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TRYING to get hold of Russell Latapy on Wednesday, it is his manager John Hughes fielding his calls. The mercurial midfielder is too busy to talk. He is in charge of the reserves and they are on their way to a draw with Hearts.


A coach and a mentor, a manager-in-training. It is a status he has actually spent a long time cultivating but somehow it still jars. There was a time when it seemed the Trinidad and Tobago international would be hard-pushed to keep himself in check, a time when he often failed to do so.

But with age comes maturity, although the playboy in Latapy refuses to allow regret to tag along. Why would he? He has lived a life for others to envy. A life that afforded him a career and the ancillary benefits others dream of. He could have sacrificed certain aspects of it and nurtured others further, he could have played at an even higher level on a week-to-week basis but he chose to live a life that was fulfilling on and off the park.

"Exactly," he says with a cheeky wink and a knowing smile. "I know I have been very fortunate and that it is all down to football. That's why I want to give something back. That's what I tell the kids. Work hard now and give yourself the chance to get to a certain level because when you get there, you can have a lot of fun. Football offers a lot of rewards and it's not just about partying. Don't look at me and think: 'Well he did all that and can still play at 38,' because I wasn't always as bad as it seemed and the people who saw me having a glass of wine at night didn't see me in training the next day working hard to make sure I could still play at the right level.

"Football is like life. It can be fun but it can be hard work. You only get out of it what you are willing to work for."

This summer it rewarded his decision to coax his ageing limbs through another World Cup qualifying campaign on top of the domestic season as he took to the premier football stage in Germany. The reality of the occasion surpassed the boyhood dream.

His approach may not be the most orthodox but it hasn't harmed him too much. At 38 years old, he is still a Premierleague regular, is a World Cup veteran and is lauded in both his natural and adopted homelands.

Last season Falkirk struggled for form in their new home ground, but this term both team and player appear rejuvenated and far more comfortable in their surroundings as they prepare to welcome Latapy's former side, Rangers, to Falkirk Stadium this afternoon.

The goalscoring form of 18-year-old Arsenal loan star Anthony Stokes has been a revelation but the young Irishman sits out today's match, banned after being dismissed for simulation at Motherwell last week, which will place even more responsibility on the veteran playmaker's shoulders.

When we meet up, Latapy's manager having proved a successful secretary as well as ally for the man he knows well from their playing days together at Hibs, he emerges from a dressing room packed mostly with baby-faced individuals young enough to be his sons.

"Yeah, sometimes I find that a bit difficult. I'm 20 years older than some of the kids in the team but we are a team so we have learned to adjust a bit. It can be a difficult balance and we have ups and downs but that is the same in any decent relationship and if it's worth it you work at it."

Straddling both camps, the playing and the coaching, has helped. He will mix with the players at the Christmas night out but in a normal week the socialising is more low key and - dare we say it - more in keeping with his advancing years and his growing responsibilities.

"Yeah, with age and maturity certain things happen in life and, sometimes reluctantly, we have to make decisions and I have made my decisions with my eyes open and, you know, you have to be as respectful to others as you can be in those situations."

One decision which seems to be stalking the midfielder these days is when it will be the right time to hang up his boots. It is a perennial one, although the recent form, which has already earned him a Player of the Month award this season, scoring five goals in 17 starts, means that while the question is still asked, the answer is less obvious.

"There are a couple of factors which have helped me this season. I was at a certain level of fitness because of playing in the World Cup in the summer and then I got some rest and was back fit and ready for the new season and the other factor is even more important. Yogi has brought in a young bunch of players who weren't used to playing the type of football he wanted them to play at first but now it is coming together and there is a lot of passing and possession play and we try to let the ball do a lot of the work.

"To be honest, if we played the ball over the top and I was having to chase it or having to run up and down the wing all game, I couldn't do it. I would have to stop, but the way Yogi likes to see football played suits me. We think the same way about the game."

So he doesn't quite know when he will stop playing professionally. What he does know is that he will never stop entirely. He still loves the game and it's an enduring love. "I will still play and be involved in fives. So I don't think I will miss playing but I might miss the buzz of a Saturday. The adrenaline and the build-up sitting in the dressing room before a game. I don't know for sure, but that might be what I miss."

But he gets his kicks in other ways these days. A fancy player whose languid approach to life has always been a reflection of his Caribbean personality more than any sense of disinterest or a lack of commitment. The main reason he doesn't envisage a life pining for past glories when he does quit playing is the satisfaction he derives from helping develop the players under him at Falkirk.

"I was never really a player who thought about personal goals. For me it was never all about scoring - it was about winning. I could see the bigger picture and I was happier if the team was doing well. I am even more like that now. I would rather see a young player I have been coaching master a part of the game we have been working on or progress to the first team and play well than score a goal or win an award for myself. I always knew I would stay involved in football - it's my life - but now I am certain this is the way I want to do that. I would love to stay on here after I stop playing. I might be sad when I stop playing, it will be even sadder if I can't stay to see through the development of players I have been working with. But I would never cheat the club or the gaffer, I wouldn't stay if I didn't feel I was making a contribution. That would be disrespectful."

And with that he has to dash. He has to pick up his son, young Russell. Yet more responsibility for someone so often portrayed in a contrasting light. Or so it seems. "I'm just trying to keep in with him so he can take me to the pub with him when he is 16. I will have taught him a few things by then!" he says with another wink and a playful guffaw.

Older and wiser, but this conjurer still has a touch of magic about him on and off the pitch.