Johnny McKinstry was a teenager when he committed to coaching as a career; at 29, he has already worked on three continents. He spent two and a half years with New York Red Bulls then, in 2010, his curiosity and ambition took him to Sierra Leone, where he became the Academy Manager of the Craig Bellamy Foundation, a charity set up by the former Wales striker to help underprivileged youngsters reach their potential through football.

When Lars-Olof Mattsson resigned as coach of the Sierra Leone national team in March 2013, McKinstry, armed with his Uefa A Licence, 10 years coaching experience and a growing knowledge of the country, threw his hat into the ring. One stunning presentation to FA bosses later, he was appointed caretaker manager and impressive performances in World Cup qualifiers against Tunisia, Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea were enough to earn a permanent contract.

McKinstry’s first full qualifying campaign was for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Aggregate wins over Swaziland and Seychelles in the preliminaries saw the Leone Stars reach the group stage where they were victims of a tough draw and grouped alongside Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and DR Congo. Early defeats to the latter two spelled the end for McKinstry: despite having taken Sierra Leone into the top 50 of Fifa’s rankings for the first time, he was sacked last September. 

It’s unclear whether the prospect of non-qualification was the motivation behind the Sports Ministry and FA’s apparently joint decision, but missing out on the continent’s foremost competition should hardly have come as a surprise. Sierra Leone have only participated in two previous Cups of Nations, in 1994 and 1996, and they failed to make it past the first round on both occasions. 

History, moreover, was far from the only thing against McKinstry and his charges. In May 2014, just four months before the group stage was scheduled to begin, the Ebola epidemic that had broken out in Guinea the previous December reached Sierra Leone. Around 1100 people had officially contracted the disease by the time of the first qualifier against Côte d’Ivoire, with countless more thought to have been suffering without medics being aware of their condition. Curfews were imposed, expats fled and the country went into lockdown. Working in such an environment is presumably not covered on the coaching courses run at Uefa’s plush headquarters in Nyon. 

You arrived in Sierra Leone in 2010 as a coach at the Craig Bellamy Foundation. How did that opportunity come about and what were your first impressions of the country?

I’d spent a couple of months in Ghana back in 2006 with the Right to Dream Academy in a small town called Atimpoku. They were hired as the consultants by Craig’s people and because of my past experience over there, the Foundation knew of my interest in Africa. In the middle of 2009 I was approached with this proposition of a new project in Sierra Leone. It was a dilemma because I was very happy out in New York with the Red Bulls, but it just seemed like a really good challenge.

I didn’t know anything about Sierra Leone before I arrived. I even had to look it up on the map, which shows my ignorance; I’m ashamed of that years later. People said to me “why are you going there?”, because the only thing they knew about Sierra Leone was conflict. [Up to 300,000 people were killed in the civil war from 1991 to 2002]. 

It’s so unfair for Sierra Leone to have to go through another national disaster at the moment. It’s a fantastic place and the people are amazingly warm and friendly. I’ve finished my time over there now, but I know I’ll have a lifelong relationship with the country. 

How did you convince the FA to hire you when the national team job came up? You were trying to become the youngest coach in international football in a continent where the older man tends to be a hugely venerated figure.

I’d actually shown an interest in the job years ago, before the Swedish guy [Lars-Olof Mattsson, McKinstry’s predecessor] was hired, but that never went anywhere. The word on the street in 2013 was that they wanted a Sierra Leone-based coach. It was assumed that that meant a native, but as soon as I heard those words I thought, “Get me in a room with the decision-makers and I’ll show them there’s not even a decision to make”.

I met with some senior figures from the FA and Sports Ministry and made a presentation to them. I basically put together this dossier and handed out a copy to everyone in the room, highlighting where I thought Sierra Leone were at and what I would do to make improvements. It just shows the importance of being prepared and knowing your stuff.

Did you experience any hostility from local coaches, fans or the media?

There was never any hostility, no. I think the big difference was that I’d lived in the country for three years: the man on the street who likes football – which is basically everyone in Sierra Leone – would have either known who I was or the work of the Craig Bellamy Foundation. It wasn’t like I was a total stranger. Some managers in Africa, like my predecessor, fly in for games and then leave again. That was a big difference for me. The other thing was the inclusionary approach I took with regards to my staff. One of my assistant managers, my fitness coach and my goalkeeping coach all worked in the Sierra Leone Premier League. I’m a big believer in coach education and it was great to be able to take on the ideas of some of the local guys.

The average age of the squad went down significantly during your tenure. Was that a conscious decision?

Yeah, we brought it down from about 29 or 30 to 23. I thought the team was very slow and I wanted to play with speed and take the initiative. Any team of mine has to play the way I want it to play, so a lot of youngsters came in.

And which way is that exactly?

Football is entertainment. Of course winning is paramount but I think you should try and do that with a certain style and panache. People pay hard-earned cash to watch the sport, which is even more apposite in a country like Sierra Leone where there’s not a lot of money going around. I used to ask the players, “When you were 10 years old, did you dream of collecting the ball off the keeper and punting it forward 80 yards? No, you wanted to keep possession, you wanted to have fun.” One of the little sayings we had was “football for the brave”. I told the guys that they had to be courageous and cherish the ball. We gave the players the confidence to play like we knew they could. It was as if we’d literally taken the shackles off them; it was an overnight change.

What was the build-up to the first Cup of Nations qualifier against Côte d’Ivoire like?

Frustrating. That match was in September, four months after the first Ebola case in Sierra Leone. Logistics in Africa are never easy but this was a nightmare. Six days before the game, I was under the impression that it could still be called off and it wasn’t until the Tuesday [four days before kick-off] that we got the go-ahead. The Sports Ministry still wanted us to wait, but I went completely against that. We had to get out there and start training. We were really unlucky not to get a result. People thought I was crazy when I said we could go to Abidjan and beat them, but we very nearly did. [Sierra Leone took the lead through Kei Kamara and missed a golden chance to go 2-0 up, before strikes from Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho gave the Elephants the three points].

Your home game with DR Congo was then moved to the Congolese city of Lubumbashi. That can’t have been easy.

Home advantage is huge anywhere in any sport. In football, the home team wins about 50% of the time. In Africa, the statistics show that the home team wins 65% of games and the away team only 5-10%. To give up home advantage was a devastating blow. It was the right decision and there was no other solution, but it was still a real disappointment. I thought we could beat all three sides in Sierra Leone, which would have given us enough points to qualify. When you’ve got 30,000 Sierra Leone fans cheering you on, that’s a hostile atmosphere. Sierra Leone have an incredible home record, but that was all lost.

It took us 48 hours to get to DR Congo. The lads were sat at Casablanca airport for 12 hours and then at Kinshasa airport for another nine without anywhere to stay. We were never going to play well after that. Our legs were gone from the first minute. 

The most infuriating thing was that I’d foreseen this happening. On the plane back from the preliminary game with Seychelles in April, I’d penned a letter to the Sports Ministry telling them that CAF would move our home matches and that we should contact Morocco and enquire about playing our games there. For whatever reason, that was completely disregarded. As far as I’m aware, there was no contact with the Moroccan government whatsoever. I don’t understand it. Guinea [who have also been heavily afflicted by Ebola] played their home games over there and qualified for the tournament. It was completely avoidable and it really frustrates me.

Did you ever experience any discrimination from other countries about hosting your team?

We had regular temperature tests at hotels, scans as we landed at airports, that type of thing. I completely understand countries looking out for their own interests and their own people, but you’ve got to remember that none of the players had even been to Sierra Leone since the outbreak. The lads were thinking, “They’re only treating us this way because we’re Sierra Leonean.” Mentally, that had an effect. In our ‘home’ game with DR Congo, you had 17,000 Congolese fans chanting ‘E-bo-la’ for 90 minutes. It was intimidating and distressing for the players. They felt shunned.

What was it like living in the environment at the time on a human level?

It sounds strange to say, but it didn’t really affect my day-to-day life. At the [Craig Bellamy] Foundation, we had a 15-acre site about an hour outside Freetown which was completely self-sufficient, with its own generator and water system. Every couple of weeks I’d go out in the van and go to the bank, stock up with food and supplies and everything. It was essentially a self-imposed lockdown and there weren’t any people coming and going. Ebola’s a disease of contact, so if you remove the contact you remove the danger. For the country, it was horrendous. People were worried, the economy took a huge hit, the currency plummeted. International visitors probably went up, but it wasn’t the type of international visitors we wanted. It was an extremely difficult time.

How do you get the players to focus on football in such a situation?

The players knew they were role models for the country. Football in Sierra Leone is a huge part of the national psyche: if the national team does well, people have an extra spring in their step. We thought that if we could progress the team and win matches, we’d put a positive spotlight on Sierra Leone at a time when there were only negative things being written about the country. We wanted to show that there is more to Sierra Leone than Ebola. Some of the players took things into their own hands. Michael Lahoud, an American citizen, started the “Kick Ebola in the Butt” Twitter campaign, and George Davies, John Kamara and Rodney Strasser did great work with the “I’m a Sierra Leonean not a virus” stuff. In our small way, we wanted to bring awareness to the situation.

So in a way the national team took on even greater importance at that time?

Yes, I think so.

Did that bring extra pressure then? Knowing you could bring hope to a country that was suffering.

Ever since I took the job, I told the players that they were more than just footballers. Anyone who pulled on that Sierra Leone jersey was an ambassador for the country. Even prior to Ebola, Sierra Leone was in the bottom five of the UN Human Development index. It’s a beautiful country but it still has a long way to go. If the people are happy, though, things like social mobility become a lot easier, so I was always drumming into the players that they could make a real difference through football. Maybe if that hadn’t always been our mentality, Ebola would have brought extra pressure. But our way of thinking had always been that football was more than a game, so I think it was very easy for the players to get on board with that after the outbreak.

Do you think you could have qualified but for the off-field distractions?

Oh, 100%. Sierra Leone have a really good team. People will perhaps see that as rose-tinted glasses but I knew the players we had coming through, many of whom were with Premier League and Bundesliga clubs. Our aim was always to qualify. It was certainly a difficult draw: all three of our opponents participated in the competition proper in January. We had a lot of respect for Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and DR Congo, but we also thought they could all be beaten. The off-field stuff certainly had a massive impact. If we could have given our entire focus to football, who knows?

Given all those complications, the fiendishly difficult qualification group and the fact that you lifted Sierra Leone to their highest ever position in the world rankings, did you think your sacking was unfair?

I don’t think there was any logic behind it on a football level, but we’ll never really know the reasons. I’ve heard one or two stories but I don’t really want to go into them.

So if it wasn’t a decision based on football, was it politics?

I think there was more than a footballing reason, let’s put it that way. The most disappointing thing was how it was done. I’d been at the FA talking about arrangements for the Cameroon game that morning; two hours after leaving the headquarters, I got an email from the person I’d been speaking to earlier that day saying that they’d be dismissing me. I expected better than that.

Sierra Leone have only ever been to two Cups of Nations. What’s the country missing?

In terms of ability, nothing, but the civil war had a huge effect. A decade of fighting meant everything stopped: there was no league, no football development, no renovation of facilities. We also missed out on all the Fifa regeneration programmes that started to come in in the late 1990s, when Africa truly came onto the footballing global stage. If the conflict hadn’t happened, there’s no reason why Sierra Leone couldn’t be like Senegal or Mali today. Nigeria and Ghana have huge populations so will always be ahead, but Sierra Leone could definitely have been regular Cup of Nations participant.

Do you think Ebola may similarly set Sierra Leonean football back long-term?

It’ll affect Sierra Leone in all walks of life, but the people are very resilient and have experience of dealing with these existential, national crises. I don’t fear for Sierra Leone because I know how tough they are. There’s no doubt it’ll delay things, however. Investment and tourism will be damaged, which will weaken the economy and in turn decrease the amount of money that can be spent on non-essentials like sport. It’s really disappointing. When are Sierra Leone next going to play a game? They can’t play friendlies because of the outbreak, so they’ll slide down the world rankings and lose the cohesiveness that comes with playing together regularly. All that momentum we built up will have been lost.

Will an African team ever win the World Cup?

The talent is there, no question. If you look at the amount of professionally-run football academies – Ghana has three or four, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and South Africa too, the North African countries – it’s only going to get better. That tactical gap with the top European and South American nations should also be bridged in the next decade because the coaching is getting better and better. Guys like Stephen Keshi and Kwesi Appiah are truly excellent managers.

The biggest problem in African football is the planning. I’ve spoken to coaches from all over the continent and it’s the same story everywhere. The administrators think that you can just turn up on the day to play a game of football. Unless that preparation element is sorted out, you’re never going to win a World Cup.