McLeish follows the Fergie line to power

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The Independent Football

Alex McLeish recoils at comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson. Football may have made Fergie a knight but to Hibernian's manager, he is still "the gaffer".

Alex McLeish recoils at comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson. Football may have made Fergie a knight but to Hibernian's manager, he is still "the gaffer".

Time though, moves on. Ferguson's world has expanded since leaving Aberdeen, and McLeish is no longer a fresh-faced centre-half. At 41, he is the same age as Fergie was when he broke the Old Firm monopoly by taking Aberdeen to the title in 1980, and he has been a manager for the same length of time - six years.

Victory over rivals Hearts in tonight's Edinburgh derby at Easter Road would encourage those who seem him as the heir to Fergie's crown.

McLeish is more in the carpe diem school of thought than déjà vu. He has been seizing the day ever since he got to Easter Road, and there has rarely been a quiet one. A total of 75 players have gone through the door since McLeish took over as manager in February 1998 (37 in, 38 out). His arrival was too late to halt the slide of Britain's first European Cup entrants into the First Division, but now they are restored to the elite.

Last week's defeat of Rangers continued their progress in second place, and the only blemish on an 11-game run is a defeat by Celtic which saw their position as leaders usurped by Glasgow's men in green. "Beating Rangers was a huge confidence boost," reflects McLeish. "I thought we could beat them, and so did my players because of the way we have been playing. Even our fans did, which put a bit of added pressure on, but the bookies didn't and they are rarely wrong."

McLeish's unceasing restoration work takes even himself by surprise. "When you look at the numbers, it is an incredible turnover of players. But when I came to Hibs they were going down. My philosophy from day one was to move the club on and players who cannot take us to the next level will always be replaced."

Right now, not many Hibs fans can pick out a potential victim for the next cull. The arrival of David Zitelli from Strasbourg, whose goal sank Rangers, has made the crowd forget Kenny Miller, the young striker sold to Rangers for £2m in the summer, and augments the French polish Franck Sauzée brought to a cosmopolitan side.

"When foreign players see Edinburgh, you have a chance of attracting them. But I didn't just want players to improve the quality of the team, I wanted them to improve the mentality, which is what Sauzée has done. When I was with Aberdeen, we were never scared of coming to Glasgow. We tell the players to relish the challenge just as Fergie did in his defiant way way at Aberdeen."

McLeish tries not to phone his mentor too much. "He is a busy man, but he always makes the time when I call," said the Hibs manager. "Things have changed financially since Aberdeen won those championships. Over the marathon of 38 games, it will be one of the Old Firm who win because of their wealth.

"I have no doubts that on our day, we will take points off Celtic and Rangers. But, if we beat Hearts - because derbies are notorious for not respecting form - I would feel we have come a long way and I would begin to believe we have the staying power to go further in the title race."

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