BEING FORCED to take his own personal winter break has finally convinced Russell Latapy that he has arrived at the autumn of his playing career.
The Trinidadian, who will turn 40 before the end of the season, hasn't started a game since November, as a combination of the heavy pitches at this time of the season, the player's advancing years, and John Hughes's reluctance to alter a winning team has condemned him to his longest spell out of the first team since arriving at the club four and a half seasons ago.
Aside from getting on with his day job coaching the reserves, and seeing his name linked with the now-filled St Johnstone manager's post, Latapy has taken the extended stay on the bench as a hint that his next contract (whoever it is with) must see him alter the balance between coaching and playing.
"We went on an unbelievable run - in 13 games we only lost to the Old Firm - and there is an unspoken rule in football where if the team is winning you don't change it," Latapy said, in the wake of back-to-back defeats against Gretna and Aberdeen that have punctured the club's momentum a little. "I said to the gaffer at the start of the season that if I play I am going to do the best that my body is going to allow me to do. If I am playing I am going to do my best but I am not a spring chicken any more. And when the weather and the pitches are like this, it is a bit difficult to get about realistically, so he just needs to decide when is best to use me."
Whether their veteran Trinidadian is recalled against Celtic this afternoon remains to be seen but as for what happens when his current playing contract expires in the summer, Latapy is in no hurry to leave a club where he is well liked and his previous contract negotiations have always taken all of about five minutes to conclude. He will wait, however, to see what role is offered before deciding upon his future.
"Like everybody else you get another buzz when the sun comes out and it is good for you to start passing the ball again," Latapy said. "So I will only be able to answer that question fruitfully more closer to the end of the season, when get your buzz on and then your body is telling you you can do it again. I love playing, I enjoy training - even if it is a case of just playing when needed. If I am fit enough to play, I am around the club, and he Hughes wants me to play then I would without a doubt.
"It is just a question possibly of defining exactly what my role is," he added. "This season, at the start it was playing then coaching, but the next time it might be a question of defining it as coaching and then maybe just playing a little bit - of changing the balance. We have always had a good relationship so I don't foresee a problem."
Latapy was born in the Trinidadian capital of Port-of-Spain, and spent his formative years in Portugal, but at a time when his contemporaries such as Craig Brewster and Mixu Paatelainen are making a go of things, has no qualms about setting his course towards management in Scotland, whenever he finally shrugs off the comfort blanket of learning under Hughes. The laid-back Latapy is easily contrasted with the stentorian Hughes, but when the move happens, the world might discover this odd couple's footballing philosophies are closer than might be expected.
"The St Johnstone thing came up simply because I said to my agent ages ago that I would definitely like to get into management, and because he was involved with some of the people at St Johnstone he asked me at that time if I would be interested and I said yes'," Latapy said. "But I am quite happy here, and will make decisions based on what if anything is going to be offered.
"It is good to be around this club and, despite having my own philosophy on the game, you can learn off the manager which is good. I know a lot of people don't say these kind of things, but if I make mistakes with the reserves then he gets the flak for it, because he is ultimately responsible for everything which happens at the football club.
"I think at the club here we try to play football the way we think it should be played, getting the ball down and passing it," Latapy added. "But with the reality of knowing that football is a game of results, there has to be a flexibility. If the pitch is good then you pass it and try to win games that way, if the pitch is not good and it is difficult to play that way, you might have to switch it about. Keep it solid at the back, and let the attacking players try to win it for you, rather than the total football situation."
This all could make this afternoon's match a bit of a pitched battle. Having conceded four goals when attempting unsuccessfully to out-pass the champions on each of the last two meetings with Celtic, Hughes may have to alter those principles a little if conditions aren't conducive to it this afternoon. "My park's not great at the moment," Hughes said. "I think our guy won groundsman of the year, although I don't know how. He is the hide- and-seek champion of Falkirk."