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Playmaker and playboy, Trinidadian former footballer Russell Latapy.
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WHEN Russell Latapy phones to say that, yes, he’ll talk about Scottish Cup semi-final weekend – “Two days when I really can’t lose because three of my teams are playing” – your correspondent is in Edinburgh’s St Stephen Street and this seems apt indeed. Was it not right here, 14 years ago, that the wee man drove himself into the stout arms of the local constabulary and out of the cup final, having daundered along a one-way the wrong way?

For those who don’t know it, St Stephen Street is the once-picaresque avenue which was the capital’s Haight-Ashbury during the hippie era and is now thoroughly chi-chi. There are worse places to take a tumble and, when we meet in an Inverness coffee-shop, I’m about to suggest that Cup-tormented Hibbies might want to erect a plaque at the road entrance. Maybe “Here, in 2001, the dream died again” – something like that. But then Latapy says: “No no, my friend – this is a myth.

“Yes, I’d had a coupla drinks and yes the law got me, but it wasn’t St Stephen Street, not one-way, it was… ” He tries to recreate the classic grid of Edinburgh’s New Town using his phone, his cappuccino and his lemon muffin only to get lost (again). “I love the New Town, you know. Alex McLeish, intelligent man that he is, drove me round it to sell Edinburgh to me. I’d just been having a look at Barnsley so, no disrespect, but the final score was probably Barnsley 0, Edinburgh 17. I lived in a flat in Fettes Row so could walk up to Princes Street nice and easy. Rick’s, which became my favourite bar where the whole team used to go, wasn’t far away at all.”

If only he’d left the car at home that night. If only Big Eck’s intelligence had encompassed the pragmatism that would have allowed club rules to be waived, making a special case for a special player, because if Hibs were to have any chance of beating Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the ’01 final they would need their Trinidadian patter-merchant. This was the fans’ view. That is, it was the dear wish of those supporters not spitting mad at Latapy who was effectively sacked.

Ah, but it’s also a myth that the incident happened 48 hours before the Hampden showdown, ultimately lost 3-0. “The final was still a fortnight away,” he confirms. “Yes, it was daft of me to drive, but one of my two oldest friends had come to Edinburgh to see me, and I think we all know his name.” This was Dwight Yorke, the other good buddy being cricketing great Brian Lara. “The truth is there were these boys – twins who ran a nightclub – and they were taking pictures of us, I guess to publicise the place. Dwight, who maybe hadn’t told his managers where he was, didn’t like this. They jumped in a car so we chased them.” With three blondes in the back seat, so legend has it? “Ha ha, it wisna three!”

Another myth, then, but what is not mythology is that Latapy was a genius with a ball, a wayward one perhaps, a playmaker and also a playboy, but a lemon muffin among the meat pies of Scottish football, one of the finest from foreign shores who were supposed to brighten up our perishing afternoons. He was adored at Hibs and Falkirk, who meet in today’s semi-final, and admired everywhere else with possible the exception of Tynecastle, for in green and white he never lost to Hearts and pulled the strings for the second most-famous Hibee derby victory.

Never lost? Actually, that’s a myth, too. “The first Scottish footballers I met was when Hearts came on a Caribbean tour.” This was 1986 when Latapy was 17 and a diminutive but determined graduate of Trinidad & Tobago’s splendidly-named Sunshine Snacks League and here’s further evidence of the truth regarding him often being more prosaic than the folklore: Walter Kidd scored two of goals in the Jambos’ win over the national side. Hearts, by the way, rated him simply too small, as did Leeds United later, but the knockbacks, together with the put-downs of his schoolteacher – “Don’t be stupid – no one from here becomes a footballer” – made him more determined still.

Presumably our man, now assistant to his best non-Trinidadian chum John Hughes at Inverness Caley-Thistle who take on Celtic in the other semi tomorrow, had no idea Scotland would grab hold of him and not let go. “You’re right, I didna. But I’m really glad it did because I love it here.”

When Latapy says “didna” and “wisna” it’s almost “didnae” and “wisnae”. His affecting don’t worry-be happy lilt has been corrupted by the Leith vernacular and the Bairnstown brogue. What does he like about Scotland and the Scots? “You know where you stand with the Scottish. They don’t say one thing to your face and think something else. Maybe they’re not as optimistic as Trinidadians, though not many are, but they’re happy-go-lucky which is good enough.”

Last week, English footballers were snapped sooking nitrous oxide from balloons. Whatever else he consumed during downtime, Latapy, now 46, never had any need of laughing gas. The smile has always been natural, permanent and contagious and it’s present throughout this sunshiney spring afternoon, not least when a pretty girl happens by our seats in the window.

His is a remarkable story which doesn’t require the embellishment of one-way streets or three blondes or indeed 40 fags a day. That was the stat with which the TV commentator at the 2006 World Cup introduced Latapy from the T&T bench for the last of his 100-odd caps and what would be a fizzing cameo against Paraguay which almost got the Soca Warriors out of their group. Another Ultrabrite grin: “You know, I was the oldest outfield player in Germany. I played until I was 40. How could I have done that on all those cigarettes?”

Okay, that’s enough myth-busting, the guy sounds almost boring now, let’s go right back to the beginning when Latapy grew up with a love of football and, as is traditional in Trinidad, a fear of God. “I was a little guy from Laventille who definitely got lucky,” he says. For one thing, Laventille was Port-of-Spain’s roughest, toughest district and home was in the projects. For two, family life was disrupted when his father walked out when Latapy was two. For three, the only “pitch” was a stone-strewn clearing no bigger than our branch of Costa.

“It was so small the rules were three vs three, lose a goal and your team went off. It was me and my two older brothers, Anthony and Christopher. All my uncles always said Anthony was the best footballer in the family, but I hated having to give up the pitch. There was a lotta kids in those projects and you could wait hours to get back on again.”

You imagine that Latapy’s terrific ball-hugging was honed in that intense little space. It was skills like this which got him nominated for Fifa’s World Player of the Year in 2001, shortly after Hibs thumped Hearts 6-2. And the same party-pieces were still in good order in the autumn of his career at Westfield. “At training I’d say to the young Falkirk boys: ‘You don’t have to get the ball off me, you just have to touch it.’ I’d give them a minute but usually they couldn’t without fouling me.”

Riven by gangs and drugs, Laventille is in even worse shape now than in his childhood, but at least there is the Russell Latapy Secondary School. “It’s an honour having a school named after you,” he says. “When I’m back home I always look in on the principal. We’re trying to change the thinking of the kids who believe they have to join the gangs. Some still come to school with guns and knives but every now and again we get a little breakthrough. And when a company want to use me for promotions I insist they buy computers for the classrooms.”

Latapy’s social conscience has prompted some cynicism. “Jack Warner [former football administrator in T&T, implicated in numerous corruption allegations] was snidey to me, saying I should concentrate on the coaching, but I very much want to help and have met the gang leaders a few times. When I was asked to come out of retirement for the World Cup I really did it hoping that football could unite the country after all the crime and stuff.”

Yorke and Lara – just as good with a football as a bat in boyhood – were also products of the Sunshine Snacks League and Latapy says the musketeers still catch up with each other every week. His pals have promised to come to Inverness soon to see Caley Thistle; meanwhile golf has solidified this firm friendship some more. “Dwight and Brian have always played but I thought it was a game for old men. Now I’m an old man so I play! I’m down to single figures like them and it’s become an obsession. Honestly, I’m out on the course at 6am. That wouldn’t have been possible in my old life.”

His old life wasn’t mythological but it was sometimes overstated. I read out an old quote from one of these plooks-and-all memoirs beloved of the tabloids, delivered in three gripping instalments: “When I go out I drink everything, whatever they give me. I start with beers but they’re hard work and normally after five or six I move onto gin and tonic, brandy and coke, vodka and anything. I get to the stage where if they gave me petrol I’d probably drink it.” He smiles that fetching smile again: “Yes, I liked to drink but I wasn’t out every single night.” Often today he stresses the team ethic. Hedonism for its own sake is selfish, he says. But he reckons he helped, not hindered, his teams by having a few drinks and smokes because his performances, that innate deedle-dawdle, were always better.

Does he not think he could have been an even better player if he’d adopted an elite athlete lifestyle? “No, because I tried it that way. At Academica, my first club in Portugal, I lived for six months the way the book says. I didn’t notice any difference in my game. I couldn’t run faster, jump higher, control the ball better. But, not having a coupla nights out, not enjoying myself, I was miserable and I didn’t think that was going to help my football in the long run.

“I come from a free culture where you live life to the full but that doesn’t mean you don’t also do your work. Yes, Trinidadians have carnival but that’s only a fantastic event because everyone prepares hard for it. I worked hard to be Russell Latapy – honestly it wasn’t easy! At training I hated running. I moaned like no one ever moaned about it. But when the ball came out I’d be the last off the pitch.”

When Scotland grabbed hold of Latapy in 1998 it was really Yogi administering one of his abrasively friendly headlocks. “I remember coming to Hibs on a Tuesday and the next day I played a bounce game in Brechin. I was sat next to Yogi in the dressing-room and that was pretty much me. We hit it off right away, even though I couldn’t understand a word he said.

“Yogi was a great joker – just ask Dirk Lehmann. Dirk fancied himself as a classic dresser but Yogi would nail his ridiculous shirts to the wall and glue his ridiculous shoes to the floor.” In wistful memories of McLeish’s Hibs, Latapy is usually intertwined with Franck Sauzee, but the two fell out and haven’t spoken since the former quit Easter Road in what seemed like semi-disgrace.

“Franck was negotiating for a new contract at the same time as me and I thought we’d look after each other. But I felt he betrayed my trust because he went in and said: ‘I know what you’re giving Russell and it’s a scandal what you’re offering me.’” Latapy’s leaving, by the way, didn’t seem like semi-disgrace to him. “I’d been talking to Celtic who were offering four times what I was on at Easter Road. I knew Hibs couldn’t match that but asked if they could meet me halfway. I told Alex there might have been some wealthy fans prepared to make up the difference but he thought this would be a can of worms. I said I was going to have to look after myself – I was 32 – and I’ve always wondered if that night out was quite convenient for the club. It meant they could blame me for my departure.”

While he lives the Highland life, and loves it, on his own, Latapy’s three children maintain his links with Portugal, a situation he admits is “complicated”. His links with Hibs, though, remain strong, at least in his heart. “I can speak about them as a fan because that’s what I am and I think it’s great they have Alan Stubbs who’s got the team playing nice football.” He bears no grudges over how his time at Easter Road ended, would love to bury the hatchet with Sauzee – and fantasises about one day managing the club. “I would love that to happen. Yogi and I get on so well. He’s been brave in changing Inverness’ style so they play nice football and I’ve been happy to help him – but at some point I want to be my own boss and he knows this. A job came up recently but it wasn’t quite right so we’ll see… ”

After a brief spell at Rangers, the Yogi connection resumed at Falkirk, Hughes venturing out to Portugal where Latapy was contemplating retirement and over a sea-bream barbecue boldly inquired: would he return for yet another Scottish winter? “It was only supposed to be one season but I ended up staying for five.” These were his dreadlocked years, until the pong from his thick thatch, which he had to leave unwashed during the coldest months, got too much, the hair eventually being chopped off. He still has the dreads, an usual souvenir of the football life he never envisaged for himself, and it’s ongoing.

Latapy has endured Edinburgh’s snell east winds. He’s suffered under eerie oil-flamed skies. “I remember a game at Falkirk, blowing a gale, minus eight, dark as midnight and thinking to myself: ‘What am I doo-in?” he says, sounding very Scottish again. Now he must withstand all Inverness can throw at him, which can be considerable. “Ah, but as a coach I get to wear the big coat!”

The wee man from the sun-kissed island will thole the wind and rain to promote bonnie football, and maybe get to a cup final at last.