Leone Stars shine with purpose
© AFP

When Johnny McKinstry was announced as the interim coach of Sierra Leone in April last year, it was a remarkable appointment. Not only had McKinstry's only previous positions as head coach been the fifth-tier Northern Irish club Lurgan Town FC and the Right to Dream Football Academy in Ghana, but he was also at the time just 28-years-old.

But what is even more remarkable is what the young Northern Irishman has done with the Sierra Leone team since then. In the August FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking the Leone Stars are ranked 50th in the world and seventh in Africa – higher than they have ever been since the rankings were introduced, and up 14 places from July.

Under McKinstry, Sierra Leone have played six matches, losing just one FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in Cape Verde Islands 1-0, but also achieving a morale-boosting 2-2 draw against African powerhouse Tunisia in the same competition. He has steered the team into the group stages of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers after beating Swaziland and Seychelles in the knock-out stages, with a 2-0 victory over the latter falling into the time period used for the August ranking.

For McKinstry the upsurge in the country's footballing fortunes has not come as a surprise, and the team has introduced 13 new players in the last 16 months. “Since taking up the reigns of the Leone Stars, both I and my coaching staff have had a clear vision of how we wanted to move the team forward. Through this new playing philosophy, combined with the introduction of new players to the group, and most importantly the work ethic of all those involved, I believe that the rise in the rankings is not unexpected," he recently told FIFA.com.

"At the beginning of 2014 we had two clear goals. Firstly, take Sierra Leone into the top 50 in the world, and secondly, qualify for the CAF Nations Cup to be held in Morocco in 2015. I am pleased to say we are on track, and we look forward to the challenges that are coming up over the coming months as we move to complete our mission for the year.”

A tough task ahead
The Leone Stars have been drawn into what is arguably the most difficult group in the Nations Cup qualifiers and have to face Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Congo DR, but McKinstry is upbeat about the prospect. “Our goal at the start of the year was to qualify the Leone Stars for their first Africa Cup of Nations in almost two decades. That ambition did not change following the group draw.”

His job will not have been made any easier by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic and it seems likely that they will have to play their home games on a neutral venue. “We will adopt a new home in a different country to complete our fixtures. Whilst it is disappointing that we will not be able to play in front of our own fans, who are so passionate about their team, it is a decision that we understand and are supportive of.”

He says that the epidemic has given the team a further hurdle to leap. “The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is a serious challenge for everyone in the country. The success of the national team can have a direct impact on the mood of the nation. We as a group are determined to be the good news story when so much being written about Sierra Leone presently is negative. Make no doubt about it, through determination and the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone, the outbreak will be brought to an end, and we are working tirelessly to ensure that when that does happen the focus of the world will be on Sierra Leone for the right reasons, and the Leone Stars participation in AFCON 2015 can play a big role in that.”

He is confident that football in Sierra Leone can continue moving forward. “There are several areas of key importance, some of which I am pleased to say are being focused on by the footballing authorities. Naturally, the long-term importance of youth development is vital. A vision is required both in terms of player development, coaching and facilities for young players. This is starting to take shape I am pleased to say, and I am hopeful that it will only gain momentum over the coming years.

“For too long the focus was only on the senior level of the game in many countries around the world, but pleasingly here in Sierra Leone that is changing, and the young footballers in this country can, I hope, look forward to a bright future, and subsequently the nation can hope to see even more players progressing to national team level.”