For the benefit of our many overseas supporters, here is the interview with Gary Prenter which appeared in Saturday's Look at Linfield. The article was completed by Roy McGivern.
The name Gary Prenter will go down in Irish Cup folklore as the man whose two goals brought glory to junior side Carrick Rangers in the 1976 final against the mighty Linfield. It was a result which sent shockwaves throughout the football world. For Prenter, however, it brought mixed emotions as not only had he grown up supporting the Belfast Blues but he also started his career at Linfield and spent five seasons at the club.
Prenter was a 16 year old schoolboy when he first arrived at Windsor Park. He was introduced to the club by a legendary name from its illustrious past but almost joined Linfield’s Belfast rivals Distillery. Gary explains “I arrived at Linfield in 1968 when Ewan Fenton was the manager. I had been asked to go for a trial at Distillery but when I went up to Grosvenor Park there was no-one there to meet me and I went home again. About the same time my father had been speaking to Tommy Dickson who owned a local sports shop. He arranged for me to go up for a trial with Linfield Rangers and my career just took off after that. I actually made my first team debut at the age of 16 as a substitute at Ballymena. I worked by way through the Rangers, winning two Youth Cups, and then progressed to the Swifts where Alex Russell had a big say at the time.”
In his five years at the club, Prenter made a total of 26 first team appearances and scored 11 goals. He played under five different managers which he feels made it difficult for a young player to stake a claim for a regular starting slot. He explains “After Ewan Fenton we had Billy Bingham, Jimmy Hill, Sammy Hatton and finally Billy Sinclair. I think I impressed different managers but they were only getting to know you when they moved on. Linfield were of course always striving for success and I was up against the likes of Bryan Hamilton, Sammy Pavis, Billy Millen, Eric Magee and Dessie Cathcart and it was hard to make the breakthrough. My most enjoyable spell was probably under Billy Bingham as he was starting me regularly in pre-season but then he left to manage the Greek National side.”
Despite his uncertain position at the club, Prentice did manage to make his mark in some big games for Linfield. “I played in a Gold Cup final win against Glentoran, it finished 1-0 at Windsor Park. I remember having a great chance to score in that game but hit the crossbar. I did score two goals in a 4-2 win against a good Coleraine side. There were other memorable moments playing for the Swifts. I won a Steel and Sons Cup Winner’s medal in 1971 when I scored twice in the final against Dundela. I was always a goal scorer throughout my football career. That Linfield side from the early 1970’s was laced with quality. Alan Fraser was a fine player, we were the same age although he progressed to be a first team regular. Eric Bowyer was also a very good player and I always admired Bryan Hamilton.”
After Billy Sinclair arrived at the club it was decision time for Prenter and for the club. He explains “I think the time had probably come where the club had to make its mind up on my future. Maybe they felt I’d had my opportunity and wasn’t going to make it. I was always quite light for a centre forward, never weighing more than 11 stone. I was quick enough but maybe needed a bit more weight against some of the bigger defenders. I did my own training but just couldn’t get the weight on. It is a regret that it didn’t work out at Linfield and I was gutted to leave. My family were all Linfield supporters including my grandfather and father. I remember standing with them at Windsor Park as a young boy and my family were very proud when I pulled on the Linfield shirt. I would have run my guts out for the club, that’s how much it meant to me.“
Prenter initially moved to Crusaders before joining Carrick Rangers where he would eventually make his mark on the big stage. He explains “The Crues were managed by Billy Johnston and had just won the league. Tom Finney moved across the water and they signed me to replace him. I stayed at Seaview for a couple of years before Jimmy Todd made me an offer to go to Carrick who were in the ‘B’ Division at the time. The whole Irish Cup experience in 1976 was incredible. We had to go through all the preliminary rounds before the senior sides entered the competition. We were drawn away to Ballymena and beat them 3-2 which really gave us the belief and confidence to go further. We had three games against Coleraine who were a top side at the time. After two draws we won the 2nd replay 2-1 and most people don’t realise that I got injured in the second Coleraine game and didn’t play at all in the semi-final against Larne.”
He did make it back for the final after intensive treatment and it’s a game that evokes painful memories for Linfield fans. For Prenter, however, it was a fairytale return against his boyhood heroes and his two goals ensured that the famous old trophy returned to East Antrim. He recalls “We went behind to an early Martin Malone goal but we dug in even though we were up against it. Jimmy Brown did a great job in bringing together a squad of players who maybe didn’t get the breaks at a higher level. Our confidence grew as we got further in the competition and the tactics were spot on in the final.”
After his cup success at Carrick, Prenter moved on to play for Larne, Brantwood and Cliftonville. He did some coaching at Solitude before drifting out of the game. Looking ahead to today’s Irish Cup re-match, Prenter admits that it will be very difficult for Rangers to repeat the shock result from 1976. “Its top of the league against bottom and Carrick will be up against it. I know David Jeffrey will have his team ready for the game and he has excellent motivational skills. The only way Carrick can win is to keep it tight and try to sneak the first goal.”