Interview: Johnny McKinstry
“I’m not adverse to a challenge and new experiences. I’ve already coached on three continents, and a part of me thinks it would be nice to have been employed on all five continents.” When you consider what a large percentage of the globe he has covered in the name of football, Johnny McKinstry is probably not the age you would think he would be. The experience of a man who’s been coaching for 30 years, combined with the ambition of a man just a couple of rungs up the career ladder, he isn’t even old enough to have reached a significant age milestone in his adult life. At just 29-years-old, the man from Lisburn, Northern Ireland is one of the younger names on the growing list of British managers to consistently try their hand at coaching abroad, driven by a desire to broaden his knowledge of the game and be the best coach he can be.
Now a household name amongst followers of African football, McKinstry’s made his name after being name manager of the Sierra Leone national team in April 2013, as he became the youngest manager to be managing in international football at the time. A surprise appointment by many, it was not for those who knew him before, following his role with the Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF) near Freetown.
Spending time at the Right To Dream academy in Ghana whilst still at university – run by former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon –he was put in touch by Vernon when Right To Dream were hired as consultants to set up CBF. Liking what he saw, it was a challenge he could not turn down, as he became their first academy director.
“It was a blank canvas – an opportunity to make your mark on and influence the development. It was the first academy in Sierra Leone, so people said you could put ping-pong tables up and people would follow! Of course, it was a few years before we actually put up ping-pong tables…”
Having left his job with New York Red Bulls to join CBF, it was a tough decision to leave New York, and make such a drastic lifestyle change. But CBF has gained an excellent reputation for the philosophy and the ethical vision through which it is run, prioritizing the overall development of the child, rather than an all-or-nothing attitude to the often unrealizable dream of footballing greatness, giving them a great shot at life no matter what path they end up on. Taking on boys between the ages of 11 and 16 initially, the academy is a registered international school in which they study for their international GCSEs, with scholarships in the UK and USA available based on academic performances.
“A lot of academies in Africa are focused on football, and only do the education side because they have to. Its so amazingly difficult to become a footballer. For a normal job, you have to be talented, and you have to be hard-working. That will be enough to get you through university and have a good career. To be a footballer, you also have to be lucky. Luck is a massive part of becoming a great footballer. If you have a bad day when the scout comes, get an injury at the wrong time – that’s the luck factor. Why would you bank on the thing that requires luck?”
On the face of it this might appear slightly defeatist, but this provides a much more well-rounded experience for the kids at the academy, providing them with a vital back-up option should they not become professional footballer they always dreamed of. After all, Africa’s relationship with football makes it a different ball game when it comes to pinning your hopes on something. In a context where the trafficking of young players from West Africa to Europe by fake agents is rife, driven by the dream of appearing on a Puma billboard like Didier Drogba in their home country, it is easy for an academy to see the kids as a tradable commodity. CBF’s role in ensuring some sort of future through a balance of education and football is highly commendable, as they aim not just to produce footballers, but regular people too.
“Boys at the academy do 10-15 hours of football a week, and 25-30 hours of school a week. They’re very busy and have a phenomenal work ethic. If you don’t have a fallback option, you’re in big difficulties. No reason you can’t work hard at both”
“Most academies only guarantee two or three years, whereas we guarantee five. At the end of five years and they’re not the footballer we thought they were going to be, then that’s not their fault, that’s our fault. We sell the dream, because we believe they can become professional, but sometimes we advise them that – when they get the end of their time with CBF – that maybe a fully-paid scholarship in the UK or the US might be the best option. And if that’s the worst case scenario from being at the academy, then I’d say that’s pretty good”.
Links with the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Cardiff City has meant that young Sierra Leoneans are now “in the system” of clubs all over Europe, and should be ready to break out over the coming years as they develop. And having been a key part of the reputation of the academy being enhanced so much, it is no wonder the SLFA pricked up their ears.
“When the job came about I’d been living there for three years, and with three games to go in World Cup qualifying, word on the street was that they were looking for a local coach [following Lars-Olof Mattsson’s resignation]. I thought – “get me in that room, let me talk to them, and it won’t be a decision”. I was that confident. I felt that I was the best coach in the country, so I got the meeting [with the SLFA] set up, got a hold of some DVDs of their last games and put together a portfolio analyzing them. I showed them how I could make Sierra Leone better, and most importantly, how we could beat Tunisia in the next game. And it must have worked, because two days later I was offered the job”.
A team already on the rise, the Leone Stars had been flying up the rankings, and still had a slim chance of qualifying for the World Cup playoff. And in McKinstry’s first game managing a professional team, his side were 2-1 up when the clock hit 88 minutes. Having started 16-year-old left-winger George Davis – to make not only his international debut but his full, professional debut – Tunisia were ravaged, having subbed off their right-back at half-time, such was the skinning he was receiving at the hands of this young boy. But alas, it was not meant to be.
“That goal was burned into my mind. I was on the edge of my technical area, with a completely unobstructed view of the goal, and as soon as it happened, I was down on my knees. I couldn’t believe it. Look it up – it’s on YouTube”.
And I did look it up. In the 89th minute, Fakhreddine Ben Youssef poked home a goalmouth scramble to make it 2-2 and essentially end their hopes of qualifying, as you see McKinstry concertina down to be practically fetal. But Sierra Leone had put down a marker with this performance; as they ended up 1 point behind Cape Verde in third place, as Tunisia went on to lose to Cameroon in the playoff match.
In a reign that ended up lasting just eight matches in total, the SLFA made the surprising decision to dismiss him in September of 2014, despite the almost-impossible circumstances he was forced to work under. With restrictions to contain Ebola meaning Sierra Leone were banned from playing their games in Freetown, a failure to find a neutral home meant that they were forced to play all their home games in the backyard of their opponent. In other words, they would have to play six away games, made up of a squad entirely based outside of the country.
“I pushed for the SLFA and the government to use Morocco, but they didn’t do it – for whatever reason – and Guinea got Morocco. They supposedly made contact with Ghana, and there was a last minute thing with Egypt, but we ended up having to play all our games away. We finished bottom of the group with one point, but what else was going to happen?”
As well as the logistical challenges associated with the location of the game – with the home advantage historically far more relevant in Africa than the rest of the world, with a continental home win rate of around 70% – the effect on the players because of Ebola in a psychological sense was even more damaging.
“There was a lot negative attention the players were getting, and all the procedures they had to do – which were completely understandable from the host’s point of view. Having your temperature taken 2-3 times a day, being detained at the airport – they feel like outcasts. It’s a ridiculous concept that these players – who haven’t been back home in 4-5 months – are being stigmatized for having a Sierra Leonean passport.”
Losing 2-1 and 2-0 to Ivory Coast and DR Congo in the first two games of AFCON 2015 qualifying, things carried on as normal. The FA – seemingly understanding the plight of what the team had to put up with – continued to have meeting with McKinstry and planning for the upcoming Cameroon game.
“I was in the car heading home from their office, when I got an email from the SLFA, telling me I was dismissed – sent by a guy I was in a meeting with two hours ago. They couldn’t sit me down and have a face-to-face chat. So I spun around, went back and told the FA that – whilst I don’t agree with the way you’d dismissed me – lets shake hands and best of luck for the future. I was an extremely disappointing decision, one not entirely based on football I don’t think – especially when you consider that, on the day that I was dismissed, we still stood at our record high of 50th in the FIFA rankings”.
Whilst disappointed, McKinstry admits his dismissal has seen a very positive effect in terms of the attention that has come his way, and is using it as a positive to continue to forge his very promising career.
“I want to work in the top leagues eventually, but I know that’s not going to happen tomorrow. Getting to know different cultures is important in the big leagues.. In the Bundesliga, you’re not just dealing with German players – every club is so multicultural, and it’s the same in Serie A, the Premier League, wherever. So having the experience of different backgrounds means you know how to interact with people; might explain why one player does something in a certain way. I’m not interested in a job where I just keep things ticking over though. I want a project where I can have an influence, where I can put my ideology and have an impact.”
The sky would seem to be the only limit for this man. An incredible array of an experience at an early age, the philosophy, determination and confidence in abilities to know he can succeed, it might not be too long before you see him rock up as the fresh-faced boss of a top club near you. In the meantime however, he’ll be fulfilling his dream of managing on every continent.
“Antarctica may prove to be a bit difficult! But they do have a rugby team…”
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