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Allan sets up meeting of the Macs

IT may be wrong to add to the burden of expectation which Jennifer McIntosh, Scotland's double Commonwealth gold medallist, may feel under but it cannot ease the pressure to know that a rival from New Zealand at this year's Games is coached by Scotland's most prolific Games medal winner.

Alister Allan pictured at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he won three of his 10 medals. Picture: Herald Archive
Alister Allan pictured at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he won three of his 10 medals. Picture: Herald Archive

Alister Allan was Scotland's national coach when McIntosh's parents competed in the Games for Scotland, her mum, Shirley, having won four medals, including gold in Victoria 20 years ago.

Allan won Olympic silver and bronze, and aficionados aver that he might have added gold had not his sport acceded to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's demand for a boycott in 1980. He had set a world record, the maximum possible score of 600, when he became the first - and so far only - person to claim gold in the smallbore prone and three-position events at the 1979 European Championships.

In six Commonwealth Games spanning 20 years, he won 10 medals: three gold, three silver, and four bronze. He contested five Olympics and attended three more as a coach.

Now retired as New Zealand national coach, Allan privately mentors their leading female gun, 21-year-old Jenna MacKenzie, who will contest all three disciplines in which McIntosh, 22, hopes to shoot this year. "She [McIntosh] is going to have to be looking over her shoulder," warns Allan, "because I've got a bloody good girl there . . . She's the greatest shooting talent I have ever seen in my life. At 21, she can shoot as well as I ever did."

When I spoke to him, from his coastal home in Timaru, south of Christchurch, the accent was still unmistakably Fife, his infectious humour undimmed. Allan, who turned 70 in January, was raised in Freuchie but, for the past 11 years, has lived in New Zealand.

"I'm fine," he says, "but I have a dodgy hip, and had to buy myself a quad bike last year to get along to the salmon fishing on the Rangitata. The sport is great, but we are limited to two fish per day, and it's seldom you get two. The season just finished, my best was 17lb."

Shooting, though, remains his over-riding passion. "Otherwise, there's not a lot to do here. I fish most days and I can walk down the bay, and count the penguins coming in, but you can only do that so many times. The highlight of the year was a few weeks ago when Billy Connolly was here. And I left it too late to get tickets. I miss home like hell, especially the Scottish sense of humour."

When I first saw Allan on an Olympic range, in Los Angeles, he demanded to know why I'd come: "This is like watching paint dry," he said. He laughed at the recollection. "It still is: competition," he said, "but I could watch Jenna train all year. If she can shoot almost to her potential, she is going be hard to beat. Prone is a funny discipline. It can swing among five or six people on the day. In the three-position, she will give Jennifer a good run for her money.

"Air rifle? We train when we can. She is not an air-rifle shooter, but there is nobody else in New Zealand. She can shoot in the 390s [out of 400] but you need to be a couple of points more: around 397 [McIntosh's best]. She's the most fantastically gifted shooter I've ever seen, but unfortunately she's in the wrong country. The sport is dead here. I was national coach for five or six years, but the blazer crowd got in at the top, so I retired. There's no development now, no money, and no junior squad. That's why I go salmon fishing."

He was asked to coach MacKenzie in a private arrangement when she was 16. "Her name was a good start," he observes. Her best three-position score [while still a junior] is 587. "That's a world-class score," he observes. It is also two points more than McIntosh's Scottish record.

"Jenna is capable of taking a medal," he asserts. "She is unique. She trains well but, in competition, she shoots even better." I observe that I recall a guy who used to do precisely that. "Yeah, but he was sh***ing himself," he confesses. "This girl is going to be something else. I have worked with Jean-Pierre Amat [the Olympic champion from France], lived with him and trained there. He was a great, world-class shooter. I first went to the Olympics in 1968 and have seen some bloody good shooters." He reels off a catalogue of Olympic and world champions, "unbelievable shooters; I tell you, this girl could take the lot of them".

Allan's most persistent UK rivals were Barry Dagger and Malcolm Cooper. The three musketeers shared a vitriolic dislike of Thatcher, to whom their sport bowed in 1980. He was at the peak of his powers in 1979 but by the next Olympics, Cooper had his measure. He became the only man to win back-to-back smallbore gold and Allan was relegated down the podium both times.

So was missing Moscow his biggest disappointment? "No. I'd lost my technique a bit. I thought it might come back any day but, when they announced we were not going, though I was very disappointed, I knew I wasn't on top form.

"No, my biggest disappointment was when Malcolm was very ill. I put off visiting until I returned from the World Cup. He died while I was away. I'm so sad that I put training before going to see my friend when he was just an hour down the road. He was a great guy, a marvellous man.

"When it came to shooting, Dagger and I had more talent but Malcolm worked 10 times harder. Dagger and I used to play at shooting; we'd a natural talent but never pushed it to the full. Cooper developed and developed his talent. He was a very hard competitor."

This is typically self-deprecatory. Allan was equally obsessive. "I used to train, train, train. I'd go to bed and sometimes wake at 3am, and something would be bothering me. I had my gun in the house, and I'd get down on the lounge carpet and I'd be dry firing at four in the morning . . . "

Since he left the RAF after the Mexico Olympics, Allan has made his living out of shooting: have gun, will travel. "When I got into national coaching full-time, in slack periods I'd do corporate days. I had a Land Rover and did off-road driving. And I had two hovercraft, and did shotgun shooting as boss of my own business. I was still in Fife then. But shooting was always the main thing. I have enjoyed every minute. It was hard work, but it's a sport that suited me."

On the range he and MacKenzie use near Timaru, the temperature was zero yesterday, and -7ºC inland where the ski season starts in a fortnight. Training for a northern-hemisphere Games is no picnic.

"In all the years I coached Jenna, I've never seen her shoot a match. I'd really have loved to be in Glasgow. In your home country, it's a dream come true, but I don't have the money as a private individual."

He lives some 100 miles south of ravaged Christchurch, where he competed in 1974. "We thought the house was coming down even here, during the earthquake. The Queen Elizabeth Stadium we marched in is flattened. Three years on, some people still have no accommodation."

McIntosh may have to contend with her Kiwi rival for some time. "If I can keep her going, in another six years, at the Olympics she will be a very, very strong contender for the best medal. The route to the top is certainly not a six-lane motorway. It's a twisty road. Jenna is doing the driving and I am reading the map; at the moment she is going up that road bloody fast."

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