Ronnie Moore is not one to take received wisdom for granted. Never go back, it is said. Moore is managing Tranmere Rovers for a third time. A 1-0 win at Notts County, who lay fourth, leaves them four points clear at the top of League One, leading scorers with 26, best defenders with six conceded and unbeaten in 11 games, nearly a quarter of the way into the campaign. Going back twice is an adage bonus.
Strictly it is thrice. Moore, born in Liverpool and now 59, started as a player with Rovers, scoring 72 league goals after converting from centre-half to striker, and finished there as player-caretaker manager 18 years later. He went back in 2006, giving them finishes of ninth, 11th and seventh between 18th before and 19th after. This time he picked them up in March in 19th after one win in 18 games. Four wins in an unbeaten start of six games took them to 12th, where they ended the season.
This season's spectacular beginning is not chance and Moore wore his magician's twinkle with justification after a victory made more pleasing by the intensity of County's effort. His summer business is bearing fruit. "We've been compact, they couldn't get through us and they started lumping it," he said. "Our centre-halves and back four were magnificent. Nobody can argue we deserve to be top but there is a long, long way to go."
Keith Curle, County's manager, wore a five o'clock shadow. This was their second home defeat running. "They denied us playing where we wanted to," he said. "We enjoyed good possession without hurting them." Tranmere enjoyed better and should have made more of it. "On another day we could have had three or four," said Moore, "but, if you are going to win a game, then that's how you win it."
They had to find a different way here. Remarkably they have the division's top three scorers, each with seven, but Andy Robinson was injured and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro had to be replaced after 18 minutes. Joe Thompson, his substitute, scored inside five, heading in Abdulai Bell-Baggie's cross at the far post. Curle complained beforehand of "not dealing with balls as we should, mandatory balls out from the back". This probably qualified as a mandatory ball from the right.
There was another from Bell-Baggie late on but Adam McGurk, Robinson's unchallenged replacement, headed over from five yards. Earlier Jake Cassidy, the third seven-goal man, was foiled by Bartosz Bialkowski's smothering save and Bell-Baggie hit the far post. County got off lightly. "We had pace. We can counter-attack teams now," said Moore. "Abs has worked so hard. It was fantastic."
The tiny 20-year-old Bell-Baggie, signed from Salisbury but known to Moore from a loan at Rotherham in 2010, was indeed an electric menace. Cassidy, on loan from Wolves, prowled with intent and two other loanees, Liam Palmer (Sheffield Wednesday) and Ben Gibson (19, Middlesbrough) stood out in midfield and central defence.But James Wallace was man of the match. When Moore arrived, the 20-year-old was on loan from Everton. The manager saw him as captain, persuaded him to burn his tunnels and has not been disappointed.
Rovers' under-exercised goalkeeper, Owain Fon Williams, who joined the Wales squad on Sunday in hope of a first cap in the next nine days, commended the way "we played in little pockets of keep-ball". Wallace was at the heart of these and time and again found a team-mate running into space at the end of them. Williams' only regret concerned next Saturday's match against Yeovil. "I hate missing games," he said – a measure of Rovers' current spirit.
He also commended the away support, 955 at Meadow Lane, not bad for a team averaging 5,311 (including visitors) at Prenton Park. "Their voice carries through the team," he said. Moore agreed: "The players remember that for the next game. And the fans are loving it."
The latter are angling for a supporters trust that can put the club into community ownership. They have not always approved the chairmanship of the Christmas food tycoon Peter Johnson, notably replacing Moore with John Barnes in 2009 and trying to sell the club on eBay. But they respect his initial rescue 25 years ago, when the club went into administration, Moore tided over and John King was brought back to raise them from near dead to near Premier League (three second-tier play-offs in succession). Overall Rovers have been more helped than hampered by Johnson, who has eaten humble mincepie in reinstating Moore, a pendulum player, manager and legend who has swung across the Pennines between Rovers and Rotherham. March, the adage goes, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Moore this time may go on like a lion for longer.