Robert Prytz: From Malmo to Maybole

Scottish junior football has always existed in a footballing micro-climate all of its own and for those that know it there is an affection felt that is perhaps far greater than in any other grade in football. It’s a common, but understandable misconception, that this is a level reserved solely for the youths. 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 every weekend. From your stereotypical shouty hard man defender who can only kick in one direction to the midfield maestro who’s all touch and no fitness, to the winger who can run fast but can’t cross a ball or to the prospect who’s been spat out from the senior set up having not quite made the grade. Perhaps though, 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 are some of the most favoured characters in the junior game.

One of these knowledge quests was required at the turn of the millennium with the arrival of Robert Prytz to the junior scene. The 1986 Swedish Footballer of the Year and a European Cup runner up with Malmo was familiar with the nuances of Scottish football after a two and half year spell in the early 80’s with Glasgow giants Rangers. As well as having spells in his homeland with IFK Gothenburg and the aforementioned Malmo 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. He was 38 by this point and at 13 I was developing a burgeoning curiosity about all things relating to football. The news that a former Rangers player and Sweden international had signed for my local non-league side had certainly got my intention and I was excited to see exactly what wonders and trickery he would bring. My excitement soon turned to slight befuddlement as on Saturday 3rd 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 sixteen 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 nineties was lightyears away from what it has come to be today but this little red faced man currently walking his away 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 98/99 season continued, it seemed likely that Pollok would be just another brief stop on his farewell tour. His season ended having made a respectable 22 appearances, starting 17 times and coming off the bench on a further five occasions scoring only once at home to Kirkintilloch Rob Roy in a December league encounter.

When researching this piece I reached out to the messageboards, always an interesting insight to 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 now 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, 8 of which came from the penalty spot with fans joking that he would always send the goalkeeper the wrong way. 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 2nd in the table, jus 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 a side who came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1. His deep corner finding the head of Alex Eadie allowing 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 time 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 native Sweden having been a contestant on the Swedish version of sports-themed gameshow Superstars and has often been quoted as still having a fondness for Scotland and 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 99/00 season and they will tell tales of a player who never had to leave the centre circle to dictate the play and of unerring accuracy from set pieces the likes of which had never been seen at the club before or since. A man viewed as a consummate professional on the pitch and a nice one off of it. By the end of that 99/00 season even I, a teenager at the height of his cynicism could appreciate how blessed we all were to see this curly haired Swedish man don the black and white stripes and stroll his way across the pitches of Scottish junior football.

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Defining World Class

"courtesy of @8bitfootball"

“courtesy of @8bitfootball”

There is an old adage that is true across all walks of life, but is particularly poignant in the world of sport. It goes, ‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent’. But what does that mean? And with the topic being wholly subjective to personal opinion and preference how do we, as individuals, define the parameters to which the term ‘world-class’ can be donned upon a player. I’m certain somebody with more time and resources could make a fairly interesting book out of trying to provide a true definition but in lieu of those aforementioned gifts I’m going to try to do it in around a thousand words. Wish me luck!

Before I look at what world-class is I think it is pertinent to provide some context to my conclusions by defining the term ‘Form is temporary. Class is Permanent’. In my eyes, and remember this is just one man’s opinion, the magic of one moment whilst glorious and beautiful does not make a world-class player. Neither does a series of these moments sporadically appearing over a one or two year period. I would also suggest that for any players in their late teens to be dubbed as ‘world class’ without being prefixed or suffixed with word ‘potential’ somewhere around about it is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

For me, to be world-class, a player has to have a body of work littered with moments of outstanding skill, supplemented by both personal and collective achievements whilst possessing an almost Zen-like aura that demands the confidence of your teammates in every little thing that you do having earned the respect those who deem themselves man enough to stand up against you. What world-class should definitely not be is a catch-all statement for any player, especially a young player, who is billed as the next big thing, something that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Ross Barkley have been lumbered with in this current season. They may prove to be in the future but at present they are nowhere near; but who is?

Let’s start by making things easy for myself. Lionel Messi is world-class. He’s a statistician’s wet dream, sending goal records tumbling and in this current season turning his considerable talents to the creation of goals over scoring them himself in a slightly amended role within Tata Martino’s Barcelona set up. He is already a human highlight reel of footballing excellence and has shown in countless Clasicos and Champions League finals that his level of performance is not lessened even when the skills of the opposition are at their greatest. There has been criticism levelled at him for the perceived lack of success in the blue and white of Argentina but his skills at club level, perceived by some as superseding international football asking of the modern game, more than make up for this and with a World Cup as close to home as it is ever going to be who’s to say that 2014 will not be his crowning moment.

So what of his perennial challenger for best in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, is he world class? Once again I think the answer would have to be yes, although not as decorated personally Ronaldo still has a goals and assists record that makes the mind boggle. He’s won titles and Champions leagues and in international colours for Portugal he is as close to a one-man team as you will get at the highest level, exemplified by the way he singlehandedly dragged his team to Brazil scoring a hat-trick just when it looked like Sweden had got the better of his nation in Stockholm.

Then there is his nemesis on that particular day, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Winning titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and now France playing for some of the most famous teams in world football. Often derided as being not as good as he thinks he is there is no question that he possesses an aura that demands your attention, and once he has it he is capable of some truly memorable things, would Messi or Ronaldo have had the audacity to attempt a 45 yard overhead kick, never mind score from it? The fact that on that playoff night in Stockholm that he too was moments away from dragging his team to what potentially could have been his last World Cup almost goes forgotten such was the performance of Ronaldo and although he may be at level just below theEl Clasico rivals he too has earned the moniker of ‘world class’.

Being world-class should not be solely reserved for those who strut their stuff in the final third of the pitch. For me the greatest player I have ever seen is Zinedine Zidane, and with a flick and a twirl he changed the meaning of the verb poise to simply read ‘Zizou’. The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is not only achingly beautiful from an audio and visual standpoint but essential viewing in understanding why he was so good. His symbolic walk past the World Cup in 20o6 after the head butt heard around the world perhaps tarnished the man but not the playing legend.

The captain of the eventual winners that year Fabio Cannavaro was another world-class performer. Diminutive by centre half standards he is rightly considered one of the greatest central defenders of all time as well as achieving the almost impossible for a defender by winning the Ballon d’Or. In Italy he was known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ so great was ability to make even the greatest strikers look like a Sunday league stalwart feeling the effects of the night before. Perhaps only Vincent Kompany currently has the ability and aura to do even a fraction of what the Italian did for the profile of central defenders in the modern game.

What about Suarez, Ribery, Rooney or Bale, surely they’re world-class? Some will argue they are but does the sum of their personal achievements to date even come close to comparison when stacked against those of just one of the aforementioned individuals? I don’t think so. Nor am I suggesting that the names I have mentioned are the only ones worthy of the title world-class.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian version in this instance, was a part of two World Cup winning squads with his performance in the 2002 final seen as redemption to the farce that was his appearance in the very same game 4 years earlier. Henrik Larsson, whilst spending the majority of his career in Scotland blew away those doubting his class with career defining spells at Barcelona and Manchester United and it would be remiss of me not to make mention to Barcelona once again and the midfield mastery of Spanish midfielders Xavi and Anders Iniesta. There will be a few more, but not many, and for each of these men all have individually contributed to the evolution of the game across the globe and in doing so forming the essence of what world-class should be. Not reserved for the best, or even the very best but for those that have helped form and continue to define footballing generations.

If you enjoyed this then maybe you will enjoy www.meatfilledpastries.com. My footballing adventure searching out the tastiest snacks at grounds across Scotland and beyond. The link is on the right hand side.