Lead photo by Darren McKinstry/www.johnnymckinstry.com
BY CHRIS CLARK
Johnny McKinstry is a Northern Irishman who has coached all over the world, so far he has plied his trade on three different continents.
Johnny has worked at Newcastle United, New York Red Bulls, worked during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and is now currently plotting Rwanda’s qualification for the African Cup of Nations and 2018 World Cup. I spoke to Johnny to talk about his varied career so far…
Where did this initial love of coaching come from, did you realise from an early age that you were never going to make it as pro?
I was probably quite self aware in my late teens, and I knew by the time I was 16 I wasn’t going to be a pro player and earn a full time living out of the game. I started doing my coaching badges, and I just took to it, it was really enjoyable, and earnt a bit of money in summer camps and after school courses, and I took it from there really.
How did the role of player development at Newcastle United come about, as a fan that must have been a great role to have?
I first went over to Newcastle to study Sport Science with coaching at Northumbria University, and really went over there to earn a bit of money, and to develop as a coach on top of that. I got in touch with Newcastle’s Community Development program, and also by that time I had just completed my UEFA B licence and had an interview with them. So I started working in the after school programmes, summer camps, Easter camps and also doing some of the advance centres, which were a pathway for those players that had been highlighted through the community programmes to be assessed and maybe step into the Academy.
What was it like to represent Newcastle though?
Obviously growing up as a Newcastle fan, it was great to be able to wear the Newcastle United badge as part of my employment. It was a great feeling.
Picture by Myrthe van Vliet/www.johnnymckinstry.com
You worked for the Craig Bellamy foundation in Sierra Leone, did you first meet Craig at Newcastle?
No, we didn’t. Our link came through a mutual acquaintance when I was working in the United States. Craig was looking to set up an academy in Sierra Leone and that was the first sort of contact myself and Craig had. Craig had been playing for Newcastle at the same time I was there, but really my work at the club didn’t involve the first team so our paths didn’t cross till several years later.
Tell me more about the Craig Bellamy foundation in Sierra Leone, how proud were you to be a part of it?
For me, the Craig Bellamy foundation was a great opportunity for me to further my career. At the time I was very happy living in New York, working with the Red Bulls. However, when I was approached by the foundation, the role was for Technical Director, so that encompassed being in charge of all football activities and setting up the Academy from scratch, and that really appealed to me, and gave me the opportunity to put my stamp and beliefs on the Academy. So, after working hard for two years, I was promoted to Academy manager and ultimately was running the entire organisation, the only people I reported to were the board of Directors, meaning that I got my hands dirty on stuff like budget management, overall staff management and the education, dealing with partners and sponsors. So overall it was a great opportunity to develop as a football coach/manager but also to understand other parts of the business. It was a very enjoyable five years.
How serious was the threat of Ebola in Sierra Leone, did you ever consider coming home?
It was very serious, thousands of people lost their lives and it was very concerning for people – not only at the Academy but the country as whole. At the foundation we decided to send all our international staff home, and for me, there was that consideration but I’ve always been someone who doesn’t rush into a decision; I weigh up all the options. Ebola is a disease of contact so if you can remove the contact, you remove the risk, and I sat down with our Board of Directors and said I think we can keep this place safe. We ultimately put down our own self-imposed lockdown and created a quarantine, we had a 15 acre site and we kept going and trained everyday. We had one other English member of staff who lived in Sierra Leone who stayed onboard and ultimately, in my final six months during the Ebola outbreak as I was approaching the end of my contract, we did a successful handover to him and the rest of the staff. That was always the plan, when I went to Sierra Leone I said I would do 5 years, and that’s what I did. The Academy is thankfully still up and running and going strong, and the kids have now finally managed to go home to see their parents after a period of 9 or 10 months when they were in lockdown.
During the Ebola outbreak you were also the Sierra Leone National Manager, how difficult was it for you to watch potential players for the national side?
The outbreak meant that the National Football league in Sierra Leone was cancelled, which meant for local based players to be selected for the national team it was virtually impossible. Now, we were fortunate in Sierra Leone that a majority of players were playing outside of the country, so we were able to keep abreast of their progress via the various on-line scouting tools and watching videos, and speaking directly to the players and their coaches. So in that sense it wasn’t too bad, the biggest challenge was due to the outbreak; we had to move our games out of the country, and lost home advantage, which in Africa is huge, as the home team will win 75-80% of the time, so losing that was a big disadvantage to us, and eventually derailed our qualifying campaign.
Despite this disadvantage, you were sacked after losing a couple of games, do you still think this was harsh?
We lost a couple of games on the bounce to DR Congo and the Ivory Coast, now when you look at the overall qualifying campaign and the African Cup of Nations in total, Ivory Coast went on to win the Cup and DR Congo finished third. In hindsight you could say it was harsh. However, in international football when you lose 2 or 3 games on the trot you are always under pressure. For me it was disappointing; when I took over Sierra Leone were somewhere in the mid 80s in the FIFA rankings, we took them up to 50th in August 2014, which was their highest position ever. Then, several weeks later, I was out of a job. Now they are somewhere like 110th in the world rankings and for me that is very disappointing to see, because we were going in the right direction. On a personal level we were faced with a lot of challenges with the Ebola outbreak, restrictions being placed on our players, the medical checks on our players and staff when we visited other countries, it made winning very, very difficult. Yes I’m disappointed, but my staff and I are very proud of what we achieved. I think we did a good job and over time that will be shown in the history of football in that country.
When you were appointed Rwandan manager, I note that you turned down job offers from other parts of the world. What is the appeal to you of managing in Africa?
Yes, I had a few others. I had two contract offers and there were a couple of people I was speaking to. Ultimately it’s not what appeals about Africa, it’s the job itself, and the potential itself. Obviously the African culture is something I get involved in quite well, but I think that could be said about any culture, as I throw myself into the environment wherever I am in the world.
Rwanda, for me, presented the biggest challenge, there is an expectation here. It’s not a small footballing nation, and they expect to win games. So if we do lose, there is pressure on me. There’s a media spotlight here, and with us hosting the African Championship in January, there is an expectation for us to do well, so like I say, it puts pressure on me and the players, but that’s the appeal of it.
The World Cup draw has paired Rwanda with Libya, what are your thoughts on that tie?
It provides us with a realistic opportunity to progress into the group stages. If you look at Libya’s recent results, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of goals and they’re tough opponents. With the players at our disposal, though, we should be looking to qualify.
Recent history also favours us, in July 2014 Rwanda and Libya played in African Nations qualifying and Rwanda won 3-0 over two legs. The Libyan home game will be played in Tunisia, due to the current issues in Tripoli, and like I’ve mentioned previously playing in your own country is important in Africa. It will be a difficult encounter, but with the right preparations we should get into the group stages of qualifying.
Moving onto coaching, is there anyone you aspire to be like?
There are managers that have come through the game in recent times, who didn’t have a top end playing career like myself. I think if you emulate half the success of coaches like Jose Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers and Andres Villas-Boas, then you’ve had a very good career. Away from football actually I look up to people in other sports, like the basketball coach John Wooden of the UCLA who passed away in recent years. I try to take influences from a lot of people and different fields, and walks of life to develop my own philosophy.
Is there any desire to come back and manage or coach in English football, or are you happy to experience different cultures in the world?
For me, long term, I want to work at the highest level with the best players possible, whether that’s England, Germany, Spain, Italy or France. Success will open up other opportunities. I’m working with good players and staff here in Rwanda currently and I want to achieve success with this team, I want to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, I want to push for World Cup qualification in East Africa. Now will that open other doors? Possibly, and we will take those opportunities as they come. Knowing me, I will take the opportunity which gives me the hardest challenge.