Former Hibs boss McLeish remains astonished by fact he secured Latapy as a free agent
ALEX McLEISH today admitted he privately harboured concerns as to whether Russell Latapy could cope with the physical demands of Scottish football despite receiving a personal recommendation from former England boss Sir Bobby Robson. McLeish turned to Robson for advice ten years ago after the little midfield star's name was put to him as a possible signing by an agent.
McLeish, now boss of Birmingham City, said: "Russell's name was suggested to me and from his CV he looked a decent player. I phoned Sir Bobby and got good feedback and then I saw Russell's commitment in a reserve game at Brechin. It was a horrible Scottish night and you are thinking a guy from the Caribbean, used to the sunshine, would find it something of a test. But his character shone out, he ran the show and you could see he was a guy who knew how to caress a football."
While McLeish immediately decided to sign a player known as the Little Magician in his homeland, he revealed he did have worries as to whether Latapy would be able to cope with the demands of the First Division as Hibs, having been relegated the previous season, sought to make an immediate return to the top flight.
He need not have worried as the presence of Latapy, added to the previous signing of Mixu Paatelainen and the subsequent arrival of Franck Sauzee saw Hibs romp to the title with the midfield star named the First Division player of the year.
McLeish said: "Given Russell's stature, I did have some concerns but he was a tough wee guy, very strong mentally and with a strong personality. And, to be honest, he was too elusive for the big heavy tacklers, they could rarely get close enough to him to give him a kick. And when they did they found he was very robust, he could take a hit."
To this day, McLeish, having managed Rangers and Scotland in the intervening years, admits he still finds it "unbelievable" that he could uncover such a player operating as a free agent.
He said: "If Russell at that stage of his career was in the market just now he would cost a fortune. To be honest, it is still unbelievable to think a player like him could land at your feet. We wanted someone who could make a difference in midfield and Russell was that guy."
Latapy capped a memorable first season in Scottish football by scoring both goals as Hibs clinched the title by beating Hamilton at Firhill, although he missed out on the chance of a hat-trick by failing to convert a penalty kick.
But it was the 6-2 hammering of Capital rivals Hearts on October 22, 2000, which, naturally, still sticks out in McLeish's mind, Latapy's performance that night the inspiration as Mixu Paatelainen scored three to add to strikes from the little midfielder, David Zitelli and John O'Neil. He said: "That night was one of the best I have ever been involved in as a manager. It was sensational, Russell played blinding football, he was sublime."
At the beginning of that year, however, McLeish and everyone who travelled as Hibs made a winter break trip to Trinidad and Tobago had their eyes opened to the awe in which Latapy was held in his homeland where, incredibly, he had been named his nation's player of the year at 14.
That he had subsequently spent the vast majority of his career abroad hadn't diminished his stature, Hibs simply dubbed "Latapy team" by the locals who turned up in their thousands wherever he and his team-mates went.
McLeish recalled: "All the local celebs treated Russell as a superstar, you even had the likes of Brian Lara, a huge, huge name not only in that part of the globe where cricket is so popular but all over the world, turning up to say 'hello'. It was a bit tricky on that trip, the wee man was home and we had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he did not over-do things!"
Latapy, of course, also enjoyed the reputation of enjoying a good time, an ill-advised night out with then Manchester United ace Dwight Yorke barely 48 hours before an Edinburgh derby bringing his Easter Road career to a premature close although McLeish said today he'd have been moving on in any case.
"There was never a problem, we shook hands and have remained friends ever since. It's one of these things which happen.
"Had Russell been in blistering form it might have been different but I felt around that time he wasn't as motivated as he had been and that wasn't helping either of us.
"The level of money he was looking for at that point was a bit too much for us and the team suffered when Russell was not at his best."
McLeish, however, insisted he had nothing but admiration for Latapy despite having been forced to exert his authority on that occasion. He said: "Russell was a pleasure to work with, a great, great guy and one of the best professionals in terms of encouraging his fellow pros.
"He was superb in the dressing room, very likeable and no-one had a bad word to say about him.
"He encouraged others when they perhaps needed a bit of tender loving care when their form was down, he was always supportive."
Latapy's departure from Hibs alerted Rangers boss Dick Advocaat who had long been an admirer of Latapy, the player moving on to Ibrox and then Dundee United before signing for former team-mate John Hughes at Falkirk. And McLeish admitted admiration for the fact that Latapy, while having become something of a bit-part player this season, was continuing to pull on a jersey both for his club and country.
He said: "Russell must have some metabolism, he's never put on an ounce in weight. I'm sure he's slowed up a bit but when you have that ability it never leaves you.
"Russell has also evolved as a player. We looked for him to link midfield to attack, going forward getting into the opposition box to make and score goals which he did to great effect.
"At Falkirk he became the playmaker, sitting behind it all looking for that defence-splitting pass, he developed into that brilliantly.
"I've managed guys like the De Boers, Arthur Numan, big Franck, and Barry Ferguson but Russell was one of the best I have ever worked with, his ability was right up there with them."
Mixu: It was a slice of reality TV for me when I woke up to see my pal on a morning chat show
MIXU PAATELAINEN realised just how big a star Russell Latapy was in his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago when he switched on his hotel room's television to see his room-mate the guest on a breakfast-time chat show.
Latapy, of course, was hugely popular among the Hibs support but even to this day Paatelainen admits the memory of that morning nearly nine years ago brings a smile to his face. Now, of course, manager of the Easter Road club, Paatelainen has remained a firm friend of the little midfield star but can still recall the first time he heard his name mentioned.
He said: "Although Russell had played for the likes of Sporting Lisbon and Boavista I have to confess I'd never heard of him until he came to Hibs on trial.
"That was understandable because in those days, even although it's not that many years ago, you didn't get the saturation coverage of European football we now receive on television.
"Now, because you get virtually every kick of every game wherever it is played, everyone is more aware of players in other countries. Although we knew he had played top level European football question marks always remain but when he started training with us and got on the ball you realised what a player he was. He went to play a trial game at Brechin and, although I didn't play in that game, the boys who did were raving about the way he ran the show."
Paatelainen had signed for Hibs only a few weeks before Latapy's arrival, which was followed by the sensational signing of former Marseille and France star Franck Sauzee, the season ending with Hibs, having been relegated the previous season, making an immediate return to the SPL with Latapy named First Division player of the year.
But it was during Hibs' winter trip to the Caribbean at the start of the Millennium which hammered home just how big a star Latapy was among his own folk.
Paatelainen recalled: "Russell and I were always team-mates on away trips, we became friends as did our families and we remain so to this day. Russell had a busy time over there, for some reason or another he was doing all sorts of things.
"But I remember waking up one morning, switching on the television and there was my room-mate the guest of a chat show on a morning programme.
"Throughout that trip we were treated like royalty because of Russell. When we arrived in the middle of the night all the television crews were there, we were whipped off to a VIP lounge and the Russell Latapy song was being played.
"To us Russell was a character and a half, a fantastic guy to spend time with but it was over there we realised he was someone special. In fact, Brian Lara and Dwight Yorke were such good buddies it wasn't unusual for them to come to Edinburgh to meet up with him."
Trinidad and Tobago Government Official to join in guard of honour
A DAY of celebrations is planned to mark Russell Latapy's contribution to Scottish football over the past ten years with even an official of the Trinidad and Tobago Government making his way to the Falkirk Stadium on Saturday to honour the star.
Dressed in a kilt of the Falkirk tartan, 40-year-old Latapy will be greeted with a guard of honour bearing Trinidad and Tobago flags as he makes his way onto the pitch to be presented with a medal marking his induction to the Falkirk Hall of Fame.
A huge flag bearing his name and No.10 will be unfurled and, to mark his association with both clubs, supporters will stage a five-a-side match at half-time.
On Sunday, a special tribute to Latapy will be held at 12.30pm in Behind the Wall, in Falkirk, with guest speakers Peter Brown and Jim Leishman, and a special Caribbean-themed menu and cocktails.