Interview – In-depth with Johnny McKinstry

A ferocious concentration dusts the brow of Johnny McKinstry as he stands on the sidelines in his latest foray into uncharted territory in the managerial world.

The Northern Irish manager, now 34, is as experienced as they come having spent half his life dedicated to coaching football – professionally he’s been a manager since 2013. From scouting talent in a large catchment area in America to grafting at the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, McKinstry has racked up a boatload of knowledge throughout his wealth of travels but it all began as a teenager when casual interest in tactics sparked a lifelong career move.

“I was playing junior football as a young player in Northern Ireland and I think I probably knew I wasn’t in that top level of players that could really make something of themselves but I there was the opportunity maybe to get coaching in summer camps. That was really the first time my initial interest became a possibility because I had always been interested in the tactics side of the game. I find training sessions interesting and would always be asking my coaches things about why we were doing certain things, what they were trying to achieve. I think I did reasonably well (in those first summer camps) and it just went from there really, you know, taking the qualifications as they came along; it was really just that reinforcement of doing well in the role as a coach and getting more opportunities and more experience led me on to doing future qualifications.”

Despite getting started at such a young age it was interesting to note that McKinstry didn’t feel there was much resistance to his development – rather his youth probably made it easier to convey the desired message to academy players.

“As I developed as a coach I was obviously working with those younger players to begin with so there’s really never any sort of hesitation from a young player working with a young coach. If you look through Academy football in the UK, now, you see numerous coaches who are maybe in their mid 20s, working with the younger generations of players and getting their own career started so I  think that’s quite natural”.

Despite the positive reception from the younger players, making the leap to full professional coaching at such a young age was still  something relatively unheard of.

“I was 27 when I moved into the professional game and got my first opportunity; it was a surprise to some people and there might of been some caution or intrigue on the part of players. When they get into the sessions and see the quality and preparedness going into each training session then there’s never been a problem. Players can become bored very quickly, at all ages, because, and they don’t necessarily monotonous training so when they see what we do and they support the coaching process then they get on board.”

He continued : “I’m 34 this year, and even now when you go in and meet with clubs, I’ve been a head coach now for seven years, you know, I’ve coached two national teams and two club teams, I’ve gained good success and all of those things, but I think people still look at my age and think, oh, you’re a young coach. But actually the answer is there’s 40 year old coaches who have less experienced coaching than I do. You know, I’ve been coaching in this game for 17 years and seven of them are in the professional game so really I come to the table with a lot of experience even though my biological age is younger than maybe a lot of my peers.”

Academy work in Sierra Leone, America and Ghana saw confidence began to flow within the young manager and working in those cultures instilled a desire to set his players up as men more than just footballers.

“I think when you’re working with young players it is of huge benefit and importance that you’re not just focusing on the football side of it and you try to take a holistic approach to it. You don’t really know if football is going to be a career for everybody you’re working with because it is so difficult to make a living out of the game. These young players have to have robust personalities and have to be able to cope with setbacks because ultimately, you know, a lot of them are not going to make it. So if you’ve only purely focused on them as footballers, you’re maybe short-changing 99% of them who aren’t going to make it into the pro game, you’ve got to support them in a way that if they don’t make it, they’re still taking a lot from the process. And actually, the process of being an academy footballer, has been very valuable to them, because they’ve learned various skills on various sorts of characteristics that will help them in life, not just in football, but even for those who do make it in football. It is a very demanding industry. You know, it is so easy to drop out of the game, even once you sign a pro contract. That’s not the end of the journey. It’s only the beginning of it and they need to have, you know, a sort of strong mentality and strong drive and they’ve got to have a variety of skills, both in terms of their football but also in terms of their character and their personality and how they cope with various situations. So I think developing, you know, a well rounded young footballer, well rounded athlete is vital to any success that they might have.”

I come to the table with a lot of experience even though my biological age is younger than maybe a lot of my peers.

When it comes to working within academy systems you become fairly well-versed in the attributes required to turn raw gems into talented professionals; surprisingly it isn’t just being good with the ball at your feet but there has to be an innate desire, as McKinstry explained.

“Not only do you need that technical ability, but you need that little bit of grit, that little bit of, you know, fight and you’re that you know, the battle or that thing that you’re not going to give up, you’re going to keep heading these obstacles, and you’re going to keep going, you’re going to keep fighting, you’re going to keep training hard, even if you’re not in the team, you’re going to work every day and training because, look, it’s easy to work hard and training as a young player, if you’re getting game time.”

If you’re seeing, you know, five minutes here, 10 minutes here, you know, maybe a start and a cup competition, every now and again. It’s easy to have that motivation and training. But what about if you’re never playing? What about if you’re 17, 18, 19, and through your entire Academy career, your playing every week, every week, every week, on then all of a sudden, maybe you do make the breakthrough? Maybe not at the club you join, but you go and join a League Two or League One club, but still you’re not getting game time? Do you have it in you to keep fighting every day and training to put the best version of yourself out there and training every day? And it’s those players that make it .”

McKinstry’s first professional break came at the age of 27 when, after a successful presentation, he was offered a job at the helm of the Sierra Leone national team. A 17 month tenure to look back on with immense pride as the national team pushed from strength to strength but it was the national Ebola crisis that proved the defining memory as it hampered an otherwise upward trajectory.

“In a footballing sense, obviously, the Ebola crisis really derailed everything- at the time we were ranked 50th in the world and one of the best in Africa, in terms of the world rankings. It was a difficult situation, because ultimately, we weren’t able to play home games, we had players living in Europe and America who weren’t directly exposed to this crisis but had extended family back in Sierra Leone so the focus wasn’t always there. Obviously in the wider scheme of things football was very small, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives but for us as a football team we simply said we would try and put a smile on people’s faces, even if it’s for five minutes, one hour, one day, you know, can we spring a positive light? We tried, we worked hard, the players played very well. If you look at the fact that the two teams that we ultimately lost to in my final games went on Ivory Coast became African Cup of Nations champions whilst DR. Congo ended up finishing third in the final tournament. So it was a very difficult group to be in a very even more difficult situation.”

Having left that post in September 2014 he would next be appointed as the Rwanda national team head coach in March 2015 in what turned out to be a bizarre relationship, certainly at the end, between the confederation and McKinstry – despite impressive results. From there he would make the transition to club management and a position with Kauno Zalgiris in the top division of Lithuanian football.

“I think for anyone in football, you know, club coaching and club management tends to be sort of the normal status. Obviously, there are many more club opportunities around the world than there are international opportunities. There’s only 211 FIFA nations at the moment on so for, to move into club football was always something that was likely to happen. And for me, looking down the road, I always hope there would be an opportunity to come and coach and manage in Europe, after working with some African teams, you never know exactly where it’s going to be, had another national team job come up then it would have obviously been considered as it would be now”.

Never one to shirk from a new challenge, the differences between International and Club management became readily clear to the Northern Irishman from the get-go: “The opportunity to go and work with Kauno Zalgiris was a very interesting project and it was one that was put to me when the club were in a difficult situation but obviously, you know, most jobs come about when clubs are in difficult situations. To go into that European environment was something that was very engaging, and something that was very motivating and obviously, there are many big differences between club and international, naturally, you get to see your players a lot more; in a club environment, you spend 250 days with your players over the course of a season. So you have a lot more access to your players but ultimately, you’re also limited for time (because) in club football, you’ve got a game every three or four day (and) you’re always having to look down the road where possible putting preparation in places as soon as one game is finished. You’re not simply beginning the work for the next game, maybe 20, 30, 40% of it has already been done before one game finishes so that you’re already ahead of the situation.”

We would try and put a smile on people’s faces, even if it’s for five minutes, one hour, one day

That brief spell spent in Lithuania was always going to be a tough ask with Zalgiris struggling for results and an uncertainty around their league status hanging over their heads – McKinstry left at the end of the season and subsequently was employed in his third continent (in a professional capacity) with, Bangladeshi Premier League team, Saif SC. Likewise with all of his jobs you can’t say McKinstry sticks to what he knows with new challenges presented at every corner.

“In terms of adapting to life in Bangladesh, I think it’s something that you sort of throw yourself into, I think to be successful in any environment and culture, you really have to get an appreciation of that culture, it’s very easy to go into a place and you know, try to have everything, all your home comforts. But I equally think in order to really integrate yourself within the environment that you find yourself in, whether that be Sierra Leone, Lithuania, Rwanda, or here now in Bangladesh, I do think you need to sort of throw yourself in at the deep end somewhat, and, you know, that’s included, you know, going and mixing with the families of the club, you know, go and, you know, when you’re invited for dinner somewhere, you know, round somebody’s house remember, they want you to meet their family, go and do it, whether it’s taking part in cultural activities, you know, different festivals, go and do it.”

“I’ve got that bit of continuity” he continued, with Emery (Bayisenge, who was a stalwart in McKinstry’s Rwandan nation side) and he’s in my black book of players that I’ve worked with before, whose skill set I know and he was actually somebody I tried to sign in Lithuania but the transfer fee (wasn’t viable). It became apparent he would be available when I came out here to Bangladesh so we decided to press the button and bring him with us to Dhaka and he’s really showing his quality now and I’m sure it won’t be long before other clubs come sniffing around to snap him up.”

Finishing fourth represents an even keel in comparison to last season but performances and points tally are on the up and it’s a trend McKinstry is keen to continue in what could be his first, genuinely, long term project.

“Naturally, there’s been some new challenges, this has been my first time in an Asian environment and that has its differences from Africa, you know, there’s different personality types, different sort of national culture, national identity, that I’ve had to sort of adapt to, and sort of tweak my approach, as is always the case in any different country. Overall it has been a very positive first season and it’s a good platform in terms of building for the next season – if we can get a good preseason under our belts and make a few tweaks to the squad then we feel we’ll be more competitive and the aim is to push up into the top two in the league.  It’s about taking it, in macros steps and just trying to consistently build and go forward but we’re definitely looking forward to putting together the plan for next year and all being well, we’ll be able to take even more steps forward. We want to consistently be setting new, new personal records for the club and the team and keep challenging the players to be better and to do better”.

The Author

Ollie McManus

Once attempted to run for FIFA President. Have a passion for writing about the obscure stories: I've covered football everywhere from Libya, Syria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uzbekistan to England, Australia and Brazil. @OliverGMcManus on Twitter.

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