Within just 16 months Coach McKinstry had led Sierra Leone to their highest ever FIFA World and African rankings (August 2014).
Coach McKinstry has arguably been the most successful coach of the Leone Stars in recent times, steering them to a Top 50 place in the FIFA World Rankings for the first time ever, and 7th in Africa.
Coach McKinstry was Head Coach and Manager of the Sierra Leone National Men's football team - the 'Leone Stars' from April 2013 - September 2014. Appointed as Head Coach on 11th April 2013, he became the youngest active Head Coach in international football, and at only 27 years of age posted an achievement surpassed only by former Porto, Chelsea and Tottenham Manager Andre Villas-Boas who was 22 when he lead the British Virgin Islands.
FIFA.com: a 'Remarkable' Achievement - a Top 50 FIFA Team.
Within just 16 months (August 2014) Coach McKinstry had led Sierra Leone to their highest ever FIFA World and African rankings - 7th in Africa and 50th in the World - both well above their lowest ever ranking of 172 in 2007.
Fifa.com hailed this achievement as "remarkable" and referring to his games in charge noted:
"Under McKinstry, Sierra Leone have played six matches, losing just one FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in Cape Verde Islands 1-0, but also achieving a morale-boosting 2-2 draw against African powerhouse Tunisia in the same competition.
He has steered the team into the group stages of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers after beating Swaziland and Seychelles in the knock-out stages, with a 2-0 victory over the latter."
His team twice led against Tunisia, only to be thwarted by an injury-time equaliser. They had also led against Cote d'Ivoire - recording the Leone Stars' first ever goal against that opposition.
A desire to play attacking football; strong team dynamics; and extensive analysis of opposition teams are all key aspects of his approach, combined with working at all levels of the game to build long term development. As part of his work with elite academies he routinely scouts and nurtures young talent and during his time with the Leone Stars, he gave out 14 debuts in just 18 months - bringing the average squad age down from 29 to 22 - all while moving the Leone Stars to their highest ever FIFA rankings.
As The Irish Examiner noted:
"In July, Sierra Leone’s national football team were unbeaten in four games. The timing couldn’t have been better. Immersed in preliminary round action, they were trying to get through to the next stage of qualification for the 2015 African Cup of Nations. They had pushed past Swaziland over two legs, then claimed a victory over Seychelles and were just another 90 minutes away from securing a place in the group stage qualifiers.
Then Ebola happened."
The impact of Ebola and Poor Logistics
Sierra Leone's preparations for their opening Nations Cup qualifiers were hit by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the country, which led the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to rule they could not host their home qualifiers. This decision added pressure to the football administration in Sierra Leone, and to the players in terms of travel and recovery. The decision not to select players resident in Sierra Leone, to minimise fears regarding the spread of Ebola, further restricted the player pool.
The Guardian (UK) reported that Ebola "severely compromised preparations" for the Leone Stars and compounded a number of structural weaknesses in the administration of the game in Sierra Leone - an area not within Coach McKinstry's direct control. As BBC Sport reported, late confirmation by the Ivory coast that the game would go ahead meant that the Leone Stars arrived late and had almost no training ahead of their AFCON2015 qualifier, with 5 of the squad arriving less than 24 hours before the game. The Examiner captured some of wider turmoil associated with the Ivory Coast fixture:
"There were also in-house logistical issues to contend with. The government sponsors the team so the Ministry of Finance controls the purse-strings. But because of the confusion over whether the game was going ahead or not, the Sierra Leone players still hadn’t received their airline tickets.
McKinstry instructed those that could afford it to buy their own. ... But, those who weren’t in that position, who couldn’t afford to get their own tickets because they’re only starting their professional careers, had to wait for their tickets to be sent from Sierra Leone. Those players finally arrived in Abidjan at 8pm on Friday night. [They] played on Saturday afternoon.
Incredibly given the circumstances, McKinstry’s side led for an hour before succumbing 2-1. But there wasn’t much time to dwell on what might have been. At 11pm that night, the squad left for Lubumbashi [DR Congo]..."
BBC Sport highlighted the difficulties that impacted on their next game, just a few days later, against DR Congo: "In between the [Ivory Coast and DR Congo] ties, Leone Stars had to endure a trip of almost 48 hours to travel between venues, contributing to their difficulties."
For the DR Congo game, a last minute confirmation of flights meant that the squad spent a full two days travelling and sleeping in airports, arriving only 36 hrs before their game - allowing them only one light training session, in comparison to the DR Congo, who had been in camp locally for something approaching almost 10 days. Coach McKinstry was also required to drop two players at Kinshasha airport when officials made decisions not to book early flights on to Lubumbashi.
The Examiner distilled Coach McKinstry's recollections and the situation that followed:
“We arrived in our hotel [in DR Congo] at 10pm on the Monday night having been in transit and in airports for the best part of two days. It was an impossible situation. You could see it from the very start of the game on Wednesday — the lethargic nature of the play. The players tried their very best but sometimes what the mind’s willing to do, the body simply can’t anymore.”
Sierra Leone were beaten 2-0. ... McKinstry was under pressure. His stats, however impressive, were rendered meaningless by the volatile nature of African football. Under his management, the team rose to their highest-ever position of 50th in the FIFA world rankings... But it mattered little.
The significant and negative impact on the players was clear. Insideworldfootball.com quoted SLFA President Isha Johansen as saying "It's just horrible... We recently had a 'home' game in Congo which was gruelling. The guys had to travel for around 50 hours." The New York times quoted midfielder Michael Lahoud (Sierra Leone; Philadelphia Union) as saying the trip to Congo “would have strained any human being, even Mother Teresa.”
The tiredness and fatigue felt by the players were only made worse by stigma associated with Ebola - as BBC Sport reported, the players felt "humiliated because of the stigma of Ebola", amidst the chants of 'Ebola, Ebola' which plagued them at every turn.
Yet, despite all this - despite McKinstry's record breaking world ranking success; despite the impact of Ebola outside of his control; and despite the logistical failings outside of his responsibility - Sierra Leone dispensed with McKinstry's services.
Following receipt of an email advising him of the decision, Coach McKinstry travelled to personally speak with the Minister of Sport, Paul Kamara, and then Chris Kamara, General Secretary of the SLFA.
"I wanted to speak with them personally... to wish both organisations the best for the future - but also to make clear again the critical importance of the Ministry of Sport and the SLFA ensuring proper preparation time for the squad ahead of games. I had brought together a very talented group of players and I did not wish to see that talent squandered through a simple lack of preparation."
Reaction by Sports Journalists and Commentators
The Guardian (UK) referred to "Sierra Leone’s baffling decision to part with young Northern Irish coach Johnny McKinstry – who had led them to the world’s top 50 for the first time" and noted political difficulties between the Ministry of Sport and the SLFA in the administration of the game "The country’s FA and sports ministry have appointed different replacements ... and much good work seems to have been undone."
A number of sports journalists and commentators agreed:
"Real Shame that @johnnymckinstry has been sacked by Sierra Leone. Did a brilliant job in impossible conditions". Owen Amos. Journalist. BBC and Britishcoachesabroad.com
"Johnny McKinstry [was] very unfortunate to be sacked by Sierra Leone. They were making progress but are in a nightmare #Afcon2015 qualifying group." John Bennett. Sports reporter for @bbcworldservice radio and BBC World TV.
"Hard working, passionate and dedicated @johnnymckinstry. I wish him all of the very best for the future" Oluwashina Okeleji. Sports writer and broadcaster for BBC World Service.
The difficulties in preparation and the ongoing issues between the Ministry of Sport and the SLFA were summarised by Sierra Leone defender, Mustapha Dumbuya for BBC Sport:
"If we had played against DR Congo at home I definitely think we would have won. We were not fully prepared but we still played well and I felt that if we had played them in Sierra Leone it would have been an easy win for us.
Dumbuya, who plays for English club Notts County, also voiced his concerns about the row over the coach.
"Right now it is difficult. The players are trying to stay motivated. It is the wrong time for this to happen - I felt we were progressing under the previous coach Johnny McKinstry," he said.
"He took us to new heights - seventh in Africa and 50th in the world - and I think his results spoke for themselves. All he needed was backing."
Other Leone Stars players shared their views via social media:
"Sad to see him go, but thank you for your loyalty and hard work." Kei Kamara, Sierra Leone and Columbus Crew (USA).
"Its been an incredible adventure with this man at the helm of our national team. Thank you for bringing us together to represent Sierra Leone with pride and honour. Your hard work will not be forgotten." Mike Lahoud, Sierra Leone and Philadelphia Union (USA)
"Sad to see these guys go. Thank you Johnny McKinstry for your loyalty and hard work. It was an honour working with you. You've made so many Sierra Leonean's smile and proud over the last year. 50th in the world ranking and 7th in African football. You surely made a difference. #Respect." Abdul Rahman Bangura, Sierra Leone and Atlanta Silverbacks (USA)
"Sad to hear about Johnny McKinstry, Thomas Harris and Darren McKinstry leaving the Leone Stars as Head Coach. Great coaches and great people. Wish you all the best..." Abdulai Baggie, Sierra Leone and Tranmere Rovers (UK).
"Thanks to this coach for helping our national team to get where we are at today. You made the Sierra Leone national team (Leone Stars) a bigger and better family. Thanks Johnny McKinstry" Kei Kamara, Sierra Leone and Columbus Crew (USA).
"Just wanna say a massive thank you to Johnny McKinstry, Darren McKinstry and Thomas Harris for everything you guys have done for our national team. You will be truly missed... 50th in the world and 7th in Africa speaks for itself. You've made the Sierra Leone national team a family again and I'm sure we will continue the work you have started. Thank you..." Mustapha Dumbuya, Sierra Leone and Notts County (UK)
Notes to Editors
- Johnny McKinstry was appointed Head Coach of the Sierra Leone National Men's Football team on 11th April 2013. Then, aged only 27 he was the youngest manager in international football. You can read more about his time in charge of the Leone Stars. Coach McKinstry is also Academy Manager of the Craig Bellamy Foundation Academy in Sierra Leone.
- On 14 Aug 2014, Sierra Leone moved to 50th place in the FIFA World Rankings and 7th in Africa - their highest ever placing. The Leone Stars previous highest ranking was in 1996 when they reached 51st place. By 2007 they had fallen to their lowest ranking at 172nd place.
- See www.johnnymckinstry.com for a range of information - biography, press releases, photographs and videos for press use.
Leone Stars Highlights
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