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FEW had Russell Latapy down as a durable commodity when he arrived in Scotland over seven years ago.


Although outrageously talented, the blessings arrived in a package that also contained potentially more hazardous traits. He wasn't expected to last the season, his debut for Hibs at a blowy Somerset Park enough to put anyone off making a lasting commitment to a country rarely sprayed with the sunshine Latapy so enjoys.

His behaviour at times suggested he would be footballer's equivalent of the drifter, burning bridge after bridge and forever moving on.

But the 'Little Magician' didn't disappear, and instead has saved his greatest trick for this summer. In three months' time he will represent Trinidad & Tobago at the World Cup, just a few weeks short of his 38th birthday. He was persuaded out of retirement during the qualifying campaign, and proved such a resounding success that he is set to play a pivotal role against Group B opponents Sweden, England and Paraguay.

"I am going because every player's dream is to play for your country in the World Cup," he says. "But I honestly also think I have something to contribute. I wouldn't have agreed if I thought I would be taking up the space of a younger player who could perhaps offer something more."

Latapy has allowed his maturing to be done in an adopted homeland that has seen him develop into the wise individual who offers you his hand today.

To a certain extent Scotland has shaped him. His presence at Largs-based coaching courses lends further credence to his claim, made in The Scotsman back in 1999, that he wished to stay on in the country until he was "old and grey". He hoped that would be with Hibs, but his urge to explore Scotland led him to Rangers, Dundee United and now Falkirk, where he combines playing with coaching duties.

Responsibility is not something many reckoned he'd be comfortable with when Latapy arrived on these shores in 1998. However, he reveals a desire to move into management as soon as he can.

"It's getting harder playing," he confesses. "I don't know if I want to be going to Aberdeen on a cold Tuesday night as a player. As a manager on the bench with a big coat on, maybe!"

This thought would have startled back in the days when he arrived at Hibs looking every inch the playboy. Instead of a warm manager's coat, it was all baseball caps and ear studs. He was lazily grouped in with the gang of West Indian sportsmen who played and then partied hard. But Latapy didn't help dismantle the stereotype, and on one memorable occasion was stopped by police in Edinburgh, in a somewhat compromising situation.

His friend Dwight Yorke was beside him in the Beetle, while two blonde females were in the back-seat. Neither were his long-term partner, Paula. But the first difficult situation to negotiate was the fact he'd tested three times over the limit, less than 48 hours before he'd been expected to play against Hearts.

Alex McLeish, the then Hibs manager, left him out of that game and he didn't play for Hibs again, missing out on the Scottish Cup final against Celtic.

Latapy disappeared into the sun to spend the week of the final back on the booze. Yet he doesn't have to persuade anyone that the high-life has negatively impacted on his football. He simply needs to flash a grin, and remind people of his present circumstances. He has made 29 appearances for Falkirk this season, and has clocked up two decades' worth of professional football.

This summer he joins his Trinidad & Tobago team-mates at their inaugural World Cup, by which point he will surely have convinced everyone of his claim to be a serious athlete.

"It's not only a surprise to still be in Scotland, it's a surprise to still be playing," he admits. "Playing as long as I have is down to an accumulation of factors. Touch wood I have never had a serious injury, and I have looked after myself. You wouldn't still be playing at this level at my age if you don't look after yourself. What I have done off the field has been well documented, but people don't see the hard work you put in outside of that."

The dedication is not restricted to his on-field performances. Off it he has been in regular attendance at Largs, and is waiting to re-sit his A licence coaching badge. He has caught the management bug, and is preparing for the day when he will need to make the kind of decision McLeish agonised over when dropping Latapy from his cup final team. The pair meet up again today when Falkirk entertain Rangers on their own patch, although patch is too good a word for a rutted pitch that has been another obstacle in Latapy's attempts to prolong his career.

There is no residue of ill-feeling between the pair, at least not on Latapy's part. "It's water under the bridge," he says. " I will shake his hand. We get on really well now. I have been back to Murray Park with the Falkirk youth teams and we've got on well. Obviously at the time it got heated, but time heals."

He laments not being able to play in a Scottish Cup final. "I regretted not representing Hibs in the final," Latapy says now. "But that was the coach's decision. The incident happened three weeks before the final. He made a decision based on what he felt was right for the team."

Latapy has flourished since then, and the incident did not prevent him significantly increasing his earnings with a move to Rangers. McLeish followed him there, and declined to offer the player another contract when the time came to renew it.

Latapy didn't play as often as he would have liked at Ibrox, and again at Falkirk finds his appearances limited. This, though, meets with his approval. A combination of factors have conspired to make his brand of playmaking a greater effort than it once was.

His age is one barrier, and the Falkirk pitch another. Although lauded as being among the best surfaces in the country when the stadium opened two seasons ago, it has been ill-served by the winter weather and the hosting of a series of rugby matches.

Latapy calls this "frustrating", and cites the condition of the pitch as one reason why Falkirk are not just looking for their first league win over Rangers since 1970-71, but their first home league victory against anyone this season.

Latapy has struggled to exert his influence at times this winter but, given a perfect stage. ran the show in 2-2 draw at Ibrox in November.

Although he admits the effect of the cold on his less nimble limbs has had him eyeing a move to the continent on occasion, he would ideally spend a further season with Falkirk should the club wish to offer him another year's playing contract.

Latapy is hopeful he has done enough to convince manager John Hughes he is worth it, and might play his ace card during the negotiations - a promise to bring Dwight Yorke to the club.

The Trinidad & Tobago skipper and former Manchester United player will play his final game for the season for Sydney FC this weekend. Notions of him warming up for the World Cup with Falkirk might be fanciful given transfer window restrictions, but Latapy is hopeful he can at least be persuaded to drop in and proffer his experience.

"I suggested if he wanted somewhere to train and keep trim then we'd be happy to have him here," he says. "He trains with Manchester United when he is back in the country, because he still has a house down there. But should he come to Scotland I am sure he will pop in."