Footballer with Hearts

Born: September 27, 1953

Died: September 16, 2019

RAB PRENTICE, who has aged 65, was one of the brighter sparks in what was a dark decade for Hearts, the 1970s.

A life-long Jambo, he was actually a Lanarkshire man, born in Lanark and raised in the mining villages of Lesmahagow and Douglas Water in the Clyde Valley, before, with the closure of the Lanarkshire coal field, his father Willie was forced to relocate the family to Dalkeith.

Prentice's talent was evident at an early age and the teenaged player was snapped up by Dundee. However, not even being a distant relative of manager John Prentice could help him break through at Dens Park, and he returned to East Lothian, to sign for that well-known junior team and Hearts nursery Newtongrange Star.

His first Hearts game was the 1962 League Cup win over Hearts, to which he was taken by another resident of Douglas Water – Rangers centre-half and future football writer Doug Baillie, but, he did not go, as so many had before him, from “Nitten” to Tynecastle.

Jock Stein signed him for Celtic, where, while on the ground staff, he continued to play for Star, winning Junior Scotland honours in 1971 and 1972. His father thought Rab ought to be given his chance in the first team, regardless of Bobby Lennox being first choice, so he went into Celtic Park for a word with Stein. We will never know what transpired between these two former Lanarkshire coal-face workers, but the upshot was, in August 1973, the 19-year-old Prentice joined the club he had supported for over a decade.

He quickly got his chance, making his debut against his former club, Dundee, in the League Cup, the first of 240 games for Hearts, in September, 1973. His first goal quickly followed, in a 3-0 win over Rangers at Ibrox and, as his star rose, in February, 1974, he won the first of four Scotland Under-23 caps, in a 3-0 win over Wales.

|A month later he won his solitary Scottish League cap, in a 5-0 loss to the English League.

He quickly became a fans' favourite, with the Hearts fans in the Tynecastle Shed coming up with a song about: “Bobby Prentice on the wing.” However, these were dark days in Gorgie. The golden era of manager Tommy Walker, Conn, Bauld and Wardhaugh, Dave Mackay and Alex Young were but a distant memory. Managers came and went, legends were released and while Prentice's eccentricities lightened the mood, successes were few and far between – if you could call losing to Rangers in the 1976 League Cup final “success.”

In 1977, the unthinkable happened, Hearts were relegated, only to bounce straight back into the top flight – then be relegated again. A clear-out was called for and Prentice was off-loaded to Toronto Blizzard for £8000.

He certainly enjoyed life in North America, serving Blizzard, then Baltimore Blast and Buffalo Stallions in the six-a-side indoor league over there. But, the draw of home was too strong and, having hung up his boots, he returned to Dalkeith.

There is a long and distinguished history of wingers, generally left-wingers like Prentice, who are maybe “a wee bit wandered,” capable of amazing feats of dribbling, which as often or not end up by the player tripping over the ball or mis-kicking. The consensus of those who saw him is, he was one of the best examples of this Scottish footballing phenomenon.

In his autobiography, Hearts Legend Gary Mackay tells of Prentice taking a throw-out from goalkeeper Jim Cruickshank, beating “the entire Falkirk team,” and reaching the bye-line, whereupon he turned round, then beat the Falkirk side again, before passing back to Cruickshank.

Then there was the day at Ibrox, enraged at Prentice giving the ball away and Rangers scoring, when Cruickshank chased Prentice half the length of the park to make him aware of his displeasure.

Perhaps his best goal was scored for Scotland Under-23s against Denmark, at Tynecastle, in a European Championship game. Prentice had just come on for David Narey when he had to take a corner. However, as he himself told the story – his shorts were too tight, and he feared if he took a full swing at the ball, he would split them.

So, he played a short corner to Frankie Gray, got the ball back and proceeded to beat three Danish defenders along the goal line, before lobbing the goalkeeper from a ridiculously tight angle.

That is how we should probably remember Rab Prentice the player, as a man of outrageous talent. Life after football was not kind to him. Again, he admitted, he made mistakes, he could not settle in a job and had his problems with depression and alcohol dependency. He never married, and lived quietly in Dalkeith.

He continued to be a familiar face at Tynecastle, as a fan, but then, as a player, he had always been a fan on the park.