Russell Latapy is the creative spark behind Falkirk’s survival bid, and claims he has calmed his wild ways at the age of 37.
The home dressing room at Falkirk stadium is a large, square chamber with thin benches running round the sides. It is so spacious and hollow that it feels overpoweringly vast. Russell Latapy’s changing place is tucked into one corner, where his small frame seems to almost shrink out of sight. “It’s the furthest spot from Yogi,” he grins, and a familiar sparkle flickers in his eyes. It is a look of subdued mischief, a glimmer that cannot be suppressed. “I keep out the way of his team talks.” There is modesty in his humour, though, for Latapy is not peripheral to Falkirk. His irrepressible presence is the very centre of the team.
If the opening games of the Premierleague season have told us anything of the First Division champions, it is that John Hughes, the manager, is adamant that his side will play patient, controlled, passing football, and that Latapy is the conduit through which they perform. The player-coach is the creative intuition, he receives and he provides, and so on the field he represents the ideals of his manager. Hughes, an abrasive, forceful centre-back, all hard edges and solid definition, and Latapy, an elegant, whimsical midfielder, a player of silken fluidity, share the same vision. It is an intriguing view.
They met at Hibernian seven years ago, when Latapy first arrived from Portugal and found himself changing next to Hughes in the Easter Road dressing room. On the surface, they could not have been more unlike each other. Hughes strained and stretched to haul all that he could from his talents, while Latapy was so lavishly skilled that he could afford to be casual, nonchalant. Yet their relationship has proved enduring.
“We’re both crazy in our own ways,” says Latapy with a chuckle. “So it’s quite easy and the relationship has been going from strength to strength. John has been around football all his life and so have I, and you develop a philosophy that you can still play good football and get results. One of the things we say is that you don’t have to score a goal every time you have the ball, there are times when you need to keep it off the other team to kill the rhythm of the game. Keep the ball for long periods and it wears teams down.”
The possibilities of this principled approach were seen at Celtic Park last weekend, when it took two late Alan Thompson goals to secure a 3-1 win after Falkirk had taken the lead. When Latapy was at Rangers, he remembers teams playing against them defensively, without composure, and the Ibrox players knew they would always receive the ball back if they lost it. In the way Falkirk kept possession against Celtic, with slow, precise purpose, never anxious to hurry the ball forward, we saw the realisation of a theory. It is a brave approach, so different from the stifling game that kept Inverness in the Premierleague last season, but then its boldness is its fascination.
As Latapy talks about the present and how it has formed, memories flicker back to the forefront of your mind, recollections of past indiscretions. Remember that he was released by Hibs after being caught drink-driving during a night out with his friend Dwight Yorke two days before an Edinburgh derby, and that he was once dropped by Dick Advocaat at Rangers after arriving at Ibrox only 45 minutes before a game against Livingston. How do you marry those images to that of the slender 37-year-old next to you? His reputation is one of fragile responsibility, but in reality he is a bundle of complexities.
“There’s a funny thing about football, most times you never really get what you deserve,” he says, then a loud, sumptuous laugh escapes. “That’s the nature of the game, so you just have to get on with it. Because of a lot of things that have been documented in the past, people just tend to look at one side of my life, which is the off-field stuff. But I work quite hard as well. It’s no secret that I hate running. I’m not bad at running, you know, but get the ball out and it doesn’t matter what I’m asked to do, I’ll do it.”
Sitting in his training gear, there is something spare and reduced to Latapy’s appearance, his dreadlocks pulled back into a thick, rough ponytail, while a large digital watch dominates his wrist. The truth is that he is still able to catch our eye because it is his ability that is enduring rather than his condition. Age has not seeped the energy from his flair. He is such a gifted player, so aware of the geometry and shapes of the game, that he remains able to make it work for him. When you watch him, you believe that he intuitively knows a game’s currents, that he feels its flow. So despite his advancing years, he is not over-run by the youthful zest of his opponents. He is still able to step out of their way.
In this twilight of his career, Latapy has also seen the need to ease the pace of his social life. His geniality is a strength and as we walked through the stadium his popularity was clear in the warmth he met; one female receptionist coyly looked to the ground when he waved at her in her office. Yet his outgoing nature can also be a weakness, as there have been times when he has been unable, or unwilling, to restrain it. For all that he carries the languor of the Caribbean, there is a restlessness within him, a need to be out there, living life. He spent five years in Portugal, winning two titles with Porto, but this is a player who in 2000 was voted joint 33rd — with Roy Keane and Dennis Bergkamp — in a Fifa poll of the world’s 50 best players. And you wonder if he might have enjoyed a more illustrious career on the field had he been more self-disciplined off it.
“I don’t look at it that way,” he says, after a pause of careful consideration. “I’ve played hard, but I’ve also worked hard. There is a fine line. In football, and in life, you have to comply to the rules and regulations. I must say, at times I was in the wrong by not complying. But I have to be happy. That’s when I’m at my best. When I look back, I needed to find a better balance. But in the past I tried to be this way, straight or whatever, and maybe it’s in my head but I just seem to play better when I’m happier, when I’m free-spirited. Obviously I don’t do the stuff that I used to do because my body doesn’t allow me to get away with it, but I’m always going to go out for a nice meal and I’m always going to have a nice glass of wine. That’s just me.”
He laughs again, this time softly, more tenderly. The pleasure he finds in the game has always been as brightly clear as the gleam of the sun. He plays with a joyful freedom. Yet even in the brisk opening of this season, he has looked even more in thrall. “Maybe it seems as though I’m enjoying it more, and maybe I am, because I’m kinda seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he grins. “I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to play at the highest level, so I’m really enjoying the last of it. One of the reasons I didn’t quit when I left Rangers is because your last memories of the game stick with you for a long time and I want them to be positive.”
The season spreads out so expansively before us that it seems uncertain if Latapy will last the pace. He knows that his body will tell him when he can no longer go on, and so he will listen to it carefully in the coming months. You feel that all at Falkirk will be straining to hear, too. Already, his presence seems as vital as a heart’s beat. Opponents, though, will surely soon line up with man-markers to try to erode his influence, and the heavy pitches of the winter months will cause his boots to feel leaden, as if they are bearing time’s heavy weight. Yet Latapy insists that in the likes of Stevie Thompson and Vitor Lima, there are other midfielders at Falkirk who can inspire.
He is watchful of others at the club. With John O’Neil, another teammate from his time at Hibs, he manages the reserve team and that is the next step he wants to take, into the dugout. For now, he coaches through inspiration, but he talks earnestly of knowing there will be times when he must shout at players and be aggressive. So as a manager, how might he deal with the younger version of himself? “Erm, that’s a good question,” he replies. “First and foremost, I’d want him to do the business for the football club. Then I’d take it from there. It’s trial and error, because if I tried to tame him and he doesn’t do the business on the park, that’s no good.”
He says it with the firmness of experience. Latapy, for all that he is and has been, can still do the business on the park. And that is what’s good for Falkirk.