IT HAS BEEN THE MOST UNORTHODOX OF JOURNEYS for Rwanda national team manager Johnny McKinstry as he looks back on his brief but hugely impactful time in the professional. Born and raised in the town of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, the progressive tactical trainer is making waves in African and wider international football, honing his skills in the toughest of environments.
At just 30, McKinstry is already on his second national team job, having been controversially relieved of his duties as Sierra Leone manager despite taking the West African side to their highest position in the FIFA rankings. Coupled with a successful and rapidly evolving time in Major League Soccer with the New York Red Bulls, McKinstry has become one of the most rounded and well-travelled British coaches at the highest level abroad.
We caught up with the bubbly, personable and open manager, and challenged him to give us his thoughts on some of the game’s most pressing issues; ones he has witnessed first hand. Having worked in player development in a number of countries, what does he believe are the major challenges facing African player development, in particular Rwanda?
“The structure of youth football in many African countries is very poor, if existent at all. In Europe and the USA there is obviously a big push at the younger levels for kids to be allowed to play, and not be over-coached; and you naturally get this aspect here on the continent. However as I think all would agree, at some point you need structure so that the best players come into contact with the best coaches, and are also challenged by playing against other top quality young players.
“This doesn’t happen by design in Africa from my experience. Players will stay with their local teams in whatever environment that may be until they are in their late teens, and then get picked up by clubs. By which time many bad habits have been formed.
“There are examples of academy systems being able to pick up players at a young age … 11 or 12 years, and these show the potential for such organisations. Look at the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana and how many professionals and US College level players they have produced in only 15 years of existence.
“Even here in Rwanda you can see the benefit of an academy system. Many of the current national team came up together through either the Isonga, or SEC academies, which whilst not on the same financial level of a Right to Dream style academy, did bring the best young players together at the age of 15 – and through a structured environment and access to daily competition within the group itself, allowed the players to develop further.”
With that in mind, how does McKinstry see Rwandan football developing, and will we ever see an influx of Rwandan players at the highest level, similar to what we have seen from the likes of Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal? My gut instinct tells me no, but the Northern Irishman is adamant that progress is on the way.
“I think you will definitely see a number of Rwandan players over the coming few years making that move to Europe, probably to leagues such as those in Sweden, Belgium and Denmark initially, before going on to bigger things. The Starting line-up for our game against Ghana recently had six players under the age of 22, including a couple who were not yet 20. They took a team worth over $250 million all the way to the last minute, so there is plenty of talent in the group.”
With that in mind, it begs the questions whether coach education is a challenge in Africa at youth team level. Are they receiving the correct education themselves to them nurture a generation of stars from across the continent? With the majority of African stars having come through European academies at some point in their careers, to outsiders coaching seems to be a problem on the continent. Does more need to be done to educate the grassroots coaches and help them obtain certified coaching qualifications?
“FIFA are heavily involved across Africa, running numerous coach education course. In the last three months alone here in Rwanda they have run weeklong courses on grassroots football, goalkeeping, fitness and conditioning, and first aid. So the opportunity is there for coaches to avail themselves of new and insightful information. The problem is sometimes that coaches want to be given a recipe book on how to coach a team – and it just doesn’t work like that.
“When I watch a number of coaches, not just here in Rwanda but other parts of Africa, many are good at organising sessions, and progressing the exercises accordingly, making sure the players understand the rules etc. But I don’t often see them stopping a session and going in to make a point, or showing players different options available to them. For me that is what coaching is. The rest is just logistics.
“Unfortunately in many countries, the CAF Licences – C,B and A – which are examinable are given to the candidates often for achieving the former standard, and not the latter. So really I think it is an issue of adhering to strict standards in terms of issuing the licenses across the continent because that, combined with the various programmes available to coaches, should see a gradual rise in the coaching level over time.”
A question that has often been posed in international circles – certainly when a World Cup comes around – since Roger Milla and Cameroon lit up Italia 90, is why an African nation hasn’t won the game’s biggest prize. With talent strewn at the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues, many of which is concentrated from a few key nations, will the CAF ever see one of their members lift the World Cup?
“The first hurdle to overcome is that quarter-final bogey hanging over many teams’ heads. Ghana came so close in 2010, and if it weren’t for Luis Suarez would have done it. I think if a nation can break into the semis, then the whole waive of euphoria surrounding the team could just take them all the way.
“But, as always, the bigger challenges revolve around the planning, logistics and finances associated with going to a World Cup. Too often am I told stories of teams being put in one or two star accommodation by their associations for their pre-tournament training camps; and players having to fight for better treatment.
“The same goes for things like player bonuses. Look at Ghana at the last World Cup having millions of dollars flown out to Brazil in cash prior to one of their games. All of this comes down to poor organisation, and ultimately takes the focus away from the football, and optimum performance. If Associations can ensure adequate support and planning ahead of tournaments, they could go a long way to helping the players achieve success on the pitch.”
The point about Africa winning a World Cup often arises because so many of the game’s best players in Europe are African. It begs the question: should European clubs do more to promote player and coach development in Africa? Many clubs come to the continent and pluck youngsters on the cheap, but are they actually helping the continent’s game through investment, infrastructure and long-term development?
“I think some are, and some aren’t. Ajax and Feyenoord have a long history of investing in Africa. Currently some of the big clubs like Manchester City and Barcelona are putting significant investment into the continent – and will see the rewards of that. However for many it comes down to the return on their investment, and how they are able to ensure that the programmes they run in Africa adhere to the standards of the mother club in Europe.
“A prime example would be Red Bull Salzburg who built a multi-million dollar facility in Ghana where the players lived, studied and trained. But after several years, and a significant turnover of staff, they decided to sell the facility and move on; largely because they couldn’t – from my understanding anyway – ensure their programme was being implemented in the way they believed it needed to be.
“It is a challenge, as one size most definitely not fit all here; and country to country there are such big cultural differences. Clubs need to have a firm understanding of such issues if they are to make a success of prolonged investment into a region.”
One a personal level for McKinstry, this is now his second national team job, a staggering achievement for someone so young, and he achieved very measurable success in both, despite the external challenges like Ebola and tribal war. What are his long term ambitions within the game and is it tough for a British coach who is abroad to break back into the domestic game?
“I’ve always said that my ambitions are to coach at the highest level possible, which long term means that leagues in countries like England, Germany, Spain and Italy would be a great challenge to work in. In order to reach those levels, however, I need to be successful along the journey. It’s not a short road.
“Currently with Rwanda we are very focused on qualifying for the African Cup of Nations in 2017, which would be only the second time Rwanda have managed to do so, as well as be competitive in World Cup qualifying. If we can do this then we will have moved the national team onto a higher level. Do that, and who knows what doors may open further down the line.
“In terms of breaking back into the domestic game in the UK – at this moment in time I can’t reply say how difficult or not that is, as I haven’t really pushed to much in that area, as I know I haven’t really achieved anything of substance yet – yes the teams have improved under me but clubs want to see the trophies you have won, the tournaments you have qualified for and the players you have developed.
“I do hear other coaches say that breaking back in can be difficult – but at the same time I usually ask what is it that a person offers that prospective club. If it is that you have coaches at a professional level in Africa or Asia for a number of years then I don’t think that will get you through the door. You need to show tangible success. Do that and I think you’ll be given the opportunity to be heard. And then it’s down to you to convince the club that you are the man for the job.”
As a proud Northern Irishman, how does McKinstry see the national game’s development back home? Obviously their form under Michael O’Neill has taken many by surprise, but what is the reality of youth level coaching in the country and can Northern Irish players filter through at the very top of the Premier League again?
“The Irish FA are doing their best to ensure the best young players in Northern Ireland have the access to facilities and coaches that will allow them to develop. Through Club NI, and the Elite Performance programmes, the overall situation for youth football has improved a lot over the years; but there is still a long way to go.
“Being such a small country I don’t think we will ever have a plethora of players at the biggest clubs in the game, especially now that clubs are scouring the planet for young talent. But I think having a squad that is made up of players competing in the Premier League and Championship level is a realistic target.”
Having spent a considerable time in Major League Soccer, what are the Lisburn native’s thoughts on one of the most fiercely debated topics in the domestic US game: promotion and relegation? Does the US game need promotion and relegation for long term good?
“It’s funny, I’m maybe in the minority of European coaches who thinks the lack of promotion-relegation in the states is OK. It’s a sporting format that works for the USA. I’m a big advocate of nations doing what is best for the sport in their country and not being too overawed by what other people do. When I was in Sierra Leone I was an advocate of the National league becoming regionalised, but the majority only wanted to do things the way they were done in Europe despite travel costs and low away support being some issues holding the game back.
“I think when MLS has the same number of teams as NFL, NBA and NHL, then the format will make a lot more sense. It wasn’t long ago that people were talking about a breakaway European Superleague where the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus and others would play each other in their own competition rather than compete in their domestic leagues. What would that competition have looked like? A select elite? Maybe with some grand final at the end of it. Could you have been relegated from that league back to your domestic competition?
“The one thing I do think will help MLS is the significant increase – or removal – of the salary cap. The reasons it exists are correct, as they didn’t want what happened to the original NASAL to happen again. The league needed time to grow and establish itself. But if you look at the companies that own many of the MLS teams now, I think it is about ready to have the training wheels removed. If you do that then I think the league, in its current format, could move onto another level with at least 7 or 8 teams really pushing the boat out in terms of the players they bring in.”
Sticking to the US then, what were the major challenges McKinstry faced during player development at academy level?
“There are some very talented players at academy level in the US, the problem maybe is that the pool is smaller than you would like. The players behind them ready to take their place tend to be a level below. And as such its maybe easy for the players to become comfortable. Combined with the generally well-off backgrounds that many young players in the US come from; then being comfortable doesn’t often make for a young person who is willing to push himself to the very limit to be successful.
“That’s not to say players with that mind-set don’t exist. I think many in the academy system do have those unique character traits. But like I said, maybe not enough young footballers in general have those characteristics. The more who do, the higher the bar is lifted.”
It’s clear from your short time together that Johnny McKinstry is one of the most intelligent, level-headed and knowledgeable managers in the game today. Few can match his achievements by the age of 30, and fewer still the success he has enjoyed in the game.
It stands testament to his adaptability, hunger and talent that in an era where we demand more British coaches and players try their luck abroad, that McKinstry has tamed the toughest challenges and risen to become one of the best young managers in football today.
Keep your eyes firmly focused on Mckinstry’s journey; you’ll certainly be hearing much more about him as the months and years pass.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem