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Exploring African football: Interview with Johnny McKinstry

Oliver McManus gets the chance to sit down with one of the most talented young British coaches out there, Johnny McKinstry.

Johnny McKinstry, one of the brightest managers in world football, was kind enough to spend the best part of a day speaking with me about his life and career.

It’s a fascinating insight into the life of a British manager plying his trade abroad.

Having coached Sierra Leone and Rwanda, the former at just 27, he has plenty of stories to tell.

So, make yourself a coffee, grab a pack of biscuits and sit back as the man himself discusses everything from Ebola to future opportunities.

I give you, the man that is, Johnny McKinstry.

Let’s start at the beginning, when you were busy getting your UEFA B license, why did you start so young?

In terms of why did I start when I was 18; well the simple answer is, I knew at that stage that I probably wasn’t quite good enough to be a professional footballer. Growing up, I always played and had a great understanding of the game.

But I knew by, sort of the time I was 16 that I wasn’t going to make that next step to play professionally in England but I knew that I could give something to the game.

I love the game, understood the game and, really just started coaching whilst I was still playing as a kid.

Did my first coaching certificate when I was 16, I really took to it and I could see that I was able to help people, was able to communicate in a way that they understood and get across simple ideas.

I think when you’re successful at anything, you can see positive results from anything you do, you naturally take that on and it was a case of me being self aware that here I was, 16, 17 probably not good enough to make it as a top level player, but I think that I could make a top level coach and just started from there.

So started doing certificate at 18 – got my B licence – and got my A licence in my early to mid Twenties, went on to complete the pro licence and various other badges and it’s really just been for a one step after another.

You say you were quite self aware, confident in your own ability but when you first set out on the coaching path, did you ever meet people who used your age as a reason to question your ability?

In terms of my age being an a issue, it never was when I was starting as a coach. I  think the reason for that is you’re used to younger coaches working with younger players and so as a 16 17 18 22 year old  working with Academy players then it was never really an issue because it seemed almost natural – younger coach getting an opportunity with younger players.

I suppose as I got older, as you say, people maybe did use my age as reason to question my ability but that was from the outside of the game, it wasn’t inside the game; it was newspapers, it was maybe radio shows,  people who don’t know the game, that are making opinions based on not a full picture, sometimes not even any picture – they just make an opinion.

On the inside the of game, it was never an issue -with other cultures, with other players- once they understand and listen to you talk or go to work with you and see that you know what you’re talking about, have other ideas on trying to progress the game, it was never an issue with other coaches or players.

As with anything, you have your critics but as a coach, it can’t affect you that much.

You’re obviously a very good coach and then, like you say  you started off at an academy. But at what age is it possible to tell who will make it professionally and who probably won’t?

I think the first time you can really tell is it around the age of 15 16, if player has got a really good chance of making it.

But there are so many distractions now that even a very talented sort of 11-12 year old, if he doesn’t have the right support network around him; from family, from friends, coaches and an intrinsic drive to want to truly be a footballer then they’re not going to make it.

He doesn’t just want to be famous, doesn’t just want to be wealthy but he wants to play the game, to be the best, be a winner, be a champion; you know, those are the players with the right support structure around them that succeed.

We’ve all seen extremely talented players who were 10/11 years, who for one reason or another don’t make it.

That might be that they didn’t have the right support structure around them – it wasn’t conducive for them to be able to concentrate on their footballing career.

You’ve got to commit because it is such an intense, competitive industry at academy level, that it is those players with the right support and personal drive that make it.

As you mention, academies are quite complex, when you were coaching teenagers, how big an emphasis did you place on getting a good school education to fall back on, or did it really come into play?

One thing you’ve got to remember is that my Academy work was in America, in Sierra Leone and Ghana and in all these environments education is very important

In America, obviously, the kids go through the college system and, in Africa, getting a player into Europe, or professional markets is very very difficult – so you need to know there is another option for the players.

Ultimately, from Sierra Leone, I think 11 or 12 of my boys have got scholarships at high schools in America. They’ll graduate, hopefully get drafted in the MLS or come back and play in Europe.

For me, I’ve never really understood people who put everything they’ve got into one aspect of their lives and be quite lazy in another.

People who know me will admit, I’m almost obsessive in everything I do – whether it’s coaching football, learning a new language, whatever it is.

I think that’s the same with young people, they don’t have to be the best at what they do, but they need to give A-grade levels of dedication.

So that’s what we said to our players at the academy, give your all to everything and, at the end, you’ll be rewarded.

I’m a big believer in the late John Wooden (basketball coach) and he said, “success is the satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best”.

Just on a side note, you talk about learning a language, how many can you speak?

I learnt to speak Creole, which is one of the local languages in Sierra Leone, quite effectively, having lived there for a number of years.

I picked up a little Kinyarwanda, but that was very much just buzz words because English and French were large communication languages out there.

I’m currently learning Spanish, in between roles, and I have a basic level of French.

You spent two years as pre-academy coach at New York Red Bulls. What exactly did this involve, day to day?

In America, the academy system started from 14 years onwards, with individual teams and then from 8-14, we had a larger player pool; so for each age group, we’d have, maybe, 80 players spread regionally, as opposed to 20 that they’d have in the UK.

So, I would work with 2 different age groups, at 6 and 10 every evening.

We’d have the players spread regionally so that they wouldn’t have to travel as far; at the time, we didn’t have New York City FC or Philadelphia Union; so you could travel, sort of, 4 or 5 hours and still be in our Red Bulls catchment area.

Really, it was about working with the regional players who, at 14, the best would be recruited to the central academy. You’d trim the group from 80 to the, 18-20 players that you’d really focus on.

We’re talking 3-4 hours of coaching, everyday, Monday-Friday, matches and additional coaching at the weekend. In excess of 20 hours a week.

For a young coach, like I was, working with elite players; maybe in the UK, they’re doing only 3-5 hours a week – but a number of players have gone onto get youth international honours and, hopefully, will feature for the senior USA team.

It was a great experience and really allowed me to hone my craft, to give the young players but also to learn something as well.

You’ve spoken about the collegiate system in America, is this something that you see being adopted elsewhere?

I couldn’t see it being adopted in its current format elsewhere in the world -in terms of football, soccer.

I haven’t read in depth on it, but I’ve heard murmurings that the soccer authorities in America maybe want to tinker with, to tweak, the system.

Ultimately what you’ve got to know about the collegiate system is that, for the time that you’re at college – it greatly reduces your time competitively training and playing for the top footballers.

You go from playing youth soccer with a 10 month season, to then playing, basically, a 3 month season – you have a month, preseason, in the Spring and then a couple of months in the Autumn, so 15/16 weeks in total.

In the Autumn, you’ve got 10 weeks of almost 2 games a week, so there’s no real for tactical training – you’re doing recovery and fitness.

Can you imagine players in England, the David Beckham’s, the Wayne Rooney’s, the Frank Lampard’s, would they be the same players if you said to them that between 18 and 22, they could only train for 15 weeks with their primary team; yes, they can train elsewhere but not with THEIR team.

These years are important in developing top professionals so, for me, it’s not the best at producing soccer players but it does produce fantastic young men and women.

I think players (in America), should go through it and, if they make it, fantastic but, in terms of being adopted elsewhere, I think there are challenges that even the soccer fraternity in America would like to update.

You became Head Coach of the Right to Dream Academy, in Ghana, in 2010. But you spent a month there in 2006, what was this experience like, both football-wise and culturally?

I think that the thing that struck me most about first going to Africa and, ultimately, wanting to go back was the work ethic of young players – it’s phenomenal, really.

You come from a European culture where you think players are giving 100% of their capacity but I realised that, what I thought was 100%, was closer to 60,65%.

Our bodies, we can give so much more than we think we can but we hold ourselves back mentally quite a lot of the time.

In West Africa and Ghana, the players were fighting for their lives – if they could get a professional contract, then their whole family could be looked after for life.

They love the game, anyone could play, they grew up with it on the streets, a  jumpers for goalposts approach.

They have huge talent, but that was the second thing you noticed – the first was that these young men will run through brick walls for success.

How can you not be drawn to that?

Culturally, there is nothing you can say Africa is; West Africa, East Africa, North Africa, South Africa, they all have their own quirks and fancies but my first experience of Ghana, such a colourful country, very welcoming, all the music, very fun-loving, that roar, burning desire – I wanted to see more of it.

When you got appointed as Sierra Leone manager, how surprised were you and did you have any reservations?

People find it a bit strange when my genuine answer is no, I wasn’t surprised, I was thrilled, I was proud. It was a great professional and personal achievement.

From the beginning of the process, I was very confident – the rumour mill was spinning that, rather than replacing the previous Swedish manager with another coach based in Europe; who lived in Europe and flew down just a couple of weeks before each game – the talks were of hiring a local coach.

As soon as I heard that, I thought “get me in that room with whoever makes the decision”, because I was confident that I was the best person in Sierra Leone for the job.

I went in and presented to them about how we could make the team better, tackle opponents more effectively, gave them a vision for the future that I believed in.

Three days later, they were on the phone asking me to come in again and discuss the finer details of a contract.

I was immensely proud but, was it a surprise, no it wasn’t. I genuinely believed that I was the best for the job – I’d seen the team play, I knew what I could do.

I didn’t have any reservations, it came earlier than I thought, but you can’t pass up opportunities like these.

I was compelled to take it and I feel that we had quite a lot of success with Sierra Leone. It really laid some great early foundations for the career that I continue to have.

Do you think that your previous experience in Sierra Leone (with the Craig Bellamy Foundation) made it easier for you to track the talent across the country?

I think obviously, having been in Sierra Leone for 2 and a half, 3 years, before I took the national team role, I had a good appreciation for the natural instincts of players – if that’s a good way of putting it.

Having watched a lot of the national team – I saw all of their home and, even, away games – I had a lot of prior knowledge of the way they played.

I also knew the level of the local league and we had a lot of players abroad, so, I think I had a good understanding in terms of the local landscape and what was possible and the talent coming through.

When I took over, the average age was about 30 but, by the time I left, we got it down to about 23.

Not only had we reduced the average age and built a team for the next decade but we also went up in the world rankings to a record high (50th) and the fact that I had already been there, gave me good foundations to build upon.

Whilst you were in Sierra Leone, the ebola crisis struck, what was that like?

Ebola was, naturally, a very worrying & concerning time. I had two roles at the time; I was still academy manager at the Craig Bellamy Foundation, as well as my national team job.

We, at the academy, decided that we were going to send our international staff home for their safety.

It was discussed about potentially closing closing down the academy and sending the kids home but we decided to keep it open and that I would stay with a sort of skeleton squad of Sierra Leonean staff members who were happy to stay.

We basically went into a self imposed lockdown – no-one was allowed in or out – just me and the driver would go out every two weeks for supplies.

We took all the precautions necessary not to come into contact with the disease – because that’s what it was, a disease of contact.

No handshakes, no hugging, none of that. Washing your hands regularly and you’d be relatively safe.

With the national team, we were forced to play all of our games away from home and, even though all of our players that we had called up hadn’t been in Sierra Leone for months, our hosts still insisted on quite extreme measures.

Things like health checks 3 times a day – it puts the players out of their stride a little bit.

It made things very difficult and, probably, made, qualifying nigh on impossible.

Did you ever feel as though the team could push on?

We had a good squad – we got to 50th in the world rankings and I genuinely think the talent is there to get Sierra Leone to an African Cup of Nations and, now, with the expanded World Cup, to definitely get to a World Cup.

There’s so much talent but I spent a lot of time doing the logistics – stuff that I shouldn’t really be doing – but we did it and made sure that everything was as good as could be.

I think if they can sort out the logistics and support the players more, then they could regularly qualify for AFCON and push for the World Cup.

It’s a country that I look hopefully on for the future.

Before we move on to your tenure at Rwanda, obviously aside from the ebola outbreak, what was probably your biggest challenge in charge of Sierra Leone?

I think probably the biggest challenge whilst at Sierra Leone was that, at that time, there was a lot of infighting between the Ministry of Sport, who financed the team, and the Football Association who were the governing body of the sport.

People were trying to pull different parties in different directions and that really caused us some problems, the Ministry and FA kept on wanting to have meetings with the players and we had to try and limit that.

All we were interested in was winning football matches, you had to try and build a brick wall around us and ignore the bickering on the outside.

I think that was my undoing in the end, because I tried to walk the tightrope between the federation and the ministry. There was so much paranoia between them so that if you weren’t in one person’s office, they’d assume you were in the other.
It’s hard to explain that after reaching 50th in the world rankings and, 3 weeks after breaking our own record that I would be out of a job and really I think it was because both sides maybe saw me as an outsider when I was just trying to do my best and ignore the politics.

After Sierra Leone, I was looking for a good challenge, somewhere that I felt that there was an opportunity for success but, equally, where we could make progress if we got the right tear in place.

I had concrete offers in South America, in the Caribbean and then, obviously, east Africa with Rwanda. Some less formal opportunities were on the horizon in Asia as well so there were lots of opportunities; there was even discussions with a club in Eastern Europe.

Rwanda was the one that I looked at most – a team moving in the right direction but the big challenge was that they decided to do away with naturalised players: Rwanda had previously been disqualified from the most recent African Cup of Nations for fielding players that CAF deemed ineligible because they didn’t have any natural links to Rwanda.

Coach McKinstry, Technical team and Subs during National Anthem. [Rwanda Vs Ghana AFCON2017 Qualifier, 5 Sep 2015 in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo © Darren McKinstry 2015]

So the federation and the government had taken the decision to make sure that this didn’t happen again and to actually go even further than the FIFA rules. They said that not only would we remove naturalised players but we wouldn’t even call on players who had lived in the country for 5 or 6 years and who could legitimately apply for the Rwandan passport.

This hurt us because we had players, like the top goal scorer in the Kenyan League who had played a number of times for Rwanda, he’d lived in Rwanda for 6 or 7 years, yet those type of players were moved aside and we could only use players of direct Rwandan lineage.

We were building a young team but there was still going to be expectations because even though they’ve been disqualified from the African Cup of Nations, they moved up in the rankings so there was an expectation of us to do well.

Quickly on that change of player policy, would you say that this had a positive effect on the domestic leagues or was it, sort of, a watering down of talent?

I think long-term, there will be a positive impact on the domestic leagues and ultimately on Rwandan players because, there’s no doubt that, if players who are not eligible to play are being selected –  as was the case in the past – then they are limiting the chances of Rwandan players who should be in the lineup.

Now whether that required to go so far as to say that players, for example, who were born abroad but had moved to Rwanda at 10 years old and lived their entire life in Rwanda could also not play for the national team – that’s probably a bit strict.

But they wanted to be it sort of a nationalistic approach of you must have either have been born in Rwanda or have direct lineage – so a very tight interpretation of eligibility.

I think in the immediate instance it was a bit more challenging because, ultimately, the reason that these players had been drafted was because the feeling was,  by previous coaches and administrations that they were better than what was avaliable in Rwanda.

Had that not been the case, then the Rwandan players would have been picked anyway on merit but I think long term it will definitely give opportunities to a new breed of young talent and improve the local scene but, it’s not an instant change.

At CHAN 2016, you led Rwanda to the knockout stages of a tournament for the first time ever – you beat the Ivory Coast in that tournament; did you feel that this was the start of something really special?

Everyone was very pleased with how we performed at CHAN 2016, as you highlighted, Rwanda had never got past the group stages of any tournament and to win our group beating  teams like the Ivory Coast and Gabon to get to the quarterfinals was a first for Rwanda.

Given how young are team was  – look at our quarter final line up against DR Congo and, I think, 7 of the team were under the age of 22 so it’s a young team with a lot of potential. So everyone was very pleased. There were a lot of pats on backs.

From my point, you always sort of wonder, could there have been more. In the quarter final, it went to extra time and they’re little bit inexperienced or they might have gone on to win the tournament. In the last twenty minutes of normal time, if anyone was going to win the game, it was going to be us and we had a couple of great chances.

But it wasn’t meant to be and our journey ended there but we had raised the bar in terms of performance for Rwanda and we’d lifted the level with such a young team that should stay together for a number of years.

Coach McKinstry primes players before Kick off.[Rwanda v Mauritius, AFCON 2017 Qualifier, 29 March 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo © Darren McKinstry 2016,]

You signed a contract extension until 2018 but, 5 months later, you were sacked from the job. At the time, it was rather confusing as to why you left. How disappointed were you and, are you any clearer now on the reasons behind it?

I think it’s fair to say that the impression that people on the outside have is probably similar to the one that we had on the inside. That was that the decision didn’t seem to have a lot of logic to it and when you look at it again, we got to the final of the CECAFA Challenge Cup which had only been bettered once in Rwanda’s history, we got to the quarter finals of CHAN which has never been bettered.

We’d one our first away game in 4 years, we’do racked up our biggest ever win in FIFA and CAF qualifying and, at the time, we were sitting second in the qualifying group with 6 points. Rwanda”s only once done better than 6 points in a final stage qualifying group.

So it didn’t seem to bear a lot of logic and sometimes decisions in football don’t have a lot of logic to them but, you know, it was one that was very disappointing, very hard to take in a sense because we had to completely restructure the team, restructure the international set up there and we were clearly moving in the right direction.

The team had gained more tangible success than in many, many, many years and, in certain fields, more tangible success than had ever been achieved.

It was a strange decision but people make these decisions in football and it can be a bit shocking at the time, you just need to dust yourself off and get onto the next challenge.

It must be said, you’re not the only British coach to be making significant waves abroad (Stephen Constantine, Gary White etc); from your point of view, why is it that you guys aren’t being given a fair crack of the whip back home?

So, talking for me, not for Stephen or Gary, who I have had a bit of contact from in the past but, let’s speak for me;

I always knew that having not been a professional player, I would need to go abroad to prove myself because, staying in the UK they was going to be a glass ceiling – working at an academy level, yes, but could you have made it to the first team level? Probably quite a bit harder.

I went to America, took the opportunities in Africa and along the way there’s been opportunities in other parts of the world – like I said before, in Eastern Europe , there’s been opportunities in Asia and the Americas.

Even now, since I’ve been back, there’s been some sort of basic interest, one or two phone calls, people getting in contact about opportunities in the UK.  But it’s not so much where an opportunity is, it’s what it is. Is it the right opportunity for me?

You don’t just jump at any job, you’ve got to go in and say, is there one where I feel I can have a positive impact because there are some jobs that you don’t want to touch – it doesn’t matter if it’s down the road from where you live here in the UK, it might be the wrong opportunity.

So for me, it’s a global game and yes, working in Europe at the top level with a Champion’s League team is the ultimate ambition, but I’m still a young coach, I’m in my early 30’s.

There’s no rush about getting back here in the UK, coaching for a club here. If the right opportunity came along then, absolutely, let’s sit down and see what’s possible. But if the right opportunity happens to be overseas again well, then,  that’s the one you’ve got to go for.

In terms of being given a fair crack of the whip, I think it’s about being in the right place at the right time, having the right contacts. Clubs having the confidence that you can come in and win with them. The only way this comes is by having a track record of success – for me, we’ve been successful in Sierra Leone,  in Rwanda,  I can point to tangible success.

Step by step, you move onto bigger, more compelling challenges.

Overall,  I don’t think it’s a case of not being given a fair crack of the whip,  moreover of clubs seeing your quality and when this happens,  so will the opportunities.

Like you say, it’s about taking the right job that suits you, in general though, would you prefer to stay at a national level? And, perhaps, could you envisage coaching a women’s team?

For me, I’m open to it being a club team or a national team.

The challenge with a national team is always contact with your players so, in that essence, a club team is very interesting – it’s that opportunity to be out on the pitch everyday,  signing players, bringing them up through the youth academy and merging everything together.

At a national team, you have limited contact with your players and you’ve got to really use things like video analysis, send clips and information ahead of time so that when they arrive,  we can really hit the ground running.

I’m completely open, a club opportunity would give me and my staff a real opportunity to make significant strides forward because of the ongoing contact with players but if the right national team opportunity then, obviously, that would also be of interest.

In terms of coaching a women’s team, ah, to be honest, you wouldn’t rule it out but I think the games are different. Women’s football, men’s football, they are slightly different, their approaches are different.

I’ve worked with some young women’s teams before, when I was in America, through the programmes at Red Bulls. I’ve had that contact but, my experience really has all been in the men’s game.

I think it’s almost a little bit disrespectful to the women’s game to just say, well, you’ve been good in the men’s game, you’d naturally be good in the women’s game. They both have similarities, no doubt. In terms of what’s required, there are unique aspects to both.

So, most likely, I’ll be staying in the men’s side of the game.

Obviously youre vastly experienced in the world of African football, do you think it’s often quite untapped and misunderstood in terms of the quality of players coming through?

I think there’s definitely regions of Africa that are still untapped, to a degree. West Africa obviously has a lot of investment from various clubs and academies, East Africa less so.

That’s not going to change overnight,  it will take a number of years of investment and developing to really get it to the level of West Africa, but there is definitely a market there, definitely quality players.  Not the finished article, by any means , but definitely somewhere that clubs from the rest of the world could access talented players.

I don’t think it’s misunderstood in terms of the talent, I think sometimes what the players need from the clubs in Europe is an improved support structure.

You don’t take an 18, 19 year old from anywhere in the developing world and put them in a European set up and expect them to thrive immediately, you need to put support around them and make sure that they’re settled.

Because a settled player is more likely to perform for you, some clubs get that, some clubs don’t.  The more that do, however, the more we’ll see players, not just from Africa but other developing football nations, breaking through.

And finally, on a personal and footballing note, what are your ambitions for 2017?

I think for 2017 really, it’s identifying that next opportunity and setting out on that journey again of building a new team and taking it forward.

There’s one or two opportunities that we’re looking at and seeing if they make sense and I anticipate, in the next month or two, clubs will be making decisions about managers and international wise, both in Asia and Africa, they’ll be going back into World Cup qualifiers. You can envisage that there will be some opportunities over those continents, as well as in Europe.

Really it’s just about getting back out there, on the grass, with players and back to winning football matches again.

Oliver McManus

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