I went to Northumbria and now I coach the Rwandan football team

Look at me now

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He’s the biggest football success story since Santiago Muñez.

Meet Johnny McKinstry, 29, who recently left Northumbria with a Sports Science degree and is now the coach of the Rwandan football team.

With the confidence of José Mourinho and the devil-may-care attitude of Harry Redknapp, Johnny manoeuvred his way into the job every football fan dreams of: leading an up-and-coming Central African nation to glory.

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Johnny McKinstry: ‘Working in Rwanda will give me a better range of experiences’

Poly footballing extraordinaire Johnny first bagged a coaching position in the States and then on Sierra Leone’s national team before landing his new job in Rwanda. Now he explains he always had big dreams to work in football.

Johnny, from Northern Ireland, told The Tab: “I’ve always loved football but I knew when I was 16 I wasn’t quite good enough to be a pro player.

“So I decided to go into coaching as a career. Now if I had chosen to stay in the UK after uni, I could have got a football development officer job or coach the under-13s at a local academy. But staying in the UK is a potentially very long route and often has a glass ceiling to it –– there’s not a lot of coaches who came up through the academy system and then became a professional coach.

“I thought I’d get a better experience by going outside the UK in the initial phase of my career. I said to myself when I first left the country, ‘I’m going to go away and prove myself as one of the best in the industry outside of Europe before someone in Europe will give me a look-in’.

“My grand ambition is to end up coaching a top team in the Premier league, the Bundesliga or La Liga. I want to achieve something. I want to win something. Given my experience as a head coach for quite a while, we’ll just have to see what comes up.”

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Johnny in action

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And with his old team in Sierra Leone

As Sierra Leone’s coach, he led his team in the World Cup and African Cup qualifiers –– and even through the Ebola epidemic which ravaged the country last year.

“Every day in Sierra Leone there was something you had to deal with not working: the basics weren’t guaranteed. Sierra Leone was also one of the worst affected countries for Ebola, at least 10,000 people died.

“We were there when the epidemic was raging and our football academy went into lockdown. We only went out every couple of weeks to get supplies. We kept all the young players in a controlled environment just to get on with training and education.

“It was intense in some ways but Ebola is a disease of contact –– you have to come into contact with infected blood or vomiting –– so staying away from sick people we felt comfortable enough. Staying in one place and not socialising became a bit claustrophobic at times. But it was what needed to be done.

“Rwanda itself though is very well developed. In the capital, Kigali, you forget you’re in Africa. You think you’re in suburban America. It really is beautiful. Rwanda was described to me by Quinton Fortune, the former Man United player, as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.”

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Man United player Quinton Fortune says Rwanda is the Switzerland of Africa

On the pitch

On the pitch

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Adoring fans

Johnny, who left behind a doctor girlfriend in Belfast to chase his dreams, says he relishes the challenge of coaching the emerging Rwandan talent, where a language barrier is the least of his worries.

“The local language is Kinyarwanda and people speak a bit of English or a bit of French, so I’ve got to be very succinct in what I’m telling them. My assistant coach is Rwandan so he can translate a lot of what I say.

“But you can get past any language barrier. I wanted to come somewhere English wasn’t the de facto language. Coming from Ireland, we all talk a bit too much, it’s one of our national traits –– so I wanted to develop in a place where I’d have to be very concise.

“We played Zambia in my very first week here. I brought all the young kids in just to shake things up and we lost that game away to Zambia. But with a bit more preparation time we drew in a friendly with Kenya and beat Tanzania in a friendly after.

“Then we won our first African Cup of Nations qualifier in Mozambique a couple weeks ago which was Rwanda’s first competitive win away in four years, so we’ve made a good start.”

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Johnny took Rwanda through the African Cup qualifiers

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Squad goals

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After the win in Mozambique

Now in Rwanda, Johnny has already made his mark on the team, starting with the dressing room.

“It was very quiet in the dressing room, a feeling of quiet contemplation ahead of the game. That’s never been my style, I like a lot of energy. We eventually agreed we wanted the loud African music with the speaker system, with players dancing in the dressing room –– getting them in the frame of mind to go out and perform and hopefully entertain. It’s quite energetic now.

“When I came I just threw myself straight into it. Football’s football, it’s no different here from the UK or back in America. Once you’re out on a pitch with 25 guys and you’ve put the balls down, the game isn’t different too much around the world.”

Photo credits: Darren McKinstry