Johnathan McKinstry: From Northern Ireland to Uganda, Rwanda and beyond

In Depth

It’s a long way from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and a path that few have ever travelled. Throw the USA, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Lithuania and Bangladesh into the mix and you have the makings of one of British football’s most eclectic coaching careers.

Still aged just 36, Johnathan McKinstry has worked in all of these countries. He’s had managerial jobs in five of them, three as head coach of their national teams. Thorough and focused, he’s driven by an insatiable passion for football.

Although McKinstry has taken charge of high-pressured World Cup qualifiers, a friendly with nothing more than local pride at stake remains his fondest memory as a manager. A powerful illustration of what it all means.

“Ultimately, football is about people being happy,” McKinstry says. “I grew up in love with the game. I went every week to watch the Irish league with my uncle. Being close to the team, and that sense of joy when your team wins.

“When I was with Rwanda, we played a friendly against DR Congo, right on the Congolese border. It was in this little stadium. It only held eight or nine thousand people and they messed up the ticket sales, so it was like a DR Congo home game, but in Rwanda.

“We ended up winning 1-0 in front of this very partisan crowd. Our hotel was only 10 or 15 minutes from the stadium, but it took us over an hour to get back because all the Rwandan supporters were partying in the streets. It was like we’d won the World Cup. There were flares going off. There was singing and dancing.

“I stood up and I spoke to our players. I said, ‘Take this in. This should give you an immense amount of pride. We haven’t won a trophy, but it’s a game that means so much to the people. Look at the happiness you’ve given them. This is why we play.’”

Those celebrations encapsulated the pure joy, excitement and togetherness that football inspires all over the world. The chance to deliver such unifying moments is why McKinstry wanted to be a coach in the first place.

His immediate family had little interest in football, but something about the attacking style of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United captivated him. McKinstry started going to Lisburn Distillery games and was soon hooked.

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READ: A tribute to Kevin Keegan and the Newcastle United Entertainers

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Realising that he was never going to make it as a player, he turned his attention to coaching. He went on work experience with the Irish FA, then started doing his qualifications and running sessions at summer camps.

McKinstry studied sports science at Northumbria University while devoting much of his spare time to coaching, building a network of contacts that would help his career. After graduating, he worked with New York Red Bulls on their pre-academy programme.

“I found a culture that really embraced coaches’ ideas,” he says. “They had a model that they wanted to adhere to, but you were given the freedom to experiment. I was really fortunate with that because I think a lot of young coaches get dictated to.”

At 24, McKinstry started running an academy in Sierra Leone. He enjoyed putting his theories about player development to the test over the next three years before everything changed in an instant. With three games left in the Leone Stars’ World Cup qualifying campaign, Lars-Olof Mattson resigned as head coach.

“In football, you need to be lucky sometimes. But when that luck comes along, you’ve got to be prepared to take it,” says McKinstry.

“I could speak Creole pretty fluently. I’d watched all the Sierra Leone home games. I’d been to observe some of their training sessions. The Sierra Leone FA knew who I was, and I’d heard that, for these three remaining games, they were going to appoint a domestic coach.

“I was the only UEFA A Licence coach in the country. I was running the country’s only elite academy programme. I was working with top players, and I knew the culture already, so I went in and pitched to them.”

McKinstry spoke persuasively about his ambitions for Sierra Leone. How to improve football there in the long-term, but also, more pressingly, how to get a positive result against Tunisia in their upcoming game.

“I had a dossier, which I handed over at the end. I said, ‘Look, that’s all the research and the planning. If you want to give me the job, that’s what I’ll do. If you want to give someone else the job, feel free to give that to them.’”

It worked. McKinstry was appointed, making him the youngest manager in international football at just 27. He noticed a slight wariness from some of the established players, which he had to dispel quickly before it could take root.

“We had a team meeting after two or three days, where we were mapping out how we wanted to play against Tunisia. Our three key players – Kei Kamara, Mohamed Bangura and Ibrahim Bangura – hung around after the meeting and asked if they could have a chat. They almost pushed back a little bit,” he recalls.

“We all got around the tactics board – the three of them, me and my assistants. We explained why we wanted to do what we were proposing and why we felt it would be in their best interests. They went out fully understanding what we were asking them to do.

“If we’d bluffed our way out of that, those players would have walked out thinking, ‘These guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ That would have spread to the rest of the team. It was probably make or break for that Sierra Leone job, and you don’t often get a second chance in football.”

But for a last-minute equaliser, McKinstry’s team would have beaten Tunisia. He had overcome his first serious challenge as a manager, but there were much bigger ones to come. Ebola was soon sweeping through Sierra Leone.

“Being a national team coach is part football, part ambassadorial, and that definitely got put to the test. The country was going through a crisis. It was decided, at the federation level, that the national team would carry on.

“We had to play our games away from home. We sat down and we said, ‘Look, there are people suffering. Can we give them 90 minutes where they forget about that?’ We just had to come together.”

Sierra Leone did their best in desperate circumstances but, after defeats to Ivory Coast and DR Congo, McKinstry was sacked in September 2014. Six months later, he was named as Rwanda’s new manager.

“I want to challenge myself. If you’ve got the choice between two jobs, pick the one where you’ll get shouted at more if you lose because the expectations are higher. I had an offer to go and coach in the Caribbean. It would have been an idyllic life, but it wasn’t the right football opportunity.”

In Rwanda, McKinstry had a group of young players eager to make a name for themselves. They reached the final of the CECAFA Cup and the quarter-finals of the African Nations Championship. His contract was extended. Then the mood changed with failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations and he was let go, feeling he paid the price for raising expectations.

“It’s not always an upwards trajectory. You have to be prepared for those moments where you consolidate your position. When you get on a run, people want you to keep going. As soon as there’s a little bump in the road, panic tends to set in.”

Continuing his unconventional route, McKinstry became a club manager for the first time at Kauno Zalgiris in Lithuania. He was back on the training ground, working with players on a daily basis.

His approach was different. Rather than long, sprawling sessions, he wanted to keep things tight. “Some of the staff I inherited found it quite humorous. They were amazed that we even timed the water breaks. In international football, you don’t have time to waste.”

The Lithuanian players had a different temperament, and he had to adapt. “If they could see that you were trying to motivate them, the wall would go up and you’d lose them a little bit,” says McKinstry.

“Ten good things could happen, and people would be like, ‘Yeah, but something will go wrong.’ Then one bad thing would happen, and it would be, ‘Look, see, we told you! It’s all going wrong!’ That’s just not my nature, but it’s the role of the coach to figure out how he can best support the group.”

McKinstry finished the season, leaving at the end of his contract. He’d coached in three different continents and Asia was next on the list. In November 2018, he took over at the ambitious Saif SC of the Bangladesh Premier League.

“We had our own apartment complex where all the players lived. We had a top-level gym and canteen facilities. We flew to away games when necessary. We brought in some GPS and filming equipment for training sessions. The support we were given was second to none,” he says.

“The Bangladeshi people are so welcoming. The footballers were so eager to learn. They weren’t the complete players, but they were so hungry for knowledge.”

McKinstry led Saif to a fourth-place finish, winning 14 of their 24 league games. He intended to carry on, but the offer to take over the Ugandan national team – the powerhouse of East African football – was too good to turn down.

“They were performing well. They qualified for tournaments. The team was winning, and the expectation was for them to continue to win.

“Life would be more uncomfortable, in a professional sense. But, in football, the moment that you find yourself feeling comfortable is maybe when you need to move. You want to have that little bit of discomfort. Something chasing you.”

The pressure spurred Uganda on as they lifted the CECAFA Cup in December 2019. McKinstry won all but one of his first 12 matches in charge before momentum was lost.

“We had close to a perfect first year. Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and everything paused. We found it a bit tough to get going again,” he admits.

Uganda faltered and his tenure came to an end in April. In keeping with his track record, there has been interest from around the world as he weighs up what to do next.

“I’m not closed off to anywhere. I think my experience in life opens more doors to me but I’m not in it to be a tourist. It’s funny, my other half sometimes says to me, ‘Can you not take a job in the Pacific Islands? That would be a nice place to live for a year or two.’ But it’s never like that.”

As far as McKinstry’s concerned, the idea of setting up home somewhere else is nothing new, just an extension of what he’s been doing since he left Northern Ireland at 18. It puts a certain strain on family life, but one he’s accustomed to.

“I met my partner on this journey. She works for the international Red Cross. We’ve both worked in many different countries. It’s definitely difficult being away from each other, but we understand how to cope with that. How to be mentally and emotionally resilient,” says McKinstry.

Wherever he goes from here, he has plenty of experience to draw on in the next phase of his career. There have been highs and lows, successes and failures, lessons learned on a global stage.

He’s taken risks that many wouldn’t even contemplate. They haven’t all paid off, but the feeling when they do, like after that unforgettable win over DR Congo, makes it all worthwhile.

“When you do something that wasn’t previously considered possible, it gives you those remarkable moments. When we look back on our life in football, it’s those moments that we’ll remember.”

By Sean Cole

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