As a player he had always worked hard, on and off the pitch to maximise his ability, but that was the moment a switch flicked in his mind. It was the same for many of those sitting around about him.
“In George Burley’s first meeting with the players he asked us all to write down what position we thought we would finish in the league that year and the majority of the lads put third or fourth and George just pointed to the top two spots and said: ‘What about them? Why can’t we finish there?’
“So, he switched the mentality in that very first meeting and drove that point home every day and that is something I have always taken with me wherever I have been.”
Led by the future Scotland boss, the Gorgie side put together a 12-game unbeaten start to that league campaign and while Burley’s stay was fleeting, he left a legacy as Hearts went on to achieve second place, the first time in 15 years anyone had split the Old Firm.
“And, not only did we finish second we also went on to win the cup. But we had that mentality and then the confidence and belief grew from winning games.”
The former Hearts full-back is now assistant manager at capital rivals Hibs and, understandably, in the days before the teams meet at Easter Road for the first derby of this season, he does not want to dwell too heavily on those maroon-tinged days.
But that moment has proved a powerful one for the man who has won cups in Scotland and in England, fulfilled his boyhood dream of being capped for his country, played in European competition and managed to get within touching distance of the EPL.
“One hundred percent it comes down to mentality and the group ethos and whether you are willing to be there for each other, understand the philosophy and style and work hard to implement that. As players and staff we have to question things and drive each other.
“Players can set the standard every day. Every time you go out it is 11 v 11 and it is that simple. If you do the basics well and win eight battles out of the 11 then you usually win the game.
“Mentality is huge. When I have been in successful teams and won cups and promotions, and that play-off final, we had a group that was strong as a unit and we would never give up on a game, or each other. Even if we were 2-0 down, 3-0 down, or with one minute to go. We were there for each other and challenged and pushed each other.”
After an ignominious start, slumping out of the Premier Sports Cup just as they were pushed, they secured a last gasp winner against St Johnstone in the opening league match last weekend, and now have the first derby of the season to look forward to.
And, while the Easter Road side have not come out on top in the fixture since 2019, McAllister and his long-time friend and current gaffer Lee Johnson are advocating change, with the No 2 insisting it is never wrong to strive for better. Whether that be a derby win or chasing down Celtic and Rangers.
“I’m not saying we are going to do that [finish in the top two] here this season but in one off games, why can’t we win? So being bold and having that belief is the mentality you have to have and if you fall short, you fall short, but it is better to try.”
McAllister has returned to Scottish football after a 16-year hiatus, having headed down to Bristol City in 2006, where he played for Hibs gaffer Lee Johnson’s dad Gary. Spells at Preston, Yeovil and Exeter followed before he stepped into coaching. Taking on the U23s at Ashton Gate, he was promoted to the first team staff by his current manager and followed him to Sunderland and now Hibs.
And, while some things may have changed in his absence, the intensity and passion remains familiar.
“I have missed it, to be honest. It is nice to be back and I’m especially looking forward to Sunday and getting involved in the derby games again. They are special and everyone is buzzing for it.
“When I was at Bristol, the game against Cardiff was the big one and that had the English/Welsh cross border thing. But the Edinburgh derbies, the Glasgow derbies, they’re different. It is so passionate and form goes out the window. It is all about what you do on the day. Winning the battles and taking chances. It is who makes the fewest mistakes so it is exciting.”
During his time at Hearts he played in five head to heads, enjoying three wins, one draw, and enduring just one loss, so he knows the high of victory and the emotional freefall that comes with defeat. The fact that Johnson has also played in the fixture means that no-one will be foolish enough to treat it as just another three points.
“We all know it means a lot more. It is our job to let the lads know that. We want the fire in the belly and ice in the heads.”
McAllister came through the schoolboy ranks at Motherwell with his opposite number at Hearts. When professional contracts were being handed out Lee McCulloch was kept on by the Fir Park club, while McAllister dropped down the leagues for his chance at Queen of the South. But they remain friends.
It’s not the only link. When the Hibs management team played for Hearts, they counted Tynecastle boss Robbie Neilson and current captain Craig Gordon as team-mates and while they will look forward to catching up, the niceties can wait until after the final whistle.
“I will say hello when we get there and then it will wait until after the game. In the heat of the battle it is what it is,” said the fiercely competitive and driven 44-year-old.
“They will be thinking the same. They will be doing everything they can to put us off, and get in our faces and distract us. We all want to win and it is exciting and I’m looking forward to it.
“The gaffer and I are both quite feisty but I think you have to have that. It is what gives you the edge. You have to do everything you can to win, obviously within the laws of the game,” he adds with a smile. But, he denies that has crossed the line in the past, despite a six-match ban, while at Sunderland.
“It was handbags in the tunnel and it happens probably every game to some extent but someone highlighted it, which was strange because he was the instigator. But both of us got punished for it. I don’t expect anything like that on Sunday.”
There was a kind of brotherhood forged when Johnson, McAllister, Neilson and Co shared a dressing room. It may be set aside for 90 minutes but can’t be discarded simply because two of them are kitted out in green and white these days.
“We had success and shared some really good times but, yeah, we also went through some interesting moments with the change of ownership and everything that was going on at the club at that time. I suppose that brought a lot of us closer together. We had to be strong as a group to keep it right on the pitch and in training but at the same time there was all this crazy stuff going on off it with the owner.
“I have always spoken to Robbie and he is a good friend. He was a winner back in the day and he has been successful as a manager. Like us, they are a young management team, hungry for success and doing everything they can to win games.
“But, I’m in the Hibernian camp now. I did enjoy my time at Hearts. But I moved on.”
These days he is belting out Sunshine on Leith as his initiation song – “I enjoyed it. It’s a great song!” – and taking advice from Hibs cup winner and modern-day legend Ivan Sproule on what makes the club tick.
“Ivan is one of my good friends and I played with him at Bristol City so when the opportunity came to come here I had a good chat with him. He phones me quite a lot now and he’s a good guy and he was very successful as a Hibs player and he knows what it is like to be successful here.”
Hibs fans like to associate their club with an element of artistry, which seems apt for the current coaching team. McAllister describes Johnson as the innovative and creative brain, “the one who throws the paint on the canvas while I get the instructions across”, but the former Aberdeen and Livingston full-back, who reveals he might have been an architect if he hadn’t succeeded at football, is a bit of a Picasso himself.
“I do like drawing and I do that with the kids, drawing animals and trees and the girls love drawing so during lockdown we did a lot of that.
“They are very creative and any cardboard boxes we get, we’re not allowed to chuck them out because they love making things from them.”
Discussing his kids - son Rueben is a promising player and has joined Hibs, while his three daughters, Amalie, Sophia and Maisie, are in the process of helping their mum Ashleigh pack up their life in Bristol for the move north - he is full of pride as he talks about their work ethic, their drive, how one thrives at football, another is a disciplined gymnast, one loves her netball and is clever and another is artistic and creative.
It is clear that passion, creativity and a work ethic are at the heart of who McAllister is, as a player and a person, a dad and a coach.
“You have principles that you try to instil in your kids, don’t you? We have told them to work hard and have a passion for what they do. You have to give 100% and if you can look back and say I gave everything, I tried everything, and left no stone unturned, then if it still doesn’t work out then that’s okay because you gave it everything and you can still look yourself in the mirror.
“That’s what I tell the young players. In fact, all the players. Because you should never stop striving to be better or helping each other.”
There is an honesty to McAllister. And a sense of ease that comes from knowing exactly who he is. It sits nicely with the fire and drive that fuels him to do better and the principles that provide a solid foundation for it all.
He will admit that he was never the most technically-gifted player but he was industrious in his efforts to maximise the talent and he always strived to ensure that while there were weaknesses, he never wanted to be the weak link. Instead he was determined to be a player his team-mates could rely on.
“Without those fundamentals, talent is wasted. As a coach it is now my job to show our players that. You have to come in, be honest, hard working, give your best every day to develop. The base of any success is hard work and trust in your team-mates and know that you will all do whatever it takes, no matter how tired you are, to make that tackle, to get on the ball, cover a run. It is so important to be a good team-mate and be trustworthy.
“Only then does down to technique and tactical information.”
On a day when the city is divided and everything is on the line, the men in each dug-out know those fundamentals are often the difference between ecstasy and agony.