A few weeks ago Hearts lost the Edinburgh derby to a Hibernian team who sent two men hurtling down the flanks. “We need guys like that,” declared Jambos of my acquaintance, all of them old enough to remember when Tynecastle seemed to be a refuge for wingers. Indeed, it appeared to function as an eventide home for left-wingers – the lesser-spotted, more eccentric, more erratic, more infuriating but every so often crazily brilliant version of the touchline-hugging breed.
There was Denis McQuade, previously of Partick Thistle, and there was Malcolm Robertson, ex-Ayr United, and competing with them for the position closest to what we must now call the old stand when shooting towards the School End was Bobby Prentice. Scan team lists from the wind-down of the 1970s and it’s the first two who must have reached the dressing-room at exactly the same time, jamming themselves in the doorway before Robertson was able to lunge for the No 11 shirt while McQuade made do with No 7. That left Prentice at 12 or 14.
Ah but Bobby had the song. “Bobby, oh Bobby Prentice, oh Bobby Prentice on the wi-hing,” Jambos would warble from the Shed. That must have warmed his heart as his bottom-warmed the bench, I suggest. “It’s funny, but I only ever heard the song when I was sub,” he says. “If you’re on the park you’re too busy concentrating on the game – or if you were me you were lost in your own wee world! Still it was nice that they sung about me. I must have been no’ bad sometimes.”
Later in our chat Prentice, who’s reverted to Rab, will joke that he only had a good game “when there was a z in the month” but he’s being too hard on himself. Not all his daft, delirious dribbles came off but when they did it was glorious and Hearts fans of a certain age carry round their favourite Bobby vignette to this day. Safe in an imperishable casket in the memory-banks, it’s right next to their mother’s store number. Maybe – with Hearts playing Celtic tomorrow – my reasons for digging up Prentice are somewhat contrived because while he was on the Parkhead books for a couple of years he never made the first team. But all my Jambo pals will be glad to hear from him, even if he’s a bit too honest when discussing his mythology.
For instance, Gary MacKay, Hearts’ record appearance man, writes in his memoirs of a classic Prentice comedy interlude which he wishes he’d seen, relayed to him by Cammy Fraser: “Against Falkirk one day Bobby took the ball off Jim Cruickshank in the left-back position and ran up the wing, beating one man after another. But when he reached the corner flag he turned round and ran the other way, beating everyone again before passing back to Cruickie.” Prentice laughs but can’t remember this happening, though he does add: “It sounds like me, doesn’t it?”
Here’s some more classic winger behaviour: Prentice owns a mobile phone but always leaves it at home. That must be why he’s late for our rendezvous: he missed my message reminding him about it. No, he wouldn’t have seen it anyway because he never reads texts. A couple of afternoon drinkers in the pub in Dalkeith, Midlothian had confidently predicted he wouldn’t show.
Woolly-hatted against the cold, I almost don’t recognise him when he does. The long locks from the first half of his Hearts career have gone, so too the bubble perm of the later years. Then he pulls that familiar gloomy expression – reminiscent of Blakey, the hapless inspector in On the Buses – and we’re transported back 40 years to a drookit afternoon when he’s beaten three men with sensational sleight-of-foot only to crash into the terrace wall. Now 64, he quickly tells me about recent battles with depression and drink.
“Some guys who go out of the game end up committing suicide, don’t they? Life can be tough, especially if you’re on your own. I’ve got my mum, who’s 87 and lives nearby but I never married. There have been times when I’ve almost felt like giving up, but I haven’t. I’ve been trying to fight against having a drink and aye looking back. I’m trying to look forward now.”
Should I stop the interview right now? He doesn’t need some 1970s-obsessed nut prodding him for stories about his jousts with John Brownlie on flinty parks while the Gorgie Boot Boys roared at the Mental Hibees and they chucked bog rolls right back. No, he’s happy to reminisce and, cradling a coffee, he debunks his legend some more.
Prentice’s best-ever goal is generally reckoned to have been at Tynecastle in October 1975, not for Hearts but Scotland’s Under-23s. Reporting in The Scotsman on the 4-1 win over Denmark which featured a hat-trick for Andy Gray, Mike Aitken described it as “astonishing”. “Surviving a fierce tackle at the corner flag,” the bulletin continued, “Prentice crawled over the full-back proceeded to beat two more defenders, and when everyone expected the cutback, he flicked the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net. The stadium went wild.”
Wish I’d seen it, I say. “I’ll tell you a wee secret about that ‘wonder goal’,” he chuckles. “I was a sub and had only just come on. The shorts they gave you for Scotland were way too tight – well, they were on me, anyway. We won a corner and as I was lining up to take the kick I suddenly thought: ‘Christ, I’m going to rip them. If I swing my leg my arse is going to fall right out.’ So I played the ball short to Frank Gray and he gave me it back. That dribble was really about avoiding gross indecency!”
Prentice joined Hearts after the club had endured a miserable season and right away helped lift the gloom. The 1972-73 campaign will go down in infamy for the 7-0 thrashing by Hibs on New Year’s Day but Hearts would gain some revenge in the next Edinburgh derby eight months later. Prentice’s fellow newbies, Drew Busby and Kenny Aird, scored in the 4-1 win at Tynie and the winger shared in the fans’ joy because he was one himself.
This might sound surprising. After all, he’s not a son of Gorgie but hails from Douglas Water, the South Lanarkshire village where his father Willie worked as a coal miner before fire closed the pit and the family moved to Dalkeith. “The place was actually more Hearts than Rangers or Celtic,” he says. “And [future Jambos’ goalie] Henry Smith was in my wee brother’s class at school.
“I had a family connection to the club because [1960s winger] Johnny Hamilton was my mum’s cousin and a great day for me was when Doug Baillie [centre half with Rangers and Falkirk] who’s another Douglas Water boy took me to the 1962 League Cup final when I saw Hearts beat Kilmarnock in the lashing rain.”
Prentice was a decent sprinter, winning medals at county games, but it was always going to be football for him. “Every night I’d chuck my school bag in the house and run down the park for 20-a-side, cock or a hen, and we’d play until the light went.” There really must be something in the water in Douglas Water because the village also produced Andrew “Jock” Davidson, a Hull City legend who recommended Prentice for a trial at Boothferry Park. That didn’t work out and neither did Dundee. “The manager was John Prentice. The other boys used to say I was only there because he was my uncle. I was related to him, but only distantly.”
Then came Celtic and two years in the second XI with little prospect of dislodging Bobby Lennox. “My father actually went to see Jock Stein to ask why I wasn’t getting a game for the first team. There was a fall-out and that was me on my way.” His boyhood favourites quickly snapped him up on a wage of £40 a week.
“Tynecastle was in turmoil when I joined. Never mind the 7-0 game, Hearts had gone a long time the previous season hardly scoring a goal at home. Guys like Cruickie and Roy Kay had lost their places and the old guard had had their noses put out of joint by the arrival of the new boys – Drew, Kenny, Jimmy [Cant], John [Stevenson] and myself.”
But the drastic makeover shot Hearts to the summit of the old First Division in the early weeks of 73/74 and along the way they won at Everton in the Texaco Cup. Our man scored his first goal in maroon in a 3-0 win over Rangers at Ibrox two days after his 20th birthday, but typical of him he plays down this moment. “Kenny crossed and Peter McCloy flapped at it.” This prompts a reminisce about another game in Govan where once again Prentice laughs at himself. “We were leading two-nil, both goals scored by Willie Gibson. Cruickie threw me the ball, I lost it and Rangers got one back. Next thing Cruickie is chasing me up the pitch with his cap flying. The Rangers fans got their kill at that.”
The table-topping form fizzled out but Prentice loved those first few seasons at Hearts. He had a nickname conferred on his by his idol, Donald Ford – “I used to wear this long brown coat so he called me Columbo after the TV detective.” He’d discovered the capital’s Tiffanys discotheque. And on the park he had licence to shimmy, swerve and sway.
“I just loved beating folk. I could run and I had a wee bit of skill. There were times when I held onto the ball too long. There were times when I beat myself. I’d get a chance myself and balloon it over the bar. But I was young and didn’t care. I thought I could take on the world and nothing scared me. Now everything scares me!”
John Hagart replaced Seith as manager, and Prentice could sense the world changing. Football was changing – the ten-team Premier Division was introduced – and there seemed to be less room for wingers and especially the quixotic kind.
“John got out a tactics board. I don’t think any of us had seen one of these before. He said: ‘Just you sit in the corner, Rab, and we’ll try and work out how we can get the ball to you.’ He knew that sort of stuff would go over my head.” Prentice had grown accustomed to murderous looks from team-mates when goals were lost, even if he hadn’t been directly responsible, and these would only increase. “[Full-back] Davie Clunie was always on at me to help the defence.” Prentice wonders if this was the first recorded instance of a winger being urged to – dread words – tackle back. “I told him I didn’t need his help overlapping but I guess I was becoming a luxury.”
The patter-merchant could still pull out the occasional plum, though, and Prentice helped Hearts reach three domestic cup semi-finals, all of them ending in defeat. His favourite memory is 1976’s sensational comeback in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, hammering Lokomotiv Leipzig 5-1. Hearts qualified for Europe through another Hampden loss, the previous season’s Scottish Cup final against treble- winning Rangers, and this is the cue for another funny yarn.
“The night before John gave us each two sleeping tablets. You’ll remember how we started that game – losing a goal in the first minute. I don’t think I properly woke up until half-time.” Hearts were still issuing players with a code of conduct in handy pocket-sized form which preached moderation regarding bevvy. “The rule was no alcohol after Wednesday, but I’m afraid some of us would go out on Thursdays – the drinking culture was quite well-established – and I’d always have a pint on Fridays to help me relax.”
There were few opportunities for the team to unwind, though, as the smaller league spread fear and loathing. Prentice never won another derby after his first, but he would dance past John Brownlie – “A collector’s item, that” – to earn his team a draw in a capital clash a few weeks after the Leipzig win. But that season under Willie Ormond would end in relegation, the first in the club’s history.
“That was a miserable time. I know I had a few lousy games, but I wasn’t the only one who played badly. I always woke up on matchdays the complete optimist. ‘It’s going to be good the day,’ I’d tell myself. And it was, right up to the moment when it very obviously wasn’t. The first run would set the tone. If that didn’t work out, well I tended to get worse and worse.”
As Hearts began their yo-yoing between divisions the axe fell on some players and Prentice made his escape to the North American Soccer League, signing for Toronto Blizzard with Busby. The latter would return to Scotland, but Prentice stayed, going native in the indoor league, turning out for Baltimore Blasts and Buffalo Stallions and tussling with Franz Beckenbauer and George Best.
“I loved my time there. It was wine, women and song. It was razzmatazz, an enlightening experience.” Eventually he had to come home, too. With Malcolm Robertson, he formed a woebegone wingers society, two pals helping each other come to terms with the end of their dribbling days over a few pints. Robertson died in 2010 and life has continued to present challenges for Prentice. He tried to become a prison warden, but that didn’t work out.
He applied for “high-profile” jobs, considering shelf-stacking beneath him. “Typical daft winger,” he says, “always going for the impossible.” He slurps the last of his coffee and pulls down his hat. “Now, for me, it’s all about getting by.”