Scottish junior football has always existed in a micro-climate of its own, and for those that know it, there is an affection felt that is perhaps far greater than in any other grade of the sport. It’s a common but understandable misconception that this is a level reserved solely for young players and failed pros. Whilst the path from the juniors to future football fortunes is considerably harder than it once was, the likes of Brig O’Lea, Showpark and Dunterlie are just a few of the places that have acted as starting points for a professional football career.
Of course, you may still be lucky enough to see a future star of tomorrow but part of the joy of football at this level is the melting pot of talents that grace pitches up and down the country, from your stereotypical hardman defender who can only kick in one direction to the midfield maestro who’s all touch and no fitness. Other sights include the winger who can run fast but can’t cross a ball and the prospect who’s been spat out from the senior game having not quite made it.
Above all of these, it is the re-emergence of faces from Scottish football’s past and the quest to be the first one to uncover their identity that remains one of the great delights of the non-league.
One of these knowledge quests was required at the turn of the millennium with the arrival of Robert Prytz to the scene. The 1986 Swedish Footballer of the Year and a European Cup runner-up with Malmö was familiar with the nuances of Scottish football after a two-and-a-half-year spell in the early-80s with Glasgow giants Rangers.
As well as having spells in his homeland with IFK Gothenburg and the aforementioned Malmö, he also spent time playing in Germany, Italy and Switzerland before returning to Scotland to seemingly wind down his career. He made no more than fleeting appearances for Kilmarnock, Dumbarton, Cowdenbeath and East Fife before he turned up in Glasgow’s south side at Newlandsfield Park, home to junior heavyweights Pollok in late 1998.
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He was 38 by this point and, at 13, I was developing a burgeoning curiosity about all things related to football. The news that a former Rangers player and Sweden international had signed for my local non-league side piqued my intention, and I was excited to see exactly what wonders and trickery he would bring.
My excitement soon turned to curiosity as, on 3 October 1998, I watched a small, podgy man with a curly mullet enter the field of play at Benburb’s now demolished Tinto Park, situated just a few hundred metres from Ibrox where he had made his debut for Rangers 16 years earlier.
My befuddlement was not shared with the elders around me as they pointed out with no little enthusiasm, “That’s him, that’s Robert Prytz.” Now, strength and conditioning in the late-90s was lightyears away from what it has come to be today, but this little red-faced man currently walking his way across the pitch surely couldn’t be the same player that people had spent the days leading up to the game feeling all nostalgic about, could he?
The game, a 0-0 draw, went by with little incident, and the Swede would make his home debut in a first round Scottish Junior Cup tie against local rivals Arthurlie in front of a crowd of 2,173 the following week. But as the 1998/99 season continued, it seemed likely that Pollok would be just another stop on his farewell tour. His season ended having made a respectable 22 appearances, starting 17 times and scoring once at home to Kirkintilloch Rob Roy in a December encounter.
While researching this piece I reached out to the message boards, an interesting forum into fan opinion of a player or specific era at a club, and the feeling was one of surprise when Prytz signed on again for the following campaign. It would turn out to be a shrewd decision to re-sign the 39-year-old as, with a full pre-season under his belt, the Swede would become a key player as Pollok claimed double cup success under the guidance of goalkeeper-turned-manager, Ronnie Lowrie.
In the Sectional League Cup final that season, Prytz played as he and his teammates went on to defeat Shotts Bon Accord 4-1 in the final at Firhill. He didn’t get on the scoresheet that night but his touch and vision appeared to be sharper than it had ever been in a Pollok jersey and he would go on to play 38 times that season, scoring 16 goals, eight of which came from the penalty spot with fans joking that he would always send the goalkeeper the wrong way.
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Another notable performance came against Renfrew in the league where a free-kick double sent the ‘Lok on their way to a victory as they finished second in the league, just missing out on the title to Glasgow rivals Benburb. One of his final appearances in a Pollok shirt came in the West of Scotland Cup final, one of junior football’s showpiece occasions, where he was part of the side that came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1, his deep corner finding the head of Alex Eadie to allow the tall striker to knock home the winner.
His goals and creativity had helped bring renewed success to one of junior football’s leading lights and, at the age of 40, his former Rangers teammate Ally Dawson signed him for Hamilton Academical, where he played nine times and scored twice as the Accies went on to win the Scottish Third Division title.
Hamilton would prove to be his last stop before he ultimately reached the decision to retire having participated in everything from European Cup finals at the Olympiastadion in Berlin to suffering Scottish Cup upsets at the Ladywell Stadium in Maybole. He continues to be a familiar face in his homeland having been a contestant on the Swedish version of the sports-themed gameshow Superstars, and has often been quoted as still having a fondness for Scotland. Even in his retirement, he would continue to play football in the Glasgow area.
Ask any Pollok fan about Robert Prytz, and in particular about his performances during that double cup-winning 1999/00 season, and they will tell tales of a player who never had to leave the centre circle to dictate the play, with unerring accuracy from set pieces, the likes of which hasn’t been seen at the club before or since.
A man viewed as a consummate professional on the pitch and a nice guy off it, by the end of that millennial season, even I, a teenager at the height of his cynicism, could appreciate how blessed we all were to see this curly-haired Swede don the black and white stripes and stroll his way across the pitches of the Scottish non-league.
By Chris Marshall @MFPTasty