IT is not only Scotland which produces poachers-turned- gamekeepers. When Russell Latapy returns home to Trinidad’s Port of Spain this week, he hopes it will be the start of a voyage from errant footballer to respected coach.
“Yes, I have heard of the expression,” he remarks as he sidesteps the trap. Having been sacked, twice, by Alex McLeish for serious mis demeanours, the otherwise beautifully-balanced midfielder is not the most obvious candidate to keep other players off the sauce. He intends, though, to give it his best shot.
Latapy will undergo his final coaching assessment for the SFA’s A-licence at Largs this afternoon. It’s an appropriate venue, because just as Jimmy Johnstone will forever be associated with the Ayrshire coastal town after casting himself adrift from it in 1974, so will Latapy’s playing career in Scotland be recalled for his drink-driving offence just 36 hours before an Edinburgh derby in May 2001. Dwight Yorke and two blondes were also involved. Subsequently too was an unhappy McLeish, at the time the manager of Hibs, and Latapy got his jotters.
“I don’t think that one incid ent should define my career,” he points out. “It did happen, and I wish it didn’t, but it’s in the past and let’s move on.”
In Latapy’s defence, it’s difficult to reconcile that bleary-eyed character behind the wheel with the measured 36-year-old who is sitting in John Hughes’ seat at the Falkirk training ground. But, as the prosecution would point out, the incident in Stockbridge was not an aberration; two years ago in Jan uary McLeish again became so exasperated by Latapy’s behaviour he released him from a Rangers contract which had six months to run.
So how, I asked the prospective managerial cand idate, would he deal with players who acted in, er, precisely the manner he had at Easter Road and Ibrox?
“I will deal with every indiv idual case as it presents itself,” he responds. “I took a lot of chances, but I knew what the consequences would be if I got caught. I’ll say to the players: ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time’.”
Not a refrain you would expect to hear from Alex Ferguson, and one which will reinforce the stereotype that players from the Caribbean are too laid-back to make good managers. But a stereotype is all that it is. Latapy has worked under some of the best managers in the game, and believes he has the exper ience to succeed.
This week, with his new SFA certificate in the bag, he will fly out to Port of Spain to take up a post as assistant coach of Trinidad and Tobago. With three crucial World Cup qual ifying matches on the horizon, it’s a startling elevation for a man whose only relevant experience is coaching the Falkirk reserve team.
Latapy will work under Leo Beenhakker, the veteran Dutch coach who was appointed to replace Bertille St Clair at the start of the month. For those who believe that Latapy is too much of a night club lizard to succeed as a manager, his departure for the Caribbean is instructive for two reasons.
Despite having refused to play for his country in a friendly against Panama in 2001, when he also retired from international football, the T&T federation still had enough faith in him to offer him this position. Equally, a figure as substantial as Beenhakker would not have a patsy foisted upon him. The coach will have checked out Latapy’s character with his old friend Dick Advocaat, and come to the conclusion that it’s worth taking the chance.
So now, four months short of his 37th birthday, Latapy will not only get the top-class coaching opportunity he craves, but also make himself available as a player for the post-season qualifiers against Panama, Mexico and the United States. Trinidad and Tobago are bottom of the six-team pool with just one point from three games, but with three countries having the opportunity to get to Germany next year all is not lost.
If Beenhakker and his inexperienced assistant can turn affairs around, Latapy is likely to be offered a full-time contract in July. If not, it’s back to Falkirk, where he has helped take the First Division side to the title.
The midfielder’s twilight playing days, if not as mem orable as those with Porto, Boavista, Hibs and Rangers, offer proof that he can shed his bad-boy image. Young players rave about his helpful advice, and he has never been anything other than loyally dutiful to former Hibs team-mate Hughes.
That was a courtesy not afforded to McLeish, but while regretful about aspects of his past, Latapy does not spend the long hours of the night agonising.
“Some of my best times in Scottish football were under Alex at Hibs,” he says. “His man-management is good, as is his philosophy about the game, he’s a good communicator and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him.”
Having also worked under Bobby Robson and a young Jose Mourinho at Porto, as well as Advocaat at Ibrox, Latapy has sackfuls of experience to dip into when he becomes a manager in his own right.
“You could tell straight away that Mourinho was an astute, intelligent person and would make a good living out of coaching,” he says. “I knew he’d succeed, even if I didn’t realise just how much.”
The Chelsea manager, a foot balling maverick, was given his opportunity. Will Latapy?
“Obviously a lot of chairmen would take my past into consideration,” he concedes. “It is a question of somebody taking a chance on me. Eventually, I would absolutely love to manage Rangers or Celtic. I would prefer to be in a difficult job, and having to use all my wits, than to be in an easy one.”
In the interim, if he doesn’t stay in Trinidad, Latapy is likely to be playing for Falkirk for one final season, this time in the Premierleague. “You get more time on the ball there, which suits me fine,” he says, “although it is unlikely I could play all the games. To be honest I would prefer 20 to 25 good games rather than cheat the club with 36 average ones. Falkirk is a good place to be, and I’m happy with the contribution I’m making.”
Latapy’s haul of honours includes two championship titles with Porto, but asked if he would eventually move into management with the sense of a playing career unfulfilled, he replies: “I make no apologies for the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve worked hard and I’ve played hard. That’s the way life should be lived.
“Maybe I could have gone further as a player if I’d behaved differently, but then I wouldn’t have been the person that I am. I’m happy with my career, and if as a manager I can surpass that I’ll be very happy.
“Everything that I have in my life is through football. I absolutely love the game. I’m confident I have something to offer in management.”
At Hibs, where he played sublimely, Latapy was embarking on his coaching certificates. The poacher even then was contemplating life as a gamekeeper.