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AT 5FT 7IN, Russell Latapy does not seem the obvious choice as someone to look up to. Yet, ask Dwight Yorke, Shaka Hislop, or even Brian Lara, and they will tell you differently. It is ultimately thanks to Latapy that the trio made it big in sport.


While Yorke and Lara - who was torn between cricket and football - used to meet for kickabouts as kids, Latapy was leaving Trinidad and Tobago to blaze a trail they would ultimately follow. Now, the pupils are more famous than the teacher, but if Hibernian's little big man uncorks his bottle of genius tonight in the live TV match with Rangers, or next week when his country play in the Gold Cup in Los Angeles, then Latapy could have a whole new generation of admirers.

With the changes of the last decade having made world football into a global village, it is easy to believe that there are now Yorkes on every street corner. But 10 years ago, aspiring stars in Trinidad and Tobago had as much chance of being spotted and becoming famous as Manchester United had of winning the League.

Then Latapy made the breakthrough in Portugal, ultimately coming under the guidance of Bobby Robson at FC Porto, and every scout worth his salt was checking out the stock on T & T. Word had even reached John Barnes, the Jamaican who moved to England to make it.

"I knew about Russell Latapy years ago," said the Celtic coach. "Everyone who followed football in the Caribbean did. He was a superstar long before Dwight Yorke was."

So Barnes understood why Alex McLeish's jaw dropped when he had the chance to bring Latapy to Britain 16 months ago. "Russell's talent was immense," said the Hibernian manager, "but what was even more important was his intelligence. He could keep the ball off everyone all day if he wanted, but he prefers to play within the team and set up others."

Those skills were honed in Trinidad, with his friend Yorke. "We grew up playing football for the national team at Under-12 and Under- 14 level. Even though Dwight is three years younger than me, he was always good for his age."

It was while playing in Toronto for Trinidad and Tobago that a Portuguese agent spotted him, plotting the path to Europe that others would eventually follow. "Now it's different, but there were few opportunities for Caribbean kids then," said Latapy, "so you grabbed whatever chance came to go professional; mine was in Portugal." Latapy set up home in the beautiful university city of Coimbra and played for Academica, before Robson bought the gifted Trinidadian and gave him the stage he craved.

"My time at Porto was probably the best of my career. We won the Portuguese Championship twice and I played in the Champions' League against sides like Milan, which was wonderful. Bobby Robson was one of the most knowledgeable people I've met in football, especially with young players, and he helped me a lot."

Latapy then moved across Oporto to join the rival side Boavista, where he won the Portuguese Cup. That success paved the way for a team-mate, the then unknown Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, to move to Leeds, but Latapy's own dreams of playing in Britain seemed certain to be unfulfilled until Hibs came along.

"The weather is a bit colder than what I'm used to," smiled Latapy, now 31, "but then, while it's nice in Trinidad, I can't do there what I love to, which is to play football and get paid for it. Edinburgh is a great city to live in, and I'm fortunate that I play in a side whose football suits mine. Alex McLeish believes in an attacking, passing game, and we have experienced players, like Franck Sauzee - who has won everything in the game - and younger kids, such as Kenny Miller, who makes this an enjoyable team to play in."

He still remains in close contact with Yorke - "we talk all the time, as friends do" - but Latapy insists he is not envious of his understudy's fame and wealth at Old Trafford. "If a tempting offer came to move to England, it is something I would think about, but I enjoy Hibs and the fans are great to me. That's why it would be great to give them a win over Rangers before I go to the Gold Cup."