THE BIG INTERVIEW
Like fellow hot-shot Wayne Rooney, Austin Coxhead is at the pinnacle of his sport.
While the Manchester United striker can find the top corner of the net with an overhead scissor kick from 15-yards, 32-year-old Coxhead can take out a target from 70 yards – travelling at 40mph – with a shotgun in a split second.
The Preston clay pigeon shooter is the current World champion – in the all-round class – a title he claimed for the first time on the August Bank Holiday weekend last year at Fauxdegla, in Wales.
But while Rooney is well remunerated for being one of the finest exponents of his craft, Coxhead is lucky if he breaks even.
The former Hutton Grammar School pupil smiles wryly and says, ‘Maybe’ when asked whether he is the ‘Rooney of his sport’.
While his achievements in his respective discipline may be comparable to the England international footballer’s exploits in his chosen sport, his pay packet certainly is not.
Coxhead – whose day job is in the family business EN Coxhead Ltd, which is a plant and shrub wholesaler, in Whitestake – received the less-than-princely sum of £120 for his world title success last year.
But when you factor in his equipment costs and expenses, the likeable shooter was several hundred pounds down at the end of the competition.
Coxhead, though, is not in the sport to make money, he just enjoys the buzz of competition and is enormously proud that he can call himself the best in the world at the sport he loves.
A week on Monday, he will be jetting out to Hamilton, New Zealand, as part of the England squad which will be gunning for glory at the World Team and Individual Championships.
“It’s a great honour to represent your country,” Coxhead said.
“It is something I have always aspired to do and I’ve been lucky enough to do that for the last six years in a row.
“It kind of means you’re on top of your game – I suppose it’s like playing football for your country.
“But clay pigeon shooting gets absolutely no recognition.
“Everybody knows the name of say Wayne Rooney.I won the World Championships in the all-round class last year.
“For that, I think I won £120, but it cost me £80 to enter.
“Then you have got the cartridges to buy, the diesel costs to travel down to Wales.
“I think I made a £300 loss and even though you’re world champion, nobody knows you.
“Everybody knows who Phil Taylor is in darts or Roger Federer at tennis.
“Nobody knows anything about shooting, which is a shame really.”
Coxhead admits he fell out of love with the sport for a number of years after struggling to keep his head above water competing in major competitions.
Introduced to the sport by his father Michael,and mother Janet as a youngster, Coxhead would spend hours perfecting his aim on the family fields at the back of their house.
His first major success arrived at the age of 20 when he won the junior US Masters in North Carolina.
“I started doing it at the age of 10 with my dad,” he said. “I just loved it. I think it was just a case of ‘young boys with their guns’ to start with.
“I started hitting a few clays and you just then start wanting to get better and better at something.
“I made the England junior team at the age of 20 and won the US Masters at Rosemount, which is a spectacular setting, in North Carolina.
“I then packed it in for about eight years.
“I just fell out of love with it because the prize money is rubbish.
“When I won the US Masters, I think it cost my dad three to four thousand pounds for me to go out there.
“I think for winning it, I got $300, so it just wasn’t sustainable.”
While Coxhead directs envious glances at some of the vast financial rewards other sports can offer their top stars, he totally understands why his sport will never be able to pay out large sums of money.
He added: “It’s not in the public eye – you can’t attract the sponsors like for example darts or snooker can.
“The simple reason is it’s not something you can watch on TV because it’s just so boring.
“All you can see is somebody waving a gun and then you hear a loud bang.
“You can’t see what’s been shot, hit or missed.
“There’s no money in the sport. There’s no Government support because it’s seen as guns and it’s kind of frowned upon.
“So to compete at the top level, it’s a very expensive sport and you don’t get anything back when you win.
“For the English Open – you’re probably looking at a top prize of £500.
“If you compare that to say golf, the winner of the Open will probably get over a million pounds.
“I think the winner of the US Masters in golf gets about $1.2m – by that reasoning I could have been retired at 20!
“But it’s a sport which anybody can do.
“It’s not expensive if you just do it for recreation.
“I have got mates who go to their local clay pigeon shooting range and it costs them a fiver.
“It’s just that I’ve gone down the competition route and that’s when it gets expensive.”
It seems inconceivable to think that a person can regularly hit a tiny object from distance in the backdrop of the wide open space which is the sky.
So what makes a good clay pigeon marksman?
“It’s just all practice and having the dedication,” Coxhead said. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices. Most of the shoots are on Sundays, so you can’t go out clubbing with your mates on Saturday night and getting drunk.
“In terms of the sport, it’s all about hand-eye co-ordination.
“It’s muscle memory – you’ve done it thousands of times before.
“The gun is pointing down, the target is released from the trap and you’ve got a split second to hit it. You just do it.
“It’s like anything. How does Phil Taylor consistently get a arrow in such a small gap?
“How does a golfer get a ball in such a small hole?
“It’s like any sport – it’s just all about practice.
“You’ve got to keep your nerve as much as anything else as well.
“It’s as much mental as it is about shooting the target.
“If your mind starts to wander or you start thinking about other stuff, then you’re on the road to ruin.
“You will soon miss the target.
“In my particular sport, we get 100 targets and it’s out of 300 points.
“You get three points for a kill on the first barrel and one point on the second barrel.
“In the European or World Championships, you have got to be shooting 300 points every single day.
“So if you have got a slight lapse in concentration, you might as well get in the car and go home. It’s got to be perfect every single time.”
Currently ranked No.1 in this country – the first time he has held such a lofty position despite being an England regular for the past six years, Coxhead is a big favourite to claim individual goal in New Zealand.
He is also hoping to help the team finish on top of the pile – which would be the second time he has been part of a World Championship-winning team.
“We won the worlds in Cape Town, South Africa – that was 2010,” Coxhead said proudly.
“We are also the reigning European champions after winning in Bourges, France, last year.
“That’s the second time I have helped the team win the Euros – we also won it in 2009 at Newtown, in Wales.
“There are lost of countries taking part in New Zealand.
“You’ve got the home nations – England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
“But the Americans and Australians will be sending a team.
“There’s France, Germany – there’s a lot who do it.
“We are one of the best in the world. I don’t know why, but we seem to dominate at the moment.
“But the Italians are coming up strong and America and Australia will also be strong.
“We’ll just have to see how we get on in New Zealand. It’s going to be tough but we have got a good team going.
“Everybody has done all the selection shoots and earned their place on the team.
“We’re going out there a week before so that will give us time to gel together.
“We will be staying in the same hotel along with the ladies’ team and the juniors, so there will be good camaraderie.
“We are confident we will do well.
“I wouldn’t like to be arrogant enough to say that I am confident of a medal.
“I think people would consider me to be one of the half-dozen or so shooters with a chance of winning a medal.
“We’ll just have to see how I do.”
Although clay pigeon shooting is an Olympic sport, Coxhead’s particular classification is not.
He would have loved the chance of competing for an Olympic medal but he has resigned himself to the fact that it will never happen.
“My particular discipline is not in the Olympics because it’s not classed as fair,” he said.
“The traps in my discipline are oscillating all the time. So the targets come out completely at random.
“In the Olympics, every shooter shoots at the same target – it’s all a set sequence.
“They won’t put ours in the Olympics because you could get lucky and have 25 straight away targets or you could have 25 right-handers.
“You just don’t know where the traps are going because they are moving back and forth.
“You just shout pull and it’s completely random.
“It would appear that’s more difficult but it’s not a lot harder because our targets are going a lot slower than what the Olympic lads have to contend with.
“I think our targets are travelling at about 40mph where in the Olympics, they are going at 80mph or 90mph.
“So it’s probably a lot harder in the Olympics.
“I am probably too old to change to the Olympic classification now especially with my work commitments – I won’t get enough time to practice.
“With the Olympics, you have to go on what is known as the World Class Programme – and it’s basically a full-time job.
“I’ve just accepted the fact that I will never appear in an Olympics.
“For me, it’s all about trying to do my best in this sport and making a name for myself that way.”
Coxhead, who is married to Leah – she acts as his gun caddie – recommends the sport to anyone. He believes the sport teaches good values, especially to young people.
“There are a lot of misconceptions around shooting,” he added.
“They are safe – it’s not the gun that hurts people, it’s the idiot behind the gun.
“As long as you are taught the basics right from an early age, then it’s as safe as houses.
“I was taught by my dad and we started off with air rifles.
“He told me never to point the gun at anyone – always point at the floor or up at the sky.
“It just gets drilled into you so it becomes second nature.”
To own guns, Coxhead –whose brother Rudi shoots recreationally – has to pass a stringent test by the police every five years and is subjected to random spot checks at any time during the year.
“You do get vetted and they check your background for any bad behaviour,” he said.
“It’s a good sport to get into – I would recommend it. It teaches respect and discipline.”
Austin Coxhead would like to thank his sponsors Hull Cartridge, Pilla Glasses, Cens Digital and Perazzi.