THERE is only one Alex Ferguson.
The words spoken in the Hall of Fame section of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden yesterday did not form anything as vulgar as a football chant. They were, after all, spoken by Marcello Lippi, through an interpreter, and the Tuscan is as sophisticated as an afternoon in the Uffizi. He stood besieged by a bristling array of voice recorders with Manuel Pascali, standing to attention to his left. The Kilmarnock defender was acting as interpreter. It may be more accurate to say he was the Divine One's voice on earth.
Lippi has a reputation for humility. He has a passion for achievement. The latter trait has placed him in the highest rank of football management. The 63-year-old has managed a team to win the Champions League (Juventus in 1996) and a side to lift the World Cup (Italy in 2006). The argument about his credentials as a coach can start and end with that sentence.
However, he is also both a great communicator and an astute football politician. Coaches in Italy need both these traits in the same way as a jump from an airplane is made more manageable by the use of a parachute. Lippi yesterday therefore employed a piece of local knowledge in averring that the race for the Clydesdale Bank Premier League title would be fascinating. "There are 11 matches to go, but it is an open league," said Lippi, no doubt aware that the post-split fixtures have to be added to that tally. They talk of little else in the trattorias of Viareggio, his home town.
Lippi, though, was more expansive and more convincing when talking about the longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson, the prospects of Scotland every qualifying for a major tournament again and the Scottish player who has most impressed him.
The answer to the last question can be summed up by the sentiment that there is only one Kenny Miller. "I like him very much. I had the pleasure to manage teams against him on two occasions. I was really impressed by him. I recommended him to other managers in Italy. He scored against Italy, remember?" said Lippi, recalling the day that the striker put Scotland ahead against Italy in a World Cup qualifier in 2005. Italy, of course, went on to do rather better in the tournament than the Scots.
It raised the perennial question posed by Scotland's weary sporting press: When will the brave vanguard of Caledonian manhood grace an international tournament again? And what is the missing ingredient that prevents the nation's footballers from interrupting their holidays every two years?
"I am not the right man to ask. I live in a different culture, but you do not have to change a lot of things because I was Italian manager when we played here in qualifying and I know you have brilliant coaches and brilliant players. You just have to be confident, have faith on the pitch," he said.
"The really important aspect is to work really hard on the youth system. That is the main thing. That is the most important thing for the future. That is the most important thing for every country in the world."
He sidestepped, with the facility of a Gianfranco Zola, the notion that he must be shocked that Rangers and Celtic can not qualify for the Champions League group stages. "Yes, a little bit," he allowed, "but it happens."
He celebrated the joint Scottish-Italian phenomenon of constantly producing great coaches, even as playing fortunes dipped. "Both countries have that great football tradition. There are great football schools in both countries, great passion. This why you have great coaches and we have great coaches. Football is very important," he said.
It certainly holds an attachment for Alexander Chapman Ferguson. Asked about the Scot's achievement of flourishing as Manchester United's manager for 25 years, Lippi, who brought five championships to Juventus said: "That would be very, very difficult [to repeat]. It is unlikely to happen. In Italy it would be impossible. It is true that there is only one Alex Ferguson."
But is it also valid that older managers such as Ferguson, at 70, and Giovanni Trapattoni, 72, are excelling in what was once a younger man's game. "The old school?" Lippi reflected. "They are not that old. It hard to compare managers. There are some managers that are good about matters on the pitch, there are others who are good about talking about the philosophy of the game, others who are strong in the psychological aspect of the game. I would not like to compare old managers with young managers. There is room for everyone."
He was, though, respectful of Fergie's ability to create a bit of elbow room. Of the title race in England he said: "I think the difference is that Alex Ferguson is so experienced in getting his team to bounce back from a defeat. Manchester City is a brand new team. I don't know if they can be expected to have the same energy and experience that Ferguson has."
His meditation on football had only one blemish. At one point, Lippi suggested Rangers' woes in the league were caused by dropping points to small teams. "He does not know I scored against Rangers," murmured Pascali of his winner against the champions in November.
The Divine One is human after all.