McKinstry on his Amavubi job so far, footballing philosophy

Johnny McKinstry was named head coach of the Rwanda national football team last month and started work on March 22 to prepare the Amavubi Stars for an international friendly match against Zambia in Lusaka.
Johnny McKinstry applauds Amavubi players during a training session at Amahoro national stadium. (Sam Ngendahimana)
Johnny McKinstry applauds Amavubi players during a training session at Amahoro national stadium. (Sam Ngendahimana)

Johnny McKinstry was named head coach of the Rwanda national football team last month and started work on March 22 to prepare the Amavubi Stars for an international friendly match against Zambia in Lusaka.

Rwanda lost that game 2-0 but the Irishman has since registered his first victory with the national U-23 side, a 2-0 win over Somalia in the preliminary round first leg tie of the CAF U-23 qualifiers.

Times Sport reporter Usher Komugisha sat down with McKinstry to find out his impression of Rwandan football so far, his assessment of the Amavubi senior and U-23 sides, as well as coping with life in Rwanda and his anxiety to learn Kinyarwanda.

 What has been your impression of Rwanda in the five weeks you’ve been here?

First of all, really living in the country has been generally pleasant. From what I have seen of Kigali, it is a lovely city, much more developed than I expected and I’ll not lie, when I left Sierra Leone, I sort of wanted to say to myself that my next job, I would like to be in a big city.

I am a city person, I like to enjoy myself in the hustle and bustle of a city and I sort of said, I would like to move to a big city.

And when the opportunity came to come back to Africa, I am sure the only apprehension I had was that would it be going back to a situation where every day in some way it was a little bit of a struggle but I am very pleased that I arrived here and immediately I can’t say any day has been a struggle, the infrastructure, the city, the way people are, very happy and helpful.

It’s been great on a sort of personal level for the first five weeks. On a work level, again, good. I am not going to sit here and tell anybody that everything is perfect. There is still work to be done.

I think that goes sort of hand in hand with the way things are run here as a country. It is generally quite efficient so that’s been pleasing because it means that I can focus on football.

In previous roles, for example, in Sierra Leone, probably only 40% of my mental capacity was focusing on coaching, the other 60% was focused on the logistics and all of the other things that really should have been someone else’s job, but because we either didn’t have people who were willing or able to do them, I had to do them.

Here, it is excellent, because 90 per cent of my mental resources can be focused on what we are doing on the training pitch and making the team better. I am looking forward to leave Kigali and see more of the country.

You lost your first game in charge, a 2-0 defeat to Zambia in Lusaka, what was your impression of that game?

 For the first hour, I thought we did well. Zambia are a difficult opponent. They’ve got experienced players. Yes, they brought in some new young players but as a footballing nation, they are very strong.

They’ve been to the most African Cup of Nations tournament, I believe, so they’ve got a pedigree there which here in Rwanda, we are still striving to achieve. So it was never an easy game, coming obviously in my first week here.

If I am honest with you, my intention was to take a back seat and let everyone else get onto the coaching and me just getting to know the players but as is my appetite for the game, I looked at things I thought I want to change this part of the way we play quite a bit, so let’s just get onto the training pitch.

You had been in the country for three weeks when you selected the U-23 side to play against Somalia in the CAFU-23 qualifiers, that was considerable time to see a few league games, how was that relevant in helping you select a team?

 Obviously, in such a short period of time, you are only able to see so many games, so yes, the first reference was players that I had witnessed in action with my own eyes.

Ultimately, any coach will tell you that seeing a player only once, you always want to see them again and again but such was the constraints we were under in terms of time.

For most players, one viewing for their club had to be enough and on top of that obviously some recommendations for the final two or three places in the squad from the coaching staff.

It’s because here we have the luxury from the Ministry of Sports and the FA [FERWAFA] to bring in a big training squad of up to 25, 26 players. That’s great because not a lot of national teams will do that.

They’ll normally say you bring in 20, 21 so the fact that we can have those extra players in training camp means we can gamble a little bit on players we’ve only seen once and I’ve had a good recommendation to look at them on the training ground.

I felt it was a very balanced team, one of the things I usually try and do when I am at a club, I am bringing players or a national team, I’m selecting for a particular game is I want to have two players in every position because then there is real competition.

It’s never good to get into a situation where a player knows he is in the starting line-up at the start of the week. Yes, there might be players who might have a chance of playing because of their track record but you never want that to be guaranteed.

At your unveiling press conference, you mentioned that you wanted to focus on attacking football and you admitted that it would take time, how has the transitional process been so far?

I think first of all, there is a good shape to the team and defensively we are quite strong.

I looked at the game against Somalia, people might say they are not the biggest opponents but still I think on the statistics of that game, only 13% of Somalia’s passes were played in the attacking half of the field and that tells you that we are doing a good job not allowing them to come into our half of the field which is your first thing.

 You need that strong, solid base to build upon and I think we do have that in the players because they’ve taken up tactical ideas faster than I envisioned they would take them up.  There is still work to do but they are definitely learning quickly. That gives you a foundation to go and attack.

Against Zambia, we didn’t work on any attacking during the week, we worked on our team shape so I wasn’t overly concerned in that game on what we did attacking wise, it was more to the players on what they knew.

Against Somalia, I thought we could have done a little bit better. I think one or two players went into their comfort zone of this is what I do for my club team therefore, I’m going to do it here and we had to speak to one or two of them and reinforce the message that they need to do a specific job for us.

And if they can do that then there is a role on the team for them but if they can’t do the role that we need them to do, they can’t just go and do whatever they want, yes they get a little bit of freedom for their own creativity but it’s got to fit into the team shape so I thought we did okay but we need to be more aggressive.

How has the communication been with the players, especially with your Irish accent?

It’s been alright but obviously there’s been a bit of the language barrier there but actually the majority of the players have a reasonable degree of English understanding so when I give them coaching points, I try and keep what I am telling them pretty simple.

 I do not try and be too elaborate with them when it’s just me and them on the coaching pitch. If there is anything that needs to be detailed then the other coaching staff or Patrick, the physio who is very fluent in English, obviously will translate but in general it’s been okay. It will get better.

You mentioned earlier that you would enroll for Kinyarwanda lessons, how is that going so far?

To be honest, slower than I would like simply because I’ve sort of had my head down in getting a lot of work done.

If I’m honest, I have probably been very busy since I’ve arrived and I do need to take a few more active steps in moving towards it and it is easier for me a little bit because when I get to do the most important part of my job, I have someone on my shoulder who can translate something for me so that makes things a little bit easier in that sense.

 It is something that I am very cautious about that I have to make a sustained effort and probably once we get out of this busy period that is coming up, I hope to undertake one-on-one session.

However, I’ve learnt some simple words like greeting Muraho and saying thank you Murakoze.

NOTE: This interview was conducted before Rwanda U-23 team hosted  Uganda U-23 in the CAF U-23 Championships/Rio Olympic Games qualifier which the hosts lost 2-1.

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