Behind the gate and walls of the compound, a twentysomething Northern Irishman is pondering politics, the ebola virus and the worth of football...
By Rick Broadbent for The Times (UK)
Last updated at 12:01AM, October 15 2014
McKinstry has been on a remarkable journey. He swapped a chic Manhattan lifestyle to move to Sierra Leone five years ago. The country was still limping from the detritus of civil war, but McKinstry recognised the obsession with football. A voracious learner with a bag of coaching badges, he became technical director of the Craig Bellamy academy and the youngest manager in international football and revived the fortunes of the Leone Stars over the past 18 months. Three weeks ago he was sacked by email as he crossed a mountain pass.
As Sierra Leone prepare to play Cameroon today, a match that may well confirm failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, McKinstry will be in lockdown at the academy. His former players expect to be abused in Cameroon. “Ebola” has been chanted at recent games, opponents have refused to shake hands and John Tyre, the goalkeeper, said: “You feel humiliated, like garbage and you want to punch someone.”
McKinstry, just 29, says it has been “emotional”, which reeks of understatement. “My family at home keep saying it’s time to come home, but I sat down with the families of 30 young boys at the academy and made a commitment,” he said. “The No 1 priority was to keep them safe. I did not think it would mean this, with nobody ever leaving, but you don’t get to define the boundaries.”
It is not melodramatic to suggest that the ebola virus cost McKinstry his job as national coach, but he knows the bigger picture dwarfs personal ambition. However, listen to him talk of the battery of health checks demanded of his players, the ban on Sierra Leone home games, and the perils of fashioning a winning team from a nation where football had been suspended, and you could understand his simmering frustration.
Under McKinstry’s leadership, Sierra Leone did rise to the top 50 in Fifa’s world rankings for the first time, above Cameroon, Senegal and Ireland. Then the virus erupted, people’s suffering plumbed new depths and football was lost amid domestic disaster and global hysteria.
“People here are so passionate about football and so patriotic,” McKinstry said. “Just as Brazil’s players were so emotionally attached to the World Cup, so we knew that a good result would lift the nation. It would be a small victory, of course, but little bits can be very important and, rightly or wrongly, people here think we should be winning the World Cup. Certainly, we have the talent to be qualifying.”
football’s impossible job
Fate made it football’s impossible job. The authorities suspended the domestic leagues as the virus spread. It is now close to the academy in Tombo where McKinstry and his players live. “The academy is in a bubble,” he said. “It’s not quite Sierra Leone and it’s not the western world. It’s a bubble that’s protecting us. I don’t have fear for the future, I have sadness. These people have been through so much with the war, but now they are going to have to rebuild again.”
After six games in charge, the rookie head coach had lost once, benefiting from living in the country unlike Lars-Olof Mattsson, his Swedish predecessor and absentee leader.
However, when Seychelles forfeited a home game against Sierra Leone rather than admit anybody from the country, the writing was on the wall. The Confederation of African Football then said Sierra Leone could not play games at home. In Cameroon, where the team are playing back-to-back home and away fixtures, a row between the sports ministry and national association means two coaches are claiming they are in charge.
“I’d try to pick a few players from the domestic league because I wanted to promote young talent,” McKinstry said of his tenure. “That had to go on the back burner and so all our players were based in Europe or the USA. Countries hosting matches put lots of precautions in place, which was frustrating to our players because none of them had been in Sierra Leone for six months. They would ask me what it was like there, yet they had to undergo a battery of tests.”
TIMELINE: Descent into crisis
- 2013 - Johnny McKinstry, the national coach, calls up Aziz Deen-Conteh and Samuel Bamgura, the Chelsea duo. The former has to withdraw because his passport has expired.
- August 2014 - Sierra Leone reach 50 in the Fifa rankings, their highest placing. McKinstry is sacked a month later after successive defeats.
- October 2014 - The Sierra Leone sports ministry wants Atto Mensah to replace McKinstry. The FA chooses John Ajina Sesay. The latter will be in charge for today’s game against Cameroon
The difficulty reached its peak when they played Ivory Coast last month. With the match in doubt, some players had to buy their own air tickets; others arrived late on Friday for a Saturday afternoon kick-off. “In no way was that good preparation to take on one of Africa’s superpowers,” McKinstry said. A two-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo meant “fatigue was evident from the very first whistle”.
McKinstry, who hails from a motorcycle-racing family near Belfast, leaves the academy each fortnight for provisions and business. The others stay within the walls. “We have been in lockdown for the last 12 weeks and don’t have contact with the outside world.”
Yet he has no regrets about leaving the comfort of a coaching role at the New York Red Bulls academy for west Africa and will ignore the parental pleas to go home. “We know we’re only in the first half of this crisis so we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “The end won’t come tomorrow, but it will come.”
Words by Rick Broadbent