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WITH dreadlocks tucked into a leather flat cap, Russell Latapy has the look of a celebrity as he takes a seat inside the Stirling University complex that has become Falkirk's temporary training facility. But like a typical footballer, he then places car keys and a mobile phone in front of him. Before, atypically, a pack of 20 Marlboro Lights follows suit.


The Trinidadian has been in smoking form for John Hughes' men, who entertain Premierleague leaders Hearts this afternoon. But there is little in the way of a new-found health regime behind the ability of the bon viveur to be a mesmerising midfield presence for last season's First Division champions at the grand old age of 37.

"I'm still going to enjoy my life off the pitch and I don't think that has interfered with my life on it," Latapy says, breaking out into the sort of mischievous grin that regularly lights up his face. "In still playing, my body does not allow me to do some of the stuff I did before. The reality is I can't do the two. But I will still go out for a meal and a glass of wine and smoke a cigarette if I feel like it."

Latapy supposedly used to feel like drinking, smoking and staying up to all hours more than was considered decent for any athlete.

He will never be allowed to forget the night on the tiles with Dwight Yorke that ended his Hibernian career and brought him a drink driving conviction. Or the well-documented wild parties the two Trinidad and Tobago internationalists hosted in their homeland. Or the lax attitude to time-keeping that brought charges of unprofessionalism when he was at Rangers.

"I understand some of the criticism from before," he offers without a hint of bitterness. "There were stages of my life that I overdid things but that is normal. Name someone who hasn't. The difference is that when you are in the spotlight everything is documented. I am responsible enough to put my hands up, and I've paid the price for it."

Until this season, the danger was that he would be remembered in this country less as the Little Magician and more the little miscreant. But Hughes' unswerving commitment to a passing game and his "gem" of a Falkirk player-coach are allowing Latapy's extra-special talents to put memories of his extra-curricular activities into context.

Hughes maintains that his playmaker - a man whose tippling he defends by saying Latapy "couldn't drink soup" - remains the "catalyst for everything that we do" and possesses "a knowledge of the game that is second to none". And the manager's faith in Latapy's judgment is evidenced both in his team's play and personnel.

Hughes' desire not to be a back-to-front side probably owes much to his backroom buddy's confidence that he can give him "a good 75 to 80 minutes most weeks". Meanwhile, Falkirk's ability to make a technical approach work must in part be attributed to Latapy's scouting missions to Portugal, where he remains a celebrated name after winning two titles with Porto.

These trips unearthed the capable pair Tiago Rodrigues and Victor Lima, regulars for Falkirk this season. They also whetted Latapy's appetite for a management role.

"I enjoyed going to watch games, trying to identify players who could fit into our system and who we could afford, and dealing with agents and clubs about their availability," he says. "When the two deals came off it was a good feeling. I am testing myself in a new area."

On a daily basis, Latapy is testing the club's youngsters. Infuriatingly unassuming on the training field, according to Hughes, the midfielder has his reasons for holding his tongue. "I think in Scotland it has been a thing for managers to have a go at young players," he says. "Sometimes you need to shout but I find I get a better response if I keep them as calm as possible.

"If I get on their backs too much they don't want to get the ball and become afraid of making mistakes.

"But I do lead them and that's fine after being skipper of my national team for three years. I try to get them to play the game the way we want it played. If we wanted the ball punted up the park we could get someone out of the pub to do that.

"I work with them on making angles, getting a good first touch and lifting their heads before playing the first pass. I love coaching and if someone takes on board what you say and improves by 2% it gives you the same feeling as scoring a goal."

Even if he can sound impressively like one, Latapy could never be your bog-standard coach. Not when he admits to "hating" running and taking a rather novel approach to pastoral care. The notion that he may be a classic example of poacher turned gamekeeper tickles him, indeed.

"I moan for fun but I still do the running," he says. "It is important to understand if you want to be successful there are things you need to do but don't have to like. Running is one of those for me. No matter what I was doing off the park, I played my best football when I was happy living my life as I wanted to do. So I say to the young players to do what you need to, but be intelligent about it.

"You don't do the crime if you can't do the time. If it is a Friday night and we are playing on a Saturday, do what you have to do to perform naturally. If that is going to the movies to relax instead of resting, don't go to the movies where people will see you. Make sure that whatever you do, you perform then nobody can point a finger."

There certainly isn't any finger pointing in Latapy's direction right now.