It was 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and Ronnie Moore found himself out shopping.
He was a legend from his playing days, he’d been a manager for close to 1,000 games, yet here he was in Meadowall holding bags for his wife, cast aside by the game he’d given his life to.
As the clocked ticked past kick-off time, former Rotherham United striker and boss Moore knew he wasn’t ready to blow the final whistle on 50 years in football.
“I’m desperate to get back,” he says. “I really think I still have something to offer. I don’t want to get another job just to get to 1,000 matches, but reaching that figure would be a remarkable achievement for me. It would be the correct ending, if you like, to my career.”
Moore became a pensioner last month, but the fire burns like it did when he was a 16-year-old butcher’s boy in home town Huyton, Liverpool, signing amateur terms with Tranmere Rovers.
“I’m not bothered whether I come back as a manager, a recruitment guy or a director of football,” he says. “I just want something that utilises my knowledge and gets me that day-to-day involvement. You get to 65 and people think you’re ready for the wooden box, but I’m full of energy. I want to keep on working for as long as I can work.
“You apply for jobs you know you can do and you’d like to think the chairmen of clubs see your name and take notice. But it’s like: ‘Ronnie Moore, 65. Ronnie Moore, hasn’t worked for a year.’”
Moore’s career almost didn’t happen at all, his chance of an apprenticeship with Everton wrecked when he was 15 and his mum died of cancer.
“Bang, I went off the rails massively,” he remembers. “I was out on the Friday when we were playing Saturday, looking for trouble, getting into fights. It’s ridiculous how you can lose your way. Everton weren’t going to put up with that.”
Making sausages in the butcher’s shop at the Alliance Cash and Carry in Huyton focused his mind. Tranmere offered him a way back and a £100,000 switch to Cardiff City followed.
Then came Rotherham.
He earned immortal status with the Millers, those blond locks blowing in the Millmoor wind an iconic 1980s image as he rose to head home crosses supplied by wing wizard Tony ‘Tiger’ Towner.
Between 1980 and 1983, he racked up 52 goals in 125 appearances. There were 23 in the 1980/81 season when the Millers finished top of the old Division Three (now League One), 22 the next year when they threatened to reach the top flight and he finished top scorer in the division.
Not bad for the centre-forward that Tranmere player-manager Ron Yeats converted to a centre-half for several seasons, telling him: “You’re not going to make it up front, son.”
“Moving to Rotherham was the best thing I ever did,” Moore says. “The bond that 1981 team had was something else. After away games, nearly always we’d get back and head into Rotherham town centre. Off to the Adam and Eve nightclub, get home late, get earache off your missus. You’d go to war with every one of them. I loved it.”
Today, he still carries his 6ft-plus frame with a nimble, footballer’s gait, and the impish smile is exactly the same. Blond has given way to grey but he could easily pass for 10 years younger.
“God, we’re going back a long time,” he grins as he recalls the early years.
The Cambridge United hot-seat is vacant at the time of our interview. “I’ll apply for it,” he says. “But I probably won’t hear anything.”
I’ll call him Ronnie from now on. That’s how everyone refers to him, except some admirers in Rotherham who prefer “The King”. In the famous Ronnie stakes, he’s up there with Corbett, Barker and Kray.
We chat in a cold, murky room in the bowels of Glanford Park ,which passes for the Press room of Scunthorpe United. He’s there with Radio Sheffield for the Iron v Millers match and immediately mucks in.
“Who wants a brew?” he enquires, rummaging for teabags and taking charge of the grimy kettle everyone else is avoiding. He’s a people person and always has been.
“I used to love the reaction from the fans, that ‘pat on the back’ thing,” he says.
“After Rotherham games, as a player and a manager, I’d go and have a drink with them in the Millmoor Hotel. I loved that ‘crack’, even during games. People would shout: ‘You’re having a nightmare.’ I’d shout back: ‘You’re right, I am. I can’t get going.’”
In one South Yorkshire derby, a policeman was poleaxed by a stray shot and Moore donned the helmet which had been sent flying into the air.
Barnsley supporters were on it in a flash, coming up with the infamous chant about what kind of character he was (it rhymes with banker) and what kind of hat he wore (same rhyme).
“Who thinks of something that bloody quick?” he laughs. “All I could think was: ‘How have they come up with that in 10 seconds?’”
A drink problem - no, it’s not what you’re thinking - led to his departure to Charlton Athletic, but he was back in 1997 as manager, after a playing career of 600-plus games, several years as assistant boss with Tranmere and six months in charge of non-league Southport.
Promotion from the fourth tier came in 2000, another one followed the next year and he kept the Millers in the Championship against all the odds.
After time at Oldham Athletic and Tranmere, he came back for a second spell in 2009 and took the club to a League Two play-off final. Eventually, he headed to the Football League’s bottom side, Hartlepool United, closed a 10-point gap to safety and pulled off one of the all-time great escapes.
“Rotherham has been my happiest time as a player and as a manager,” he says. “Staying in the Championship the way we did was a fairytale. Liverpool is where I’m from, but Rotherham is my home. My life is here. My family is from Rotherham, we’re based in Rotherham, we won’t leave Rotherham. The support I’ve had from this town has been frightening.”
From Hartlepool, he went to National League Eastleigh and was doing well before his shock departure at the end of 2016. His only work in football since has been as a radio summariser and overseeing his grassroots academy which has nearly 200 kids on its books.
“You think about being a director of football only when you get to my age,” he says. “Sometimes, a young manager loses four games on the trot and wonders: ‘What do I do here. How do I handle it?’ Someone like me who has been there could help him with that.
“I don’t want his job. I’ve been there, done that. I’m not there to back-stab anybody. I’m there to help. Managers are frightened to death of somebody pinching their job. They walk around with their back to the wall because they’re scared of somebody putting a knife in it. I’d never do that to anybody. I haven’t done it all my life. It’s not the way I was brought up.”
“How do you feel when 3pm on Saturday comes round?” I ask him and Ronnie goes uncharacterically quiet. “Depressed sometimes,” he finally offers.
It’s a far cry from the excitement of his Millers playing days, which ended in less time than it takes Barnsley fans to start a chant when George Kerr was given the hot-seat.
“Me and Breck (teammate John Breckin) used to do the ‘players’ bar’,” he recollects. “We’d collect the money, then off to the supermarket after matches to fill up on booze. Viking Lager or whatever it was, the cheapest we could get. We’d hide it away.
“There was a woman called Joyce who worked at the club and I told her: ‘Don’t ever give the key to this room to anybody but me.’
“George comes in and starts looking round everywhere and wonders what’s in that room. Joyce refuses to give him the key, saying: ‘No, I’m sorry, Ronnie Moore says I’m not allowed to.’ I’m not saying that’s the reason I left, but I don’t think it went down too well!”
Nowadays, Ronnie fills his mornings exercising beagle Bella near the Wickersley home he shares with second wife Angela and 12-year-old daughter Charlotte, then works on coaching sessions on his laptop in the hope the phone will ring.
“I’d happily do non-league again,” he says. “It wouldn’t bother me if I was managing the Dog and Duck.
“You look at the young managers now. How many are going to get to 1,000 games? It’s not going to happen again. The ‘1,000 games’ thing is almost finished.
“Custard pie after custard pie after custard pie in the face, you start thinking that something has got to change for you. But it hasn’t, and I can only think it’s that concern about my age.
“My pension is there if I want to take it. But I’ve still got a pair of legs. I can still run. I’ve still got my brain. That’s so much knowledge in there. But nobody wants it. Retired? I can’t be retired. That’s not for me.”
As he walks round Wickersley Woods, his CV remains out there for all to see.
Nine-hundred-and-twenty-two matches. A leader of six different clubs. Two promotions. A survival miracle. Not a single relegation.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
Best goal? I never scored great goals. They were tap-ins or headers. My favourite was when Rotherham beat Plymouth to get the title in 1981. We won 2-1. Left foot. I didn’t get many left-footers. It just bounced right. For Tranmere, I once scored four against Newport on a Friday and then four at Stockport when we played on the Monday. Eight goals in a weekend.
Best player played with? Tony Towner. For someone who contributed to my goal tally, ‘Tiger’ is the one. Rotherham had Gerry Gow and Gerry Forrest while I was there, both great players. But it’s Tiger for me.
Toughest opponent? Malcolm Shotton at Oxford United. He was as tough as nails. I had some right battles with him. He won a few and I won a few. I used to think when were due to face Oxford: ‘I hope he’s not playing.’
Best moment? It came when I was a manager. It has to be the first promotion with Rotherham.
Worst moment? Probably when I left Rotherham the second time because I didn’t think it was warranted. I was a little bit bitter at the time. Not that I’m bitter towards the club in any way now.
Best team you were part of? That has to be the 1981 Rotherham side.
Best team you’ve managed? The Rotherham side that won two promotions in two years. We added only a couple of new faces for the second year. The first one stands out more. First ones always do. But the second one was really special. No-one thought we had a chance at the start of the season. We were favourites to be relegated.
Best friend made in football? Breck (John Breckin). We’re as close now as we’ve ever been. We just got on like a house on fire right from the first day. He’s like a brother really.
Best player you managed? Alan Lee at Rotherham. We really improved Alan after we got him from Burnley. We saw the potential in him. He eventually went for a lot of money. We got him for £100,000 and he went for more than £1 million. He was a pleasure to manage. I used to have him out in the afternoons and do extra work with him.
Any regrets? I’ve loved every minute since I’ve been involved with football. The only regret is that I’m not in it now.