AS a man who was renowned for enjoying Edinburgh’s nightlife when he played for Hibs, perhaps it’s fitting that Russell Latapy’s latest, and surely final, transfer deal as a player was initiated over a beer in George Street’s Le Monde bar.
The little Caribbean magician’s well-documented penchant for the good life may have led him into a spot of bother back in his days as Hibs’ talisman at the turn of the millennium, but former Easter Road team-mate Ian Murray says Latapy’s most recent late-night actions in the Capital merely underline the decency and humility of the Trinidadian. It was after Murray’s testimonial match last month that Latapy was introduced through a mutual friend to Edinburgh City manager John Green and the jovial chatter that unfolded over a few beverages eventually led to the unlikely prospect of the 43-year-old former Hibs, Rangers and Falkirk midfielder stepping out of retirement to sign for the East of Scotland side. Green described the coup as akin to Manchester United legend George Best joining Hibs at the end of the career, while it also bears resemblance to the occasion former Serie A star Pasquale Bruno turned out for Cowdenbeath.
Recalling the events that led to his latest career move, Latapy said: “I met their manager through a close friend when we were out for a drink after Ian’s testimonial and we were having a laugh and a tongue-in-cheek chat about me playing for Edinburgh City. He asked me if I fancied playing for them and I thought ‘yeah, why not’. We spoke again about it a bit more seriously a few times after that and I said ‘okay, I’ll get myself fit’ and here we are.”
Huddled inside a big puffa jacket as he shields from the cold snap which has been gripping the Capital, you have to wonder why the little wizard feels the need to don his boots again amid the onset of a Scottish winter when he really ought to be catching some late-autumn sun on Portugal’s fine golf courses. Genuine love of the game appears to be the main reason.
“I just love playing football, it’s my whole life. I consider Scotland one of my many homes. I have many fond memories from this country and just love being here. I also love being around football and an opportunity to play for a growing club who give opportunities to young players appealed. If I can pass on some of my experience to some of the young, up-and-coming players here, I’m delighted to do that. ”
Predominantly based in Portugal, where he admits to playing more golf than football in recent times, Latapy will be flying back and forth between Edinburgh and Iberia through the duration of his short-term contract. He doesn’t know how long the unlikely alliance will last, but, for now, he is simply intent on enjoying his unexpected return to competitive football, starting with Saturday’s eagerly-awaited Scottish Cup second-round clash at home to Junior side Irvine Meadow.
So does he still possess the necessary level of fitness? “I messed about at five-a-sides twice a week with some former players in Portugal but, to be honest, I’ve spent most of my time on the golf course. Apart from Ian’s testimonial and helping out in training sessions when I was in charge of Trinidad I’ve not played any 11-a-side football competitively for two years.
“I still keep myself semi-fit and, although I probably couldn’t play in the SPL, I think I’m still capable of playing for Edinburgh City. I’ll only find out on Saturday how the old legs are, but my touch is still there. I never really ran about that much even when I was younger anyway! I always let the ball do the work. I’ve not been told my role yet for Saturday but I’ll try and do whatever I’m asked to the best my body will allow.”
As he awaits an opportunity to return to management after being ousted as Trinidad and Tobago boss at the start of the year, Latapy admits the boyish desire for playing football that still burns inside him made it impossible to resist Green’s offer to return to action. He knows he’s not got the legs to operate at the level he used to, but, despite the relatively low profile of the East of Scotland League, the chance to help out friends and represent a forward-thinking club who play at Meadowbank Stadium, just a stone’s throw from Easter Road, held no end of appeal for the Hibs legend.
Murray, who was emerging as a youngster at Hibs when Latapy was weaving his magic at Easter Road, is thrilled to see his old pal back, and urged the Edinburgh City players to savour playing alongside such a natural talent.
“The fact he’s willing to play for Edinburgh City shows that the wee man just wants to play football,” says Murray. “You’d get some players who wouldn’t entertain the idea, and wouldn’t return calls or whatever but Russell’s not like that. He’s the type of guy that always remembers that Scottish football was good to him and that’s probably got a lot to do with his decision to play for Edinburgh City.
“It’s a really good coup for them, especially with it being the Scottish Cup this weekend,” said the Hibs captain. “Without being disrespectful, it’s not often you get a player of Russell’s calibre playing for a team like Edinburgh City. He played in my testimonial last month and all that he’s lost is the fitness. His football ability is all still there. The City players will definitely get a lift from playing beside him. It’s going to be a really special occasion for the club as well as for Russell because nobody realistically thought he’d ever be back playing a competitive match in Scotland.
“The Edinburgh City players need to make sure they enjoy playing beside Russell. It will add a bit of spice for them but they also need to make sure they don’t get sucked into the occasion and feel that every pass has to go Russell. It’ll be tough for him fitness-wise, he’s not going to be running about changing the entire game, but he’ll certainly give Edinburgh City a better chance. He’ll just sit and spray passes about and he’ll be a threat at set-pieces.”
Latapy will make his City debut against a side Murray is familiar with after Irvine Meadow put up a brave fight in losing 3-0 to Hibs at Easter Road in the Scottish Cup two years ago. “They were a decent side,” recalls Murray. “You could sense they got a bit of a lift from playing us and that’ll probably also be the case now that they’re going to be up against a player like Russell. We were fortunate to take the lead against them at Easter Road. If they’re of the same calibre then it will be a really hard game for Edinburgh City. Irvine Meadow will be favourites but signing Russell will give Edinburgh City a bit of inspiration and should add a good few people to the gate. There’s every chance a few Hibs fans and even a few football fans will go along, so it will help the club financially and it’ll help them on the park. The gate should swell by quite a few and I hope that is the case because Russell deserves it and Edinburgh City deserve it for trying to do something a little bit different and showing a bit ambition.”
If Latapy helps inspire his new team to a surprise win on his debut, Edinburgh’s nightspots should brace themselves for a convoy of Scottish Cup merry-makers from Meadowbank.