Countdown to the FA Cup fourth round: McAllister, the cup specialist determined to come up with another knockout blow

Middlesbrough should beware - Bristol City's full-back has a colourful history of giant-killing exploits. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Football

"It's better than Celebrity Big Brother," Jamie McAllister says of the divided house that is Heart of Midlothian. But the reality show that preoccupies the former Hearts defender now is the FA Cup. By helping to evict Middlesbrough from the fourth round on Saturday, he can secure his place in Bristol City's fame academy.

The tie at Ashton Gate is close to a 21,000 sell-out and television cameras will take the action around the planet. City are also in the last four of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy for lower-division clubs, with Bristol Rovers possibly barring their way to the final. McAllister, however, shrugs off suggestions that they risk being distracted from the aim of gaining promotion from League One, in which they lie second.

"We wouldn't be worried by a few extra matches," says the 28-year-old with a winning smile, a single Scotland cap and a fascinating take on standards north and south of the border. "We haven't lost in 17 games and, when you're on a run like that, you just want to keep it going. It's great for the confidence. Anyway, we want to win every competition we enter."

But Bristol City are not going to win the Cup, your correspondent asserts knowingly. No third-tier team has ever reached the final, although Chesterfield came within touching distance a decade ago - against Middlesbrough, coincidentally.

"Never say never," retorts McAllister, and if this comes over like a stock response or the statement of a sporting fantasist, his super-optimism is rooted in his experience as a true knockout specialist.

Throughout his career, Gareth Southgate's multinational side should be warned, the cup runs have just kept coming. It started with East Kilbride Schoolboys at the Copenhagen Cup in Denmark. "We reached the final," he says, modestly waiting to be asked to elaborate. Against? "Brondby." And the score? "We won 7-0."

With Queen of the South came a Bells Challenge Cup final defeat by Falkirk 10 years ago. After a £100,000 move to Aberdeen in 1999, they finished bottom of the Scottish Premier League in his first season, but, remarkably, contested both major finals. Both were lost, the Scottish Cup going to Rangers and the League Cup to Celtic, whose attack was led by Mark Viduka, an opponent with the Premiership side on Saturday. "A terrific player, with great strength and skill," McAllister recalls. "Difficult to defend against, to say the least."

A transfer to Livingston, a club with no tradition of cup-fighting, did not seem to offer hope of a winner's medal, yet his first year saw Davie Hay lead them to the 2004 League Cup final against Hibernian. "Hibs brought about six times more fans to Hampden Park than Livi and I think they reckoned they just had to turn up to win.

"We not only beat them 2-0 but I scored one of my rare goals from a great pass by a Spanish boy called David Fernandez. The amazing thing was that the club went into administration that February and some of the players took pay cuts. It could have been an excuse for throwing in the towel, but it brought us all closer together."

Soon after Berti Vogts gave him his 90 minutes of international football, in a 4-1 rout of Trinidad & Tobago in 2004, Craig Levein recruited him for Hearts. The volatile state of the club under its owner, the former Soviet submarine commander Vladimir Romanov, meant he went on to play for John Robertson, George Burley, Graham Rix and Valdas Ivanauskas before relocating to the West Country last summer.

He was in the side which went five points clear at the top of the SPL last season. But after Burley left "by mutual consent" (McAllister emits a wry laugh as he recites the words), injury and the introduction of Takis Fyssas saw him marginalised.

One minute he was signing a two-and-a-half-year contract, the next he was so far out of the frame that it seemed judicious to look elsewhere. McAllister departed "on good terms" with Ivanauskas, but believes Hearts lost "the soul of the club" when Steven Pressley was "forced out of the door"to Celtic. "I speak to 'Elvis' regularly and I know he was devastated. Strange decisions. Crazy goings on."

Turmoil at the so-called Heart of Lithuania led McAllister to Bristol. A Tynecastle colleague, Lee Johnson, would eventually be frozen out by the Romanov regime, but his father, the City manager, Gary Johnson, had noted the marauding left-back on trips to watch his son, also now at Ashton Gate. "The gaffer convinced me to come for a look around last summer. Once I saw the set-up, the decision was easy.

"It's been great coming to play in England. In fact, I wish I'd come earlier because I'm really enjoying it. This is a great club to be at. The potential is massive - Championship-level at the very least. Going to new grounds, facing different players, and playing teams twice rather than four times has all been brilliant for me."

Surely the standard of football is lower? "There isn't much difference between League One and the SPL," McAllister argues. "It's just as physical here. The game is maybe a wee bit quicker in Scotland, but there's not much in it."

He knows, however, that Middlesbrough, with all the attacking strength and skill of Viduka, Aiyegbeni Yakubu and Stewart Downing, will represent a step or two up from games like last weekend's 3-0 win at Oldham, in which McAllister scored his first goal for City. Watching Boro demolish Bolton Wanderers 5-1 on Match of the Day, he was "delighted" that the responsibility for stopping a rejuvenated Downing will fall mainly to right-sided colleagues.

"But this tie isn't something to be daunted by," says McAllister. "It's an opportunity to test ourselves against a side full of internationals. I've only got one cap but I'm proud to have played for my country. Matches like this give me the chance to show the new Scotland manager that I can play against the best from the Premiership."

Gateway to survival: 'Eight' celebrate

This time 25 years ago Bristol City's thoughts were on staving off extinction rather than giant-killing.

The club had plummeted to the foot of the old Third Division just two years after being in the First Division but still had players on lucrative long-term deals awarded during their four years in the top flight under Alan Dicks' management.

The "Ashton Gate Eight" - Gerry Sweeney, Geoff Merrick, Chris Garland, Trevor Tainton, Peter Aitken, Jimmy Mann, Dave Rodgers and Julian Marshall - agreed to tear up their contracts with City an hour from closure. Several of the eight will attend a dinner, celebrating the episode as the birth of today's successful club, at Ashton Gate a week tonight.

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