Rooney topped the goalscoring charts for County in his first season with the club alongside striker Alex Reid, netting 21 goals in 43 appearances as the club finished third in the National League before ultimately missing out on promotion via the play-offs.

The 31-year-old has won back-to-back National League Player of the Year awards thanks to his exploits firstly with 2020 title winners Barrow, and again last campaign after joining County for an undisclosed fee from The Bluebirds - as well as picking up the North West Player of the Year award in late 2021.

But since the departure of former manager Simon Rusk from Edgeley Park in October, Rooney has found minutes hard to come by under current boss Dave Challinor, with County ultimately accepting a bid from Rooney’s former club Barrow this week.

"We recognise this is a good opportunity for John, and a fair deal that suits all parties. John has been a really important part of the club's development over the last 18 months. He is a winner and has helped us move forward, providing many ‘wow’ moments along the way,” said Director of Football Simon Wilson.

A blistering run of form for The Hatters under former Hartlepool Utd boss Challinor has seen County go top of the National League, with a midfield three of Ryan Croasdale, Will Collar and Antoni Sarcevic proving pivotal to the side’s success - leaving Rooney largely out of the picture.

The former Wrexham man did come off the bench to score County’s third against Maidenhead Utd late last Tuesday evening - scoring for the first and last time in front of a populated Cheadle End as a County player.

Barrow manager Mark Cooper referred to a “big signing” for the club in his post-match media duties on Saturday - and the League Two side were understood to be more than happy to link up with Rooney once again when the opportunity arose.

With a move for Rooney clearly a possibility for some time, County were unwilling to sell their player to a fellow National League side, with reported interest from rivals Wrexham and Notts County rejected out of hand by The Hatters over the last few weeks.

Following understandable frustration at the decision to allow former striker Richie Bennett to join eventual play-off winners Hartlepool Utd on loan last season, it is to the club’s credit that National League interest in Rooney - especially interest from direct promotion rivals - was dismissed, at a time when interest from elsewhere didn’t appear to be forthcoming.

Furthermore, County will be recouping the vast majority of the fee they parted with to bring Rooney to the club in the summer of 2020 from The Bluebirds - making the deal a no-brainer for a man who had become a bit-part player at Edgeley Park.

It has undoubtedly been a strange spell for the mercurial midfielder with The Hatters. Despite those 21 goals last season, and an array of stunning strikes, it appeared that supporters largely struggled to connect with Rooney.

Admittedly, the relationship wasn’t helped by some misplaced anger towards the midfielder following the controversial exit of legendary manager Jim Gannon last January, with Rooney mistakenly viewed by some as an accessory to the Irishman’s departure.

It was felt at the time by sources around the club that Rooney - who had been identified as a potential signing by Gannon well before eventually joining The Hatters - was unfairly maligned for his perceived (yet untrue) part in the club legend’s exit last January, and that Rooney’s excellent form in the post-Gannon era was merely a continuation of the goalscoring form he was already exhibiting under the then-County boss.

A scorer of great goals for the club in the 2020/21 season, that apparent lack of a real connection between Rooney and some sections of the home support also won’t have been helped by fixtures being played behind closed doors last year - with a catalogue of stunning strikes only able to be enjoyed in person by teammates, coaching staff and club officials.

In recent months, it is also believed that Rooney himself felt a sense of the writing being on the wall in terms of his Edgeley Park future once Challinor took the reins, with the County boss’ high-tempo style a clear contrast to Rooney’s ‘quarterback’ style of play - albeit a style of play which has earned him three individual gongs and the title of top goalscorer at Edgeley Park over the past two years.

Nonetheless, County officials and staff were said to have been impressed with the midfielder’s positive attitude during his absence from the starting line-up since Challinor’s appointment in November, with both his impressive cameo last Tuesday evening, and again in the 0-5 win at Barnet on Saturday afternoon, typical of Rooney’s continued professional approach to training and fixtures since Challinor’s decision to leave Hartlepool for Edgeley Park three months ago.

County are now set to strengthen their ranks in the coming weeks following Rooney’s exit, although any incoming may not necessarily be a direct midfield replacement – with the ever-reliable Jordan Keane viewed internally as a solid option to support the dynamic Sarcevic/Croasdale/Collar trio, and the lively Ben Whitfield still to return from injury (albeit in a more advanced position).

All-in-all, the transfer appears to represent one that suits all parties - County recoup almost all of the fee initially paid for Rooney in 2020 and don’t strengthen a promotion rival, Barrow get a popular and undoubtedly talented former player back in the ranks, and Rooney himself gets his move back to the EFL.

Given the well-travelled midfielder’s undeniable ability and keen eye for goal, yet with a style which doesn’t match that of Challinor’s high-octane approach at Stockport County - you wouldn’t bet against all three parties thriving on the back of the move.