Football management in the age of Ebola – Johnny McKinstry’s time in Sierra Leone
Well-travelled young coach from Lisburn has already amassed considerable experience
Johnny McKinstry: “I was very content where I was in New York, I had a good job and a good lifestyle but if you want to achieve anything you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.” Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty
Not many 29-year-olds have managed professional football teams. Even fewer have managed a national team in the top 50 of the world rankings and none have done so amid one of the worst outbreaks of Ebola in recent history.
But that is exactly the situation that Lisburn native Johnny McKinstry found himself in during his recent managerial spell in charge of Sierra Leone, until the epidemic contributed to his sacking in September.
“It was surprising in the sense that we were clearly doing well,” says McKinstry. “We were going in the right direction before the outbreak. If the outbreak hadn’t happened, and we were allowed to play our home games, we would have given qualifying a very good go.”
When qualification for next month’s African Cup of Nations became impossible, McKinstry’s time in west Africa came to an end.
For the coach from Co Antrim, it was the end of another chapter in a footballing career that has seen him go from Newcastle United to the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, on to the New York Red Bulls and, finally, to Sierra Leone.
Last year’s Ebola outbreak has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,500 people in Sierra Leone alone.
Organised football matches have been banned in the country and the national team is not allowed to play home games.
It was these factors that made the Irishman’s job almost impossible when the Cup of Nations qualifying campaign started.
“The biggest impact was that we couldn’t play any of our games at home. If you look at the statistics for football in general the home team wins about 50 per cent of the time with the away team winning about 20 per cent of the time.
“When you apply that to Africa the home team wins about 65 percent of the time with the away team winning only five to 10 per cent of the time.”
Lack of infrastructure in certain countries and the distances involved make travelling in Africa complicated at the best of times. The situation in Sierra Leone made it even worse.
“Travel in Africa is very difficult logistically. For the DR Congo game we left our hotel in Abidjan [Ivory Coast] at 11pm on Saturday night after only finishing the game a few hours earlier against Ivory Coast,” he says.
“We then had to travel north to Morocco, spend several hours in Casablanca airport, to then fly back south again to Kinshasa in the DR Congo, but the game was actually in Lubumbashi [another flight from Kinshasa] so we ended up getting to our hotel around 11pm on Monday night after 48 hours of travel, to then play a game on the Wednesday afternoon.”
“With anything in life the more information you have, the less scary it becomes. We were on the ball so early – before it even got into the media – that it eliminated the fear.”
Education, McKinstry feels, is the key to beating the disease and that was the approach adopted at the academy.
“Ebola is a disease of contact. If you eliminate contact you eliminate the risk. We knew about the outbreak around late June. We held an education day with all of the families of the kids from the society and gave them posters of how to avoid the risk and thermometers to check temperatures.
“When the number of cases began to increase within a 50 km radius of the academy we locked it down and the only movement offsite was our supply van going into town to pick things up. I’m very glad to say that, because of that, no players, staff or even relatives had any issues with the outbreak.”
“I’ve always been someone who likes to try different things. I’ve got long-term ambitions to coach at the highest level but if you look at England or Germany or any of those countries now it’s such a multicultural environment. You’re faced with squads of players from all different parts of the world so, for me, experiencing that first hand can be a big benefit.
“I was very content where I was in New York, I had a good job and a good lifestyle but if you want to achieve anything you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.”
Getting out of his comfort zone is exactly what McKinstry did.
The decision to move to the west African country was a momentous one as Sierra Leone “hadn’t really made a mark on African football”, he admits.
The differences in the game were apparent immediately. First touch and ball control is exceptional, he says, but it is the tactical awareness that players lack.
“They don’t have Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher explaining it to them every Monday night,” quips McKinstry.
Since Roger Milla captured the hearts of the world at Italia ’90, African football has made huge strides forward but there is still a long way to go, McKinstry feels.
“Unfortunately the FA officials and administration officials think that football is just about turning up on the day and the better team wins based on effort and fitness.
“But all professional players put in effort and all professional players are fit so that isn’t the defining factor. The preparation that goes into a game is in fact the key.”
He points to the contrast between African and European teams at last summer’s World Cup.
Similar problems have plagued African football for years and enquiries and tribunals into such matters are common in that part of the world.
McKinstry admits he was no stranger to tensions in Sierra Leone.
“There was some progress but it was very, very slow. A lot of people think they know what’s best but, if that’s the case, then why did they bring me in? I was brought there because there was a problem that needed to be fixed and I could fix it but some people weren’t comfortable with change.”
His immense appetite for the game is clear and it won’t be long before he makes another move.
This month a series of meetings in Asia could determine his next step in the coaching world, but not before he returns home to do commentary and punditry on the African Cup of Nations.
What is certain is that we will be hearing a lot more of Johnny McKinstry. At only 29 he is not short of coaching experience. The only question that remains is where that experience will take him next.