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When Johnny had to tackle Ebola epidemic head on: Johnny McKinstry locked down Academy in Sierra Leone outbreak

By Declan Bogue

September 6, Stade TP Mazembe. It was supposed to be a home game for Sierra Leone in the African Cup of Nations qualifying rounds.

A game they could legitimately fancy themselves to win too, up against the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Instead, they found themselves playing in the Congo, on plastic grass, with the lines of two crossfield seven-a-side pitches clearly visible with their florescent yellow markings. Ugly setting. Ugly atmosphere.

Then the 17,000 crowd started getting real nasty to their guests. The chanting concerned a virus that was killing 20-30 citizens of Sierra Leone a day.


- "E-BOLA!"

- "E-BOLA!"

Johnny McKinstry, a son of Lisburn, now the Sierra Leone manger, not yet 30 - hell, not even 29 - could hardly believe it.

There was a football match to be won. However, a late Jeremy Bokila goal in the 88th minute made it Sierra Leone Stars 0, DR Congo 2.

It followed another disappointing loss when they had led Ivory Coast by a goal to nil, only for the lead to be rubbed out, and none other than Gervinho to finally snatch the points.

After the Ebola virus breakout, Sierra Leone were banned from hosting games.

It made McKinstry's job difficult. It also provided a means that their hosts could exploit to disrupt their efforts. As they said in the film Blood Diamond, "TIA." Meaning 'This Is Africa.'

It took Sierra Leone two days to get to the DR Congo with sub-standard logistical arrangements.

"Players were very jet-lagged and tired and they were fatigued," recalls McKinstry.

"We lost 2-0. 0-0 at half-time, but the legs went in the second half."

And then we get to the meat.

"In our trips away, the players had to submit themselves twice a day for temperature measures. Held up at the airports. Got out of bed at a certain time and whatever.

"Now, do I understand why a country would do that? Yes, because their first priority has to be their citizens."

Only, they didn't take into account a crucial facet of all this - the players were all professionals, based in Europe, who had travelled directly and hadn't been in Sierra Leone. Strangled by red tape.

"So they were treated on the basis of a Sierra Leone passport," explains McKinstry.

"The incubation period for the disease is three weeks. If you haven't shown any signs of symptoms in that time…

"You have got to remember, it comes into the mind games. They want to win three points in the game. So they might try to legitimately disrupt our preparation as much as possible."

McKinstry was out of a job soon afterwards.

Ejected by a dysfunctional sporting body that wanted jam on their egg in terms of influencing team selection, dictating training and other matters.

McKinstry's response to all their attempts was to "stonewall" them.

He had been in charge for eight games. In the four matches since, they have conceded more than in McKinstry's whole term and scored less. Evidently, he was putting some shape on them.

He had other matters to tend to - being manager of the national team wasn't his bread and butter after all.

His nine to five was with the Craig Bellamy Foundation, running the only professional football academy in the country.

He arrived to it in a circuitous fashion, but when Ebola became a threat, a meticulous thinker such as McKinstry was precisely what was needed.

The man himself would never say it, but he probably saved lives.

In a country where families observed traditions by leaving their dead out in the street, his insistence on locking down the 15-acre academy in Tombo was crucial.

He begins: "When the outbreak happened, it was about finding out as much as possible about it, not only from a personal interest, but also for us as an organisation so that we knew the steps to take.

"My staff and I, along with the medical officer, sat down and looked at it way back, last June. The seriousness, the world didn't take notice until last September.

"To be fair, Sierra Leone didn't take it serious until late July.

"Back in June, we heard the talk that this had entered the country in very rural areas. We felt that if they weren't jumping on it right now, then it would spread as fast as possible.

"Ultimately, it took about six weeks for the Government to act in an appropriate fashion."

He continues: "We decided our protocols early on. If there happened to be 'x' amount of cases within a 50-kilometre radius of the academy, we would lock the Academy down. We would move everybody who lived off-site on-site. We would quarantine the facility. Because Ebola is a disease of contact, if you remove the contact, you remove the risk."

Nobody was allowed in or out of the facility. They brought the families of the Academy players in and explained Ebola to them. Handed out thermometers and anti-bacterial hand gel. Information sheets to put on their walls at home and in the homes of friends.

"We said to them: 'This is happening, this is real.'"

Some responded that they heard it was just a rumour. Such is the way with a chaotic society.

McKinstry's football story is an offbeat one.

While excelling as a student in Wallace High, he was asked to use his talents in Mathematics and Physics in a university setting, something he felt would be the height of boredom.

Instead, he said he wanted to be a football coach and manager. Laughed out of it, he was!

But it takes a special courage to be able to stick to your guns at such a young age and go your own way, like he has.

"I think most people when they are 15 and 16 have an idea of what they would like to do, if they could do anything in the world. I don't know if most people are as forthright and as stubborn as to see it through," he says.

"Circumstances of life means that your dream job is almost out of touch with reality.

"I used to get told by some of my friends when I was that age that I lived in my own little world. But I thought I would rather live in my little world than this one where people say that you have got to go and be a bank manager or an accountant."

And so he has gone where his ambition has taken him - through four years at Northumbria University studying Applied Sports Science. Through a Masters through distance learning with Stirling University and all the UEFA coaching badges you could pin on a cork board.

Then you enquire about his parents and he reveals that his father is the head man at McKinstry Racing.

But of course.

Despite having the lowest budget on the track, they confound expectations. They set the lap record in the Ulster Grand Prix last year and achieved a podium finish in the TT. His father has recently sourced a number of bikes from Korea that are race compliant and go like bullets.

He's not licking it off the floor, then.

Today, McKinstry will board another plane and head east to central and south-east Asia to look at a number of tempting possibilities. Some day, he might like to coach in England and the big leagues, but is wary of the role he might get while he is in the business of acquiring experience.

For example, he cites the role of Ryan Giggs at Manchester United. How hands-on is he really, now that renowned micro-manager Louis van Gaal is in charge? It's a point worth considering.

Wherever he goes next may not be as life-or-death as the last one, but you can be sure it will be utterly compelling.

If only there were more like him.

Belfast Telegraph


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