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'This is a big job and there are big expectations' - the Irishman chasing World Cup dreams in Africa

34-year-old Johnny McKinstry was appointed manager of the Uganda national team at the very end of September and has already tasted success.

Johnny McKinstry prowls the touchline during Uganda's clash with Malawi on 17 November.
Johnny McKinstry prowls the touchline during Uganda's clash with Malawi on 17 November.
Image: XtraTimeSports (Darren McKinstry)

JOHNNY MCKINSTRY KNOWS better than most just how unpredictable football management can be.

Just a few months ago, he was in Dhaka and preparing for a new Bangladesh Premier League season with Saif SC. There was plenty to build on. The club had finished fourth in his first campaign and set new records for wins, points and goals scored. The top brass were sufficiently impressed and handed him another 12-month deal.     

And then there was an approach. Something he couldn’t turn down. A sort of homecoming. 

Lisburn native McKinstry had made his name in Africa, initially as Technical Director and Manager of the Craig Bellamy Academy in Sierra Leone, where he spent almost four years. But it was when he took the reins of the country’s senior national team in April 2013 – becoming the youngest international manager in the world at 27 – that people really started to sit up and take notice. He guided them to the top fifty in the Fifa World Rankings while they were classed as the seventh-best side in the continent. Afterwards, there was a seventeen-month spell in charge of Rwanda where he oversaw their best-ever finish at a major competition (2016 African Nations Championship, otherwise known as CHAN, a tournament for domestically-based players).

But in 2017, club football came calling and McKinstry left for Lithuania and Kauno Zalgiris before the switch to Bangladesh.

However, when the Uganda Football Association reached out, it was difficult to ignore.

“I was very close to the job a couple of years ago”, McKinstry says. 

“I was the media favourite back at the end of 2017. I spoke to then, we got very far down the road and I even thought it was largely a done deal and I was just waiting for a contract to come through. And then it all went quiet, which can happen in football. Directions can change for a number of reasons. So it didn’t work out. But when it became available again, I was asked if I’d still be interested. It came up in the off-season and I’d finished the campaign in Bangladesh and we’d done quite well. But, as with things in the developing world sometimes, things go a bit slower than you like. So I actually thought it wasn’t going to happen and started pre-season with Saif. We were two weeks in and the Ugandan FA got back in touch and formally made an offer. But I had a job, I was at a club. So those details needed to be ironed out and Saif were very hesitant to let me go.” 

McKinstry admits it’s the most high-profile job of his career. In 2017, Uganda reached the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations. Earlier this year, they went one better and made it through to the round of 16 where they narrowly lost to eventual runners-up Senegal.   

“Uganda have had a good bit of success recently”, he says.

“They’ve been to the last two Africa Cup of Nations but even before that they were knocking on the door for a few years. In the last World Cup qualifying campaign, they finished second behind Egypt in the group. So I think it definitely is (the most high-profile job) just in terms of where they are. In Sierra Leone and Rwanda, it was a bit like, ‘Let’s give this coach a chance to change our fortunes’ but Uganda have a lot to lose in a sense. If they make the wrong appointment, all of a sudden they’re not going to an African Cup of Nations. So to be given that trust makes it a different type of job.”

“Uganda is closer in energy to Sierra Leone. There’s a buzz about Kampala, whereas Rwanda was more of a straight arrow and bit more relaxed. Football here is the bonding thing. You can’t walk two minutes without seeing someone with a national team shirt. The team are doing well and that feeds the energy. There’s a lot of life to this city and country and football is a huge part of that.”

“It seems an odd thing to say but sometimes you feel you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. I’ve been here three months now and it certainly feels like right place, right time. I’m at ease in this type of environment. I love that sense of intensity, which you definitely get here in Kampala. The rhythm of life here, that orderly chaos, I find myself thriving in it. So in that sense, there’s maybe a bit of homecoming.”

uganda-v-malawi-afcon-2021-qualifier-kampala-uganda Uganda have qualified for the last two editions of the Africa Cup of Nations, reaching the knockout stages last time out. Source: XtraTimeSports (Darren McKinstry)

“I’m very at home in these surroundings. The African heavyweight boxing championship was here a few weeks back and again people were shocked and surprised to see a foreign football coach there supporting a Ugandan boxer. But I’ve always tried to throw myself into the local culture and make myself part of the community. A lot of European coaches who tend to work with African teams don’t live here. They tend to hop back and forth between their base and whatever country they’re coaching. I’m the opposite – I’ve always lived in the country where my job has been. Three or four times a week, I’m watching local Uganda Premier League games and people almost seem quite surprised that they see me so regularly because it’s not something they’re used to.”   

McKinstry arrived at the beginning of October and the first order of business was availing of the Fifa window and getting a friendly arranged for the middle of the month. With minimal preparation, a clash was set up with Ethiopia and just a fortnight after starting in the role, McKinstry had his first victory. It set the tone for what followed.  

In November, there were a pair of African Cup of Nations qualifiers against Burkina Faso and Malawi and the impressive early performances continued, culminating in some early silverware just last week with victory at the CECAFA tournament, a regional competition for East African teams, which they hosted.     

“It’s gone very well”, he says. 

“To take four points from our first two Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers – one of which was away to Burkina Faso, our toughest game – was a great start. Then, to win the CECAFA tournament in such circumstances was really terrific. We played six, won six, scored fourteen and conceded just two.”   

“But being close to the job a couple of years ago, I’d looked into the team in-depth. And I’d faced them before when I was coach of Rwanda so I had a good knowledge of the players and the style here. It was why I was so interested in the role because I felt what I could bring would move them forward. I was confident that the brand of football they played could be evolved and the way I see the game suited the way they could play. I had that confidence that what I’d be asking the players to do wasn’t the biggest leap in the world. We would do some different things but more tweaks and modifications that could improve the playing style.”  

Inevitably, the personnel ply their trades in every corner of the globe: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kazakstan, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, the United States. Technology makes it easier to keep tabs on how they’re doing and McKinstry will usually spend Monday or Tuesday catching up with various players’ club contributions.     

“If you go back even ten years ago, you had no other choice but to be on a plane and going to games in person”, McKinstry says. 

“We still try and do that but with all the scouting software available, like WyScout or Scout 7, we’re able to monitor. At the start of a week, much of our time is taken up with watching games from Turkey, Sweden, Morocco, MLS and seeing how our players have done. I try once a week to touch base with all of them on WhatsApp – exchanging voice messages or jumping on a quick call. So modern technology helps build relationships and it’s that bridge to help you stay in contact with these guys.”

What’s also helped is McKinstry’s last two gigs. Having worked exclusively with international teams prior to his move to Lithuania, his time there and later in Bangladesh has made him better understand a player’s mindset when they arrive to a national team camp.    

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“The big thing you have to get good at in club football is delegation”, he says. 

uganda-v-malawi-afcon-2021-qualifier-kampala-uganda McKinstry has already claimed some silverware as Uganda were crowned CECAFA champions earlier this month. Source: XtraTimeSports (Darren McKinstry)

“Because you only have players at international level for a week or ten days, it’s easier to take more weight on your own shoulders. You can deliver at full intensity for that period of time but it’s impossible in a day-to-day scenario. You’d just burn yourself out remarkably quickly. But the other thing we’ve gained is an appreciation of a player’s experience prior to coming into an international environment. So we probably better tailor our training programmes for our players now having had the experience of club football.”

It’s a three-year deal, encompassing another Africa Cup of Nations set for Cameroon in 2021 and a World Cup qualification campaign which begins with group action next March. But McKinstry hasn’t been handed grandiose goals. Progress in recent years has been encouraging but nobody is getting carried away just yet.  

“The federation are very good with medium-term goals”, he says. 

“They set an objective in 2015 of reaching the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. But they ultimately achieved it early and went in 2017 instead. But, that didn’t mean they automatically said, ‘Right, let’s go and win it next time’. It was about doing a bit better than before. And in 2019 – instead of the group stages – they went to the last sixteen. So, it’s about the next step. Can we reach the quarter-finals in 2021? Qualify, cement our place and push on? Now, they’ve also said to me that the 2026 World Cup is a solid aim and something they will be judged on. We missed out last time by finishing second in our qualifying group. So I’ve said, ‘Right, can we win our group next time?’ It isn’t just what takes you to the World Cup anymore though because there’s a play-off round to contend with now too. But, I’ve said, ‘Look, our main goal is going again to the Africa Cup of Nations and trying to equal or better what we’ve done but as part of the three-year deal I’ve signed, let’s have the World Cup play-off round as our stretch goal’. And with that being a home and away tie, anything can happen.”      

Kampala is another stop in McKinstry’s remarkable football adventure. From Lisburn, he went to study at the University of Northumbria, where he moonlighted as both performance coach for the football team and a Player Development Officer at Newcastle United. There was a summer stint as coach at the Right To Dream Academy in Ghana while he moved to New Jersey in 2007 and spent over two years as a pre-academy coach with Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls. It was January 2010 when he moved to Sierra Leone and everything rapidly progressed from there. 

“It is the by-product of a career that’s taken me to different places”, he says. 

“But I immensely enjoy living within and learning about many different cultures and environments. I’ve become a global citizen in the last few years but even before that, I found it interesting moving from Ireland to the northeast of England. Newcastle has its own distinctive cultural identity and then I went down to London which was completely different. It’s something to be very grateful for: getting to experience a big world. You see all of the things going on in the UK right now and you wish you could give just a drop of it to those who don’t seem to appreciate that notion of a global community, just to make them see why it’s such a good thing. But I feel very grateful that it’s been such a big part of my career.”

“All coaches want to be handed big jobs and I said in my press conference when I came that I genuinely believe it’s one of the biggest jobs in Africa. Uganda aren’t yet the best team here but they have the ambition to be. Just in terms of the demographic of the squad, the age, the good mix of experience and youth, the forward-thinking federation behind it…This is a big job and there are big expectations. But it feels like the place I’m supposed to be. The way the players are reacting, the way the federation is reacting to how I want to work. At this moment, things are all driving forward and I think we can achieve something here. I think we can make the team better and take them to another level. And if we do that, who knows where it might lead to.”                

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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