Trinidad and Tobago football icon Russell "the Little Magician" Latapy returned to the Scottish Premier League (SPL) yesterday afternoon after a two-year absence but could not mark the occasion with a victory as newly promoted Falkirk fell 2-0 at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Falkirk, who Latapy guided to promotion from the Scottish First Division, are the fourth club that the former international captain has represented at this level after a successful start to his Scottish careerÂ with Hibernian and less productive stints at Glasgow Rangers and Dundee United.
Latapy came close to scoring Falkirk's opening SPL goal with two flashing strikes while he also had two penalty appeals turned down and conjured some of the host's best attacking moments.
His outing might suffice most SPL players but manager John "Yogi" Hughes admitted that Falkirk expect much more of Latapy-although he is just three days shy of his 37th birthday.
"I have seen him better but if we are to succeed this season in the Premier League, a big part of that will be on Russell's shoulders."
Latapy readily admitted that his legs no longer permitted him to cover as much ground as in the past. But there is stillÂ room for wily veterans at this level.
Ironically, it was the only player on the field older than Latapy yesterday who upstaged him. Tall, robust Inverness striker Craig Brewster, who-like Latapy-is a member of his team's coaching setup, got both goals for the visitors and lasted the entire 90 minutes although he will be 39 in December.
ButÂ Latapy was the man to watch, as has been the case for nearly his entire career.
He got off to a sloppy start. His early passing was either too short or overcooked but Falkirk's setup ensured that the Laventille-bred playmaker saw plenty of the ball and it was inevitable that he would eventually come into his own.
Midway through the first half, Latapy collected with space inside the Inverness penalty box and teed up Alan Gow, whose shot was charged down by an opposing defender. A minute later, Latapy smacked goalward only for a defender to deflect the ball up and on to the roof of the Inverness net.
"There is only one Russell! There is only one Russell!" chanted the Falkirk faithful.
The five foot three midfielder seemed to grow in stature. In the 35th minute, Latapy glided past a defender and flashed a shot inches wide of the far post while, seconds later, his shot from the edge of the box was held low by Inverness goalie Mark Brown. But Falkirk did not lift their game to suit and Latapy lacked the extra energy to dragÂ his teammatesÂ up by the collar.
Late in the first half, Inverness fashioned two good scoring chances on the break that, although spurned by Barry Wilson, were a sign of things to come.
Thirteen minutes after the restart, Brewster put the visitors ahead from close range after a similar raid and, six minutes from time, he doubled their lead with another predatory finish. "We won't change our style of play," said Hughes, after the match.
He nullified his statement with an afterthought, though. "But I would make changes if it means our (SPL) survival," he said.
One senses that the enigmatic Latapy, who sported long locks that dropped beneath his shoulder blades, is the romantic pulse of the club and what they hope to achieve.
"It is a lot easier for me to play in the Premier League because there is more time on the ball," said Latapy, after the match. "I felt good but, for the last 15 minutes or 20 minutes, I started to feel it a bit. As an individual I know where I am, so I just have to work a little harder and do the right things to get fully fit.
"I am my own worst critic and I don't think I did badly today but "
The 36-year-old Latapy might be facing his most challenging season yet.