Obituary: Rab Prentice, footballer, Hearts cult hero, winger capable of beating an entire opposition team on his own

Rab Prentice's exploits are fondly remembered by the Tynecastle faithful
Rab Prentice's exploits are fondly remembered by the Tynecastle faithful
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Robert Prentice, footballer. Born: 27 September, 1953 in Lanark.Died: 16 September, 2019 in Dalkeith, aged 65

RAB Prentice, who has died just days before his 66th birthday, was a cult hero to the Hearts fans during the somewhat difficult days of the 1970s, when he played 240 games for the club and won various representative honours.

Rab Prentice is foiled by the OFK Kikinda goalkeeper during a match at Tynecastle in Augus 1977

Rab Prentice is foiled by the OFK Kikinda goalkeeper during a match at Tynecastle in Augus 1977

Eccentric left-wingers, players capable of beating an entire opposition team on their own, before tripping over the ball with nobody near them, are a long-established feature of the Scottish game, and the Lanark-born Prentice is widely considered to be one of the best of this breed.

The son of a miner,he was raised in mining villages, Lesmahagow, Douglas Water and Dalkeith, as his father followed the coal. His promise was noted as a youth player with the well-known Edina Hearts nursery, from where he went senior with Dundee.

But, he failed to make the grade at Dens – in spite of being a distant relation of then manager John Prentice, and returned to that famous Junior football nursery, Newtongrange Star, with whom he won Junior Scotland honours in 1972. He was signed by Celtic at this time, on the ground staff. But, while they allowed him to continue to play for Star, he was unable to displace Bobby Lennox from the Celtic team.

Legend has it his father Willie had words with Jock Stein; one would like to have been a fly on the wall at a disagreement between two men who had hewed coal under the fields of Lanarkshire; anyway, the upshot was, Prentice was released by Celtic and quickly signed by Hearts, the team he had supported since seeing them beat Kilmarnock in the 1962 League Cup final.

He joined up at Tynecastle in August, 1973 and quickly broke into the first team, making his debut against Dundee in a League Cup tie.

A month later he scored the first of his eventual 26 goals for the club – in a 3-0 win over Rangers at Ibrox. Six months on from his debut, still only 20, he made the first of four appearances for the Scotland Under-23 team, in a match against Wales, which Scotland won 3-0.

A month later he made his solitary appearance for the Scottish League XI, in a 5-0 loss to the English League. But, to be fair, with Scotland heading for the World Cup Finals, the League team was very-much a “reserve” team.

He scored once for the Under-23s, in his final cap, against Denmark, in the European Championships, at Tynecastle. Prentice had come on for David Narey, but he discovered his shorts were a bit tight, and when he had to take a corner, he realised if he took a full swing at the ball, he would rip them. So, he played a short pass to Frankie Gray, got the ball back then beat three Danish defenders along the bye-line, before lobbing the ‘keeper from an impossible angle for a memorable goal, which had Mike Aitken waxing lyrical in his Scotsman match report.

But, that was typical of Rab Prentice. Legend has it – Gary Mackay certainly used the story in his autobiography – he once, against Faklkirk, went back to collect a throw-out from Jim Cruickshank, beat the entire opposition team as he dribbled the length of the park, before turning back on himself and repeating the dribble, before passing back to Cruickshank.

Another time, after he gave the ball away cheaply and Rangers scored at Ibrox, the irate Cruickshank chased him half the length of the park to remonstrate with him.

The closest he came to a medal with Hearts was a runners-up one in the 1976 Scottish Cup final. The following season, Hearts were relegated from the Premier Division; but they bounced straight back in one season, only to be relegated again in 1978-79.

This blow meant change at Tynecastle and Prentice was one of the players deemed surplus to requirements. He immediately took himself off to Canada, to join Toronto Blizzard, who surely got a bargain, paying only £8,000 for his signature, before running down his career with Baltimore Blast, then Buffalo Stallions in the six-a-side North American Indoor League.

In 1984, he returned to Scotland, back to live in Dalkeith, but his playing days were over, although he continued to be a regular attender at Tynecastle – he had always been, first and foremost, a Hearts supporter.

Prentice admitted to struggling without the game he loved. He had his demons with drink and depression. He never married, but lived close to his mother in Dalkeith.

He was a genuine fans’ favourite. The Shed at Tynecastle had a song about him, and the way he could beat opponents at will certainly made him popular, and saw his occasional foibles forgiven.

They don’t make them like Rab Prentice any more, more’s the pity.

MATT VALLANCE