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From Trinidad to Scotland: Russell Latapy’s love affair with Hibs and Falkirk

Russell Latapy lit up Scottish football for over a decade, bringing joy to fans and delight to his teammates through an irrepressible love of the game and of life.

By Illustrations by Matt R Dallinson

This article first appeared in Issue 19 which was published in March 2021.

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He could score goals; he could lay on goals. He could hit passes – left foot, right foot. He was magnificent, and he was very clever – he knew the game like the back of his hand. He could just find space and distribute a fantastic ball. And he was a great lad, that’s what made him even more special. A real nice boy.
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Sometimes you’d be standing there clapping your hands in training because he’d done something amazing. He doesn’t get called The Magician by the Falkirk fans, and most of the players he’s played with, for no reason. He was on a different level to everybody else.

It started, as all good stories do, with a bounce game in Brechin.

Russell Latapy, an outrageously talented playmaker with Champions League pedigree, had recently left Boavista, bringing an end to his eight-year spell in Portugal, where he’d twice won the title at Porto under Bobby Robson. Somehow, he was now slumming it at Glebe Park, trying to earn a contract with Hibernian, who had been relegated to the First Division a few months earlier.

Brechin City’s ground was an understated setting for Latapy’s first Hibs appearance, and the start of a glorious love affair with Scottish football that lasted more than a decade. Latapy was little known upon his arrival, but left revered by supporters of Hibs and Falkirk, and admired by neutrals even though he had routinely tormented their teams.

More than the goals and the trophies, it was the purity and technical precision with which he played that captured the imagination. Whether weaving through defenders, or hitting an inch-perfect 50-yard pass, Latapy made moments of great quality look so simple. He played for fun, with a smile on his face and an unwavering belief in his own ability. No matter the scoreline, the state of the pitch, or how many opponents he had breathing down his neck, he wanted the ball. He wouldn’t lose it either.

Although most of the Hibernian first team didn’t play in that match up at Brechin, those who did soon spread word of Latapy’s remarkable performance to the rest. His touch and technique stood out a mile. The dressing room was abuzz about this small Trinidad and Tobago midfielder before he’d even set foot on the training pitch. He didn’t disappoint.

An instant impression

“We were moving around training grounds at the time; we didn’t have a set routine,” says Stuart Lovell, who had recently signed from Reading. “We went to a pitch that was more for rugby than football, so it was quite long grass and a bit muddy. He was absolutely brilliant. You could just see it with his first touch and his vision. He could see a pass. He could execute a pass. You couldn’t get the ball off him in tight areas. I think it’s fair to say he made an instant impression.”

Latapy had already done enough to convince Alex McLeish that he could help transform Hibs’ fortunes. He was signed on a free transfer in October 1998 and it would turn out to be one of the best pieces of business in McLeish’s entire managerial career. Without facing any competition, he’d acquired a matchwinner and a club legend in the making.

Hibs were expected to win the title at a canter that season but had started slowly, dropping points in five of their first eight games, including a humbling 2-1 loss at home to Stranraer, who would go on to finish bottom. It had taken McLeish longer than he’d hoped to reshape his squad after relegation, but things were finally coming together, as Mixu Paatelainen and then Latapy joined in quick succession. The two new boys supercharged Hibs’ season. Paatelainen provided a physical presence and a focal point for the attack, while Latapy added a spark of quality and creativity that First Division defences couldn’t handle. After a 3-3 draw at Ayr United on his debut, Hibs won all but one of their next 16 league games.

“We were struggling to outplay teams and we needed that touch of class that Russell brought, as well as that calmness and that confidence,” says Lovell. “Not cockiness, but that knowledge and understanding that, if you know how to play the game, your class will tell. Good players bring out the best in the players around them, that’s what you tend to find. Everyone around them raises their level, which I think is the sign of an important player. I certainly saw that when Russell arrived.

“Mercurial would be a good way to describe him. John Hughes, our captain, joked that you couldn’t get the ball off him in a phonebooth. He had incredibly good close control. Like all good players, his first touch was immaculate. You could fire a ball at him from any angle, at any part of the body, and he’d kill it stone dead.

Hibs’ shining light

“He could manipulate the ball and he had a very low centre of gravity. He wasn’t a big guy at all, but he was very sharp. He could just drop a shoulder and get away from people. He was just a brilliant teammate because if you were in trouble, or you didn’t feel like you had an option, you could look for him and he’d show for the ball. Invariably, you gave him the ball and he’d do the rest.”

Latapy brought a sense of excitement back to Easter Road.

“He was a player who made a big impact really quickly,” adds Lovell. “You realised that he was going to be the shining light. The player who made the difference in tight games. He was far and away the best player in that division. It was just incredibly easy for him. He was several levels above and he ended up winning Player of the Year by a landslide.”

With Latapy in the team, Hibs came alive. Playing behind the strike partnership of Stevie Crawford and Paatelainen, he linked the midfield to the attack and created plenty of chances. The title was all but wrapped up by the end of February as wins over Ayr and Falkirk extended their unbeaten run to 22 games.

Off the pitch, Latapy was proving just as popular with his teammates. “He got changed next to me and he was good company,” recalls Hughes, who worked closely with Latapy at Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle too. “Always laughing, always got that smile on his face. Being the captain of the club, you could say to him, ‘Russell, we need you today’ and you could just see the focus on his face. He took his football very seriously. We just struck up a fantastic rapport.”

“He’s one of those guys you can’t help but get on with,” says Lovell. “He’s just a happy, easy-going guy. Laid-back. Relaxed. Very likeable. I’ve never met anyone who’s got a bad word to say about him. He was just a great player to share a dressing room with because he was a brilliant footballer and a great guy as well. You wish you had more like him.”

Towards the end of that title-winning season, Franck Sauzée arrived from Montpellier. He was an elegant yet imposing former French international who had won the Champions League with Marseille six years earlier. At 33, he was nearing the end of his career but was still an exceptional footballer. He enhanced the Hibs team ahead of their return to the Scottish Premier League and threatened Latapy’s status as star man.

“Some fans put Franck Sauzée on a pedestal, and some put Russell on a pedestal. Everyone has their own favourite out of the two of them, but there’s not a Hibs fan that didn’t love watching both players. I was lucky enough to play in the team with the two of them, but I would argue Russell’s influence was even bigger than Franck’s because he was there for longer,” says Lovell.

Hughes feels the same way.

“Franck Sauzée was still a magnificent footballer, but he was past his best when he came to Hibs. Russell was hitting his prime,” he recalls. “You couldn’t get the ball off him, honestly. He was an absolutely outstanding footballer. Some of the stuff he did on the pitch, the entertainment he gave the Hibs fans, was second to none.

“He could score goals; he could lay on goals. He could hit passes – left foot, right foot. He was magnificent, and he was very clever – he knew the game like the back of his hand. He could just find space and distribute a fantastic ball. And he was a great lad, that’s what made him even more special. A real nice boy.”

Stepping up

In the form of Sauzée, Latapy, Paatelainen and Lovell, McLeish had signed players who he believed would make the step up to the SPL with ease. Confidence had returned to Hibs after dominating a lower division and supporters had flocked to see a winning team. Easter Road was full again for the start of the much-anticipated 1999-2000 season.

Latapy immediately looked at home in the SPL but Hibs’ results were patchy. In the first half of the season, there were two goal-filled wins over Dundee, as well as heavy defeats to Kilmarnock and Celtic. Lovell felt that a formation which was designed to get the best out of Sauzée and Latapy was having an adverse effect, leaving them overrun.

“We played a diamond, with Franck as the holding midfielder and Russell as the number 10. We struggled when teams overloaded in midfield,” he says. “I ended up playing in centre midfield and my memory of that season is that the formation was actually hurting us more than helping us. I mentioned that on one or two occasions to the manager when we had some heated discussions about what was going right and what was going wrong.”

But when it clicked, Hibs could still be a joy to watch, as they showed in consecutive wins over Hearts. After beating their hated rivals 3-0 at Tynecastle, McLeish’s side came from behind to record a 3-1 win on home turf.

The game didn’t start well for Latapy. He lost the ball just outside the opposition box and Hearts swept up the pitch to score. He made amends nine minutes later, swivelling to fire his shot low into the bottom corner. In the second half, a towering Sauzée header put Hibs ahead. The third goal was tapped in by Paatelainen but owed everything to Latapy, who was denied by a fine save at the end of another jinking run.

Hibs finished the season in sixth, comfortably clear of relegation but well short of the European places. They also reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, losing to Aberdeen. Latapy had put his side in front, weaving past a couple of players and finishing smartly, before the Dons hit back.

A change was needed for Hibs to progress, and an astute tactical tweak from McLeish made all the difference. “When he dropped Franck back into a libero role, that was a masterstroke. It was the perfect position for Franck. He was a very good defender, a very good header of the ball, and a brilliant passer. He could come out with the ball. Russell was able to play in a floating role in midfield,” explains Lovell.

“When we went 3-5-2, it was more 3-4-1-2 if you like, that got the best out of Russell and Franck. We very nearly split the Old Firm that season, back when Rangers and Celtic were both very strong, and we got to the Scottish Cup final. That was my last season with Hibs, but it was a very enjoyable one because we were a very good outfit, and we had a lot of experienced players who were playing at the top of their game. For a lot of Hibs supporters, that’s their favourite era.”

The new formation liberated Latapy, who scored 10 goals and was instrumental to Hibs’ commanding start. In early November, after a 2-1 win over a Dundee side featuring Claudio Caniggia, they were second in the table, three points behind Celtic, having lost just one of their first 14 games. They looked like title challengers.

That 6-2 win over Hearts

Hibs’ best performance, and result, of the season had come two weeks before then. Hearts took an early lead at Easter Road but were then torn apart by a vibrant attacking display. Although Mixu Paatelainen scored a hat-trick, Latapy was the star of the show, dictating play and scoring with a thumping volley to round off an unforgettable day. It was the pinnacle for a swaggering Hibs side.

“In my time at the club, the biggest result that fans still speak about, where the team just clicked, would be the 6-2 win over Hearts,” says Lovell. “It was a Sunday night game on Sky, and a sell-out crowd. We had been building momentum, the team were playing well, and we just had one of those nights where everyone was on their A-game.

“Hearts scored the first and the last goal of the game, but we could, and should, have won by more. The team played at a very high level and Russell in particular was unplayable that night. He scored a fantastic goal with a great shimmy and a one-two off Mixu, then a volley into the top corner. It was a great atmosphere, and you can’t do much better than putting six past your biggest rivals.”

Two months later, in December 2000, Latapy received a vote for FIFA World Player of the Year. It came from Charlie Cook, the technical director of the Turks and Caicos Islands, who listed him third behind Real Madrid’s Luis Figo and Barcelona’s Rivaldo. No matter how fanciful the nomination, it was some company for a Hibs player to keep, showing how highly rated Latapy was in the Caribbean. Back home, he was sporting royalty. A school had even been named after him.

“We went over to Trinidad and Tobago for the Christmas break one year and the reception that he got was unbelievable,” recalls Hughes. “We went over as a club and it was like meeting the president coming off the plane. A brass band was playing. It was like, ‘Here comes the prodigal son. He’s returned.’ It was absolutely fantastic. Over there we met all of Russell’s friends. I got introduced to Brian Lara. You just saw the way they held him in such high esteem.”

Latapy: a star who was one of the boys

Growing up together in Trinidad, Latapy has been close friends with cricket legend Lara and former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke since childhood. If either of them were ever up in Scotland to visit, he made sure that his teammates were invited out on the town too. Latapy just loved socialising and being one of the boys. After leaving Hibs, Hughes remembers inviting Latapy to a pub he was opening in Leith. He didn’t expect him to turn up, but sure enough he did, with Lara and some of the West Indies team in tow.

“They were over playing cricket in Edinburgh and Russell brought them all there. They stayed for a couple of hours. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’d do anything for you. Anything.”

Unfortunately, this carefree attitude contributed to his downfall. In May 2001, shortly before the Scottish Cup final, Latapy was sacked by Hibs. Having already been warned about going out too close to a match, he missed the final training session ahead of the Edinburgh derby after a night out with Yorke ended in a drink-driving charge. In his absence, Hibs lost 3-0 to Celtic at Hampden Park.

“It was very sad actually. Russell liked to enjoy himself and to live life to the full. He was one of those guys who was lucky that whatever he was doing in his social life, he was still able to influence a game on a Saturday. He was never a hard trainer, but he did enough to keep himself in shape. He liked to go out. He liked to socialise and have a couple of drinks at the right time,” says Lovell.

“I remember that the manager had had conversations with him to say, ‘Keep a lid on it. We’re coming to an important part of the season and we’ve got big games coming up. We’re pushing for a really high finish in the league and we’re still in the Scottish Cup.’ It’s a trophy that the club hadn’t won for a long time, so it was really important for them. Basically, I think the manager snapped and decided that enough was enough.

“He was a massively important player, and we were a poorer team without him. We missed him. For someone who’d had such a big impact on the team over three seasons, it was a sad way for it to end. But when you speak to Hibs supporters now, that incident is largely forgotten. It’s the good times that they remember. It’s the genius and the magic of Russell that they talk about.”

That summer, Latapy signed for Rangers. It was a chance to compete for honours, on a bigger stage more befitting of his talent, but it didn’t work out. Dick Advocaat resigned in December and Latapy was soon reunited with his former Hibs manager Alex McLeish. In just under two seasons, he made 37 appearances, scoring five goals (three in his first six league games) and winning a single trophy, the 2002 Scottish League Cup.

There were occasional flashes of inspiration, such as a disguised free-kick curled in at the near post against Dunfermline, and a shot on the turn from outside the box that beat the Motherwell goalkeeper before he had a chance to move, but Latapy’s impact was more decorative than decisive. At Ibrox, he was simply one of many great players and the team wasn’t built around him. He didn’t need to be relied on in the same way.

A short stint at Dundee United followed, but Latapy was lacking direction and needed a fresh start to reinvigorate him.

Feeling the love at Falkirk

His old friend John Hughes had an idea: “I’d just moved into Falkirk. I knew he was still based in Glasgow. We met up and the deal was done. He was in training the next day. He said he’d come and play for a couple of years and he stayed until he was 40. He loved it. He absolutely loved it. We treated him properly.”

After being a peripheral figure at his last two clubs, Latapy was the lynchpin at Falkirk. The club had just been denied promotion to the SPL because a rundown Brockville Park didn’t meet the stadium requirements. They were eager to put that right as soon as possible. In his second season, the club’s first at their new home ground, he was once more named First Division Player of the Year as Falkirk stormed to the title.

Darryl Duffy, Daniel McBreen and Andy Thomson all benefited from Latapy’s service, registering 39 goals between them. He scored a wonderful solo goal against St Johnstone, and also turned the Scottish Challenge Cup final on its head, securing a late win over Ross County.

“They were beating us 1-0. I had Russell up top, playing just off the strikers and it wasn’t happening. They were man-marking him and he couldn’t get going. We were well into the second half when we just made a wee adjustment and brought Russell back into midfield and put another player in there. We ended up winning the game 2-1,” says Hughes.

“As soon as we made that move Russell just started running the show. They couldn’t get to him. His passing ability was absolutely outstanding. People didn’t have to break their stride when he passed the ball. It was something to behold. Left foot and right foot.”

Even at such a late stage in his career, Latapy was still mesmerising to watch and had no difficulty in stepping up to the SPL. He helped Falkirk to establish themselves back in the top flight, competing well against teams with stronger squads and bigger budgets. No longer quite as explosive as he had been at Hibs, the dreadlocked Latapy set the tempo from deeper in midfield.

“Any success we got at Falkirk was down to Russell,” Hughes adds. “He put in all the foundations. All the work. The style, the philosophy, how we played. He’d sit and talk football to you for hours. He’d say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to play football if it’s hoofball. We need to get it down and we need to pass it.’ He was instrumental in a lot of the stuff we did. You don’t have a Russell Latapy in your team if you’re playing long ball.”

Latapy’s enthusiasm for football was infectious, and rubbed off on the rest of the squad, especially the young players.

“He was absolutely ridiculous. Miles ahead of anyone that I’d ever played with or against,” says Thomas Scobbie. “I was only 16 or 17 years old when I broke into the first team and started training with them. To see someone of that calibre do things with the ball that you would probably only see on Sky Sports, from world-class players, was a real eye-opener.

The Magician

“I don’t think you realised how good he actually was until you trained with him and played with him. He used to do a drill with the young boys sometimes where it would just be a wee box and him and a ball. He would get the young boys to come in and try to take the ball off him. Everyone would have 30 seconds or a minute each to just come in and try to touch the ball. I never saw anyone do it.

“Russell would just use his body and you could never really get the ball off him. He was so strong and powerful. Sometimes you’d be standing there clapping your hands in training because he’d done something amazing. He doesn’t get called The Magician by the Falkirk fans, and most of the players he’s played with, for no reason. He was on a different level to everybody else.”

Falkirk prided themselves on bringing players through from the academy. During that time, Scobbie was part of a promising group that included Scott Arfield, Darren Barr, Chris Mitchell and Mark Stewart. With the support of Latapy, who would stay late after training to do extra drills or test their technique with games of crossbar challenge, all of them became valued squad members. In contrast to the animated Hughes, Latapy was a calming influence. He alleviated any tension, enabling young players to thrive.

Scobbie notes: “I always remember, in one of my first few games for the club, playing in the SPL, he came up to me just before kick-off and said, ‘If you’re struggling Thomas, and you don’t have anything on, just give me the ball. It doesn’t matter if there’s a guy right next to me. It doesn’t matter if there are two or three guys around me. If you’re struggling, just give me the ball and I’ll help you.’

“To me, that just summed him up as a guy,” adds Scobbie. “He wanted you to do well. He’d take the pressure off you. If you were really toiling in a game, you’d just give Russell the ball. He was great for the guys coming through. He encouraged the young boys to try things that they possibly didn’t want to try because they were afraid of making a mistake or giving the ball away.”

Scobbie’s relationship with Latapy was closer than most, having been exposed to his exacting standards from an early age.

“I was actually Russell’s boot boy. I had to clean all his boots. Russell being Russell, he never had one or two pairs of boots like most players. He had ten pairs of boots. He’d come to games with a big bag of five or six different pairs. Russell would pick a pair for the first half, a pair for the second half. Sometimes he wanted a different pair for the warm-up,” he explains.

“He went through a phase as well where he didn’t want any white on his boots, so I’d have to either get a permanent marker and colour in all the white on his Adidas boots, or try to get a Stanley blade to pick the stitching out. He was great for me as a young kid, teaching me how to grow up and respect your senior pros. Watching what he did to be at the highest level, and what I’d need to do to try to get close to what he was doing, was brilliant.”

The youngsters at Falkirk idolised Latapy. He combined exceptional ability with a sense of fun and was keen to see them do well. He looked after them on the pitch and in the pub, always making sure they were involved but also letting them know when it was time to call it a night and head home. He liked to go for a drink, and have an occasional cigarette before games, but struck a good balance between enjoyment and professionalism. It never seemed to affect his performances.

“A lot of people would probably say he could have done a lot more, but he had a laid-back attitude,” says Scobbie. “He never let football interfere with what he wanted to do in his personal life. If he wanted to go for a beer, he went for a beer. If he wanted to chill with his friends, he chilled with his friends. That was probably what made him as good a player as he was.

“When he went on the pitch, he was that laid-back, he didn’t really care about giving the ball away. He had a sort of freedom to go and express himself. That’s just the kind of guy he was. He enjoyed his life as well. You can’t knock him for what he’s done in his football career. He didn’t worry about making mistakes. He just went and enjoyed his football and it showed on the pitch.”

Latapy’s idiosyncratic approach to training never changed either. He loved technical drills and games of five-a-side. Long runs or weightlifting were a different matter.

Russell calls the tune

“Russell always used to say tome, ‘If you ever see me in the gym, I’m going to pack it in’, so we never asked him to do anything like that. But when the ball came out, you couldn’t get him off the pitch,” says Hughes.

One story stands out, as Hughes recalls: “During pre-season he had a back problem, so he wasn’t really training. We’d just finished a session on the track, and it was sweltering hot. The boys all got together to do a few laps as a warm-down. My assistant manager gives me a nudge and says, ‘Over your shoulder.’ Russell was walking towards us. He hadn’t trained for a few days. He’s got his shades and his flip-flops on. He’s got no top on and he’s talking on the phone.

“All the players were just coming back around the track to where we were standing. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Uh oh. How do I handle this?’ Quick as a flash one of them shouted, ‘Hey Russell, any chance of you doing a bit of work?’ Russell put the phone down and said, ‘Listen boys, you carry the piano, I’ll play the piano.’ To be fair, they all just started laughing.”

Latapy was a popular and influential figure around the club generally. He exuded a quiet authority in the dressing room, and everyone respected his opinion. Embarking on his own coaching career, he talked tactics with Hughes and was a sounding board for his ideas. He led the reserve team and played a role in recruitment, using his connections in Portugal to bring Pedro Moutinho, Tiago Jonas and Vitor Lima to Falkirk. They formed a close-knit group, often going for dinner together.

“I used to lean on him a lot,” admits Hughes. “He was so switched on tactically. He was adamant that we had to pass the ball, but that suited me because I’m a football coach. Playing out from the back, playing through the lines and all that. After every game you’d go in to see the opposition manager and all they wanted to talk about was Latapy. He was just a genius and a great lad. I can’t speak highly enough of him.

“He was a player-coach. He had a big responsibility, and he took it seriously. He never missed a game. He was never injured. He always played. To play to the age that he did, and play the number of games that he played, we were very lucky to have him over here in Scotland.”

His longevity was remarkable. Latapy played on past his 40th birthday, being inducted into the Falkirk Hall of Fame in November 2008, on the same day that his former club Hibs came to town. Previously a regular, he made just four appearances during his final season before leaving to take on a coaching role in the Trinidad and Tobago set-up.

Latapy was integral to a golden period for an eager but unassuming Falkirk team, who reached the Scottish Cup final after his departure. They valued his contribution and were sad to see him move on.

The Falkirk fairytale ends

“Everybody was just bitterly disappointed because he’d been the catalyst for Falkirk’s resurgence and getting us back to the SPL, which is where we felt we should have been. We certainly missed him when he decided to leave,” says Scobbie. “It was disappointing on a personal level because I’d worked with him for a number of years and he’d looked after me. I’ll always remember the times that we had there at the club, seeing his big smile, training with him every day and the games that he made a big difference in. He was a really, really good character to have around the place. He was brilliant. I loved the wee guy.

“It was the way he played football. He just loved getting on the ball and creating things. Every time Russell played for Falkirk the fans would be on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what was going to happen next. Nine times out of ten he created something, or he scored a goal. Even at the age of 37, 38, 39, he was still playing against Rangers and Celtic and being the best player on the pitch. That shows you the quality he had.”

Falkirk weren’t the same without Latapy. He left the club in January 2009 and Hughes followed a few months later, taking the job as Hibernian manager. It marked the end of an exciting and prosperous era for the Bairns. A year on, they were relegated.

Although Latapy later returned to Scottish football, assisting Hughes at Inverness, where they lived together and led the club to victory in the Scottish Cup final, nothing could compare to his legacy as a player. He enabled fans of Hibs and Falkirk to dream again, inspiring the sides he played in to reach new heights. He was a true cult hero.

It seemed strange enough that a Trinidad and Tobago icon, who had played at the top level for Porto, ended up in Scotland to begin with, let alone spent so much of his career there, but it felt like home to him. Latapy’s teammates always appreciated his skill and personality, while supporters were simply in awe of what he could do with the ball and how he made them feel. It was an unlikely but enduring association that continues to this day.

“I think he just loved Scotland,” says Hughes. “He loved the people, and they adored him everywhere he went. I just think it was a match made in heaven. I’ve asked him many times if he regrets not going to the English Premier League and he just says, ‘You need to get the opportunity, Yogi. If somebody doesn’t fancy you, what can you do. You can only play football where people want you.’

“And I think that’s what it was, he just wanted to play football. He was like the kid walking down your street and he’s away playing with the ball. That was Russell. He was the best thing ever at Hibs. The best thing ever at Falkirk. He was unbelievable.”

This article first appeared in Issue 19 which was published in March 2021.

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