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St Johnstone analysis: Shaun Rooney’s progression from head in hands to head held high

Shaun Rooney.
Shaun Rooney.

Shaun Rooney was dropped into the St Johnstone backline at Easter Road earlier this week.

Shaun Rooney was dropped into the St Johnstone backline at Rugby Park in August.

That is where any meaningful comparison between his two league starts begins and ends.

There haven’t been many other – actually any other – occasions I can think of this season when a Saints player has looked as ill at ease as Rooney did against Kilmarnock.

The full-back’s adaptation to a new position of right-sided centre-half in a back three that sunny afternoon in Ayrshire was bordering on hard to watch.

The former Inverness Caley Thistle player was substituted on 65 minutes after being at fault for Killie’s opening goal, the culmination of an afternoon characterised by indecision, nervousness and shaky technique.

A few appearances in his comfort zone of right wing-back have followed in the Betfred Cup but Tuesday night against Hibs, drafted in to replace captain Jason Kerr, was the first time since Kilmarnock that he has been in a Premiership starting line-up, and in the middle.

The performance sat somewhere between progression and transformation.

The man who walked off the pitch feeling justifiably proud of his contribution to a team effort that probably deserved even greater reward than one point bore no resemblance to the one who was sat with his head in his hands after 65 minutes of football suffering were brought to an end, alone with some not very nice thoughts.

Shaun Rooney had a tough afternoon at Kilmarnock.

It is a tribute to Callum Davidson’s coaching ability that there was no perceptible drop-off in the organisation and cohesion in the Saints defensive unit without Kerr.

But the marked improvement in the man who replaced him was probably the most significant sub-plot of the evening from a Perth perspective.

For Rooney, the individual performance curve has been a steep one. It needed to be.

“I’d never played right centre-half in my life before that (Kilmarnock) game, apart from in reserve and bounce games and a couple of matches at youth level,” he said. “And even when I did it was in a back four and on the left-hand side.

“There were a lot of things about the position that were new to me. It was like learning on the job.

“Since then I’ve worked a lot more on it in training and got used to it – things like the different runs you have to deal with and players dropping off.

“It’s about reading the game and getting the right balance of knowing when to stay back and when to go forward – helping the attack is a big part of my game.

“It was difficult for me at Kilmarnock but it felt better against Hibs.

“I’ve kept working hard every day and waited for my chance. Hopefully the manager will feel I’ve done what he’s asked of me.”

There is no better Press box in the country than Easter Road for getting a panoramic appreciation of how a game is developing.

If anybody is being dragged out of position, you soon spot it.

In midweek Rooney stayed tight to Liam Gordon on his left but even more importantly, there was never an obvious gap between himself and Danny McNamara that Hibs’ mobile forwards could strategically exploit.

On several occasions when the opportunity arose for the likes of Jamie Murphy to cross, Rooney was in the right place to cut it out at the front post.

The man who scored Hibs’ two goals, Paul McGinn, paid Rooney and his Perth defensive colleagues a grudging, backhanded compliment with his summary of what they came up against.

“You really need to take the lead against St Johnstone because they have such a good defensive shape and, if they take they lead, they’ll sit and counter on you,” he said.

“That’s exactly what they did and if you are not quite at it on the ball then you’ll be punished.

“Maybe I should give St Johnstone more credit because they are hard to play against. They stop the balls into the striker and even when we went two up top, they got even better at that.”

Rooney’s instincts, like Kerr’s, are to push forward. But this was a night to curb them rather than let them run free.

On the few occasions he did step into midfield, it was the right option. One example was a floated pass over the top for Stevie May to chase down the right wing in the first half. May earned a free-kick off it and Saints were up the pitch at a time in the game when relieving pressure was becoming an issue.

Danny’s been one of our best players this season so it’s been hard to get in.

As well as Rooney played, his short-term problem will be the (hopefully) imminent return from a back injury of Kerr and his longer-term one is the consistently excellent form of his competition for the position he was signed to play, Danny McNamara.

“Danny’s been one of our best players this season so it’s been hard to get in,” said Rooney.

“I’ll never shy away from a challenge. When you get the chance you need to show your quality.

“It’s a given that I’ll keep my head down and work hard. We’ve got a small squad and hopefully I’ll get more chances.

“I know it’s going to be hard to keep my position from the Hibs game because it’s the skipper’s!

“I can only do my best.

“I’m happy enough with my performance and hopefully the little things I need to improve on will come.”

Shaun Rooney in action for Inverness Caley Thistle.

Rooney was recruited on a pre-contract by Tommy Wright but never got the chance to play for him. It’s not a ‘what if’ that the 24-year-old has spent any time dwelling on, though.

“That can happen in football,” he said. “Managers can leave or get sacked at any time. Players can come and go as well.

“You just have to deal with the circumstances you’ve been given.

“It’s been all about trying to learn off the new gaffer and taking on board what he wants to see from me.”

Reflecting on the Hibs draw, Rooney struck a similar mixed emotions tone to his manager.

“Going a goal up twice in the game you are obviously a bit frustrated to not win the game and we certainly could have done better for the first goal,” he said.

“The second one was tough to take because it came so late in the game.

“It took a deflection off D (David Wotherspoon) first, then Gordy. I was on the line and it would have been coming straight at me.

“There was no doubt that the lads put in a great shift and we’ve got a point to show for it.

“The unbeaten run is still going – even though we don’t want to draw too many.

“We know we can get higher up the table and that’s what we’ll be trying to do.

“We’ve got a couple of goals in this game, which is a good sign.”

I used to be a striker back in the day so maybe I can get myself back up there again!

Whatever the club, whichever the league and whoever the manager, versatility and adaptability are precious assets in playing squads. And those traits should lead to plenty of game-time for Rooney in the remaining months of the season.

“Look at James Milner,” he said. “He’s obviously well above my level but he’s an example of somebody who can come into his team in so many different positions.

“I used to be a striker back in the day so maybe I can get myself back up there again as well!”

Maybe there is a Callum Paterson-style career path ahead of him yet but for the moment Davidson will be quite happy if Rooney can build on his display in Leith and become a dependable deputy at worst and a genuine contender to start at best.

It is in defence where Saints’ lack of numbers in relation to the rest of the league carries the greatest risk of being exposed.

Rooney as middle and right cover and Callum Booth as middle and left will be key men if this season is going to be successful one.

St Johnstone analysis: There is nothing ordinary about Saints and Northern Ireland midfielder Ali McCann