Bobby Prentice: a mercurial talent who dazzled for Hearts on the wing

Bobby Prentice plays keepy-uppy during a training session at Tynecastle in 1976. Picture: Stan Warburton
Bobby Prentice plays keepy-uppy during a training session at Tynecastle in 1976. Picture: Stan Warburton
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Want to remember the way it felt to fall in love with football for the first time? Watch the footage doing the rounds of Bobby Prentice trying – and nearly succeeding – to beat the entire Dundee team during a League Cup section clash in August 1973.

Drew Busby, who profited so often from his Hearts team-mate’s dazzling wing play, still has this clip on his phone. “I have been showing it to people through here in Dumbarton for many years. It’s phenomenal. He was only a young boy then, too.”

The thrilling passages of play underline why some players, particularly those such as Prentice who are born to entertain, find it difficult to adapt to life away from the roar of the crowd. There’s often no happy ending.

Twice he attempts to run the whole length of the field. Tommy Gemmell scythes him down the first time and on the second occasion he sends the ball into the old School End at Tynecastle with his rarely used right foot. It would have been the goal of the decade had it gone in.

With confirmation that Prentice, known as Rab to his team-mates, has passed away at the too-young age of 65, this footage from another era seems even more profoundly elegiac.

“Hearts have a real prospect on their books here,” announces the commentator. Perhaps Prentice did not make the most of this potential – he signed for Celtic originally and then left without playing a first-team game. But he lives on in the memories of Hearts fans of a certain age. “Bobby, oh Bobby Prentice, oh Bobby Prentice on the wi-hing,” can still be heard to this day at Tynecastle.

Several former team-mates are indebted to him. “He laid on that many goals for me it was unreal,” recalled Busby yesterday. “I got a hat-trick at Partick Thistle one night – three crosses from him from the left. Alan Rough was in goal. It was one of those days.”

On such days, Prentice was unplayable. Busby remembers manager John Hagart treating Prentice as a special case. “He used to describe us all as coins,” he said. “Everyone was a copper coin except Rab, who was silver. He used to say: ‘He’s the man who can win us the game’.”

Busby could not argue with that. “You could not put a price on him today,” he said. “There’s no one around like him now.”

Donald Ford, who played in the front line alongside Prentice and Busby, also paid tribute yesterday from his home in Carnoustie. “These skills are just not taught now,” he lamented. Ford picks out two assists from Prentice that allowed him to score two goals to settle a fiercely contested Scottish Cup quarter-final replay at a packed Somerset Park against Ayr United in 1974. Graham Shaw was another beneficiary of Prentice’s mercurial talents, at least on those occasions when the winger didn’t decide to head back down the left flank because there was a defender he hadn’t yet beaten. “Sometimes even he did not know what he was going to do,” said Shaw, who, like Prentice, was a boyhood Hearts fan.

“You were expecting a cross to come in and he would turn back and beat another couple of people. You would have to come out and then go back in again. There was a bit of unpredictability about him.”

He was loveably madcap, turning up at the start of a so-called world tour to Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius following the 1976 Scottish Cup final defeat by Rangers with not much more than a toothbrush. “We arranged to pick him up,” said Shaw, who was his room-mate on the trip. “Me and my wife now, girlfriend then, went to pick him up. We were away for four weeks probably. He just had an old Adidas holdall. Brenda said: ‘Rab is that all you are taking?’ He said: ‘ach I will just wash what I have’. He had a couple of tee-shirts and 
couple of pairs of trousers.”

This trip was a forerunner for further adventures abroad. The general manager of Toronto Blizzard was a Hearts fan, hence why Prentice, Busby and, later, Malcolm Robertson all ended up in the NASL for a spell, along with several other Scots. Prentice stayed longer than Busby, going native by playing in a seven-a-side league. But he often pined for home, with his family having moved to Dalkeith from Douglas Water in Lanarkshire, where he 
grew up.

“We were sitting in a room – Jimmy Bone, Peter Lorimer, Rab and me,” recalled Busby. “At the time Rab’s parents did not have a phone. His family stayed in Dalkeith at the time. He said: ‘I will call this phone box. I know a guy who normally goes by at this time’.

“We were in Atlanta or somewhere. As sure as God this guy was walking by and he ran to the house to get the parents to the phone. After telling them how well he was doing, he said: ‘Is the dog there? I just want to hear it bark’. They went to fetch the dog. It showed what a homely guy he was.”

Busby recalled staying over on one occasion with the Prentice family: “There were two double beds in the room. He went in beside his brother and I went in the other bed. About four in the morning, he woke me up: ‘Move over a bit, that’s my other brother in from 
the pit’.”