The Rapid Redemption and the great hope for the future of Sierra Leone football ahead of Morocco 2015
FSL: Johnny McKinstry, What are Sierra Leone chances and possibilities for AFCON 2015 in Morocco?
JM: The Leone Stars have an exciting second half of 2014 ahead of us as we push for qualification for the Nations Cup in Morocco. We know this will not be easy, but our focus this year has been very much about building our capacity, team ethic, and squad quality to give us a realistic chance of progressing. Looking at the players we now in the group, as well as their mindset. I know we have a good chance.
FSL: Johnny, now that Sierra Leone is almost there, have you fully come to terms with Sierra Leone making the group stage.
JM: At the beginning of the year, we set ourselves the target of moving Sierra Leone into the top 50 of the FIFA World Rankings (which would be our highest position ever) and qualifying for AFCON 2015. I firmly believe we are on track for both of these objectives and as such – qualification into the group stage is a part of our journey.
FSL: How are you coping with the superfluous of talents coming through to the National team from Europe.
JM: Since being appointed as Head Coach in April of last year, I have sought extensively to expand the number of quality players available for selection to Sierra Leone. This has seen us give out 13 debuts at that time, and there are several more exciting talents that we are talking about regarding their opportunity to represent Sierra Leone at an international level. By having a wide and diverse group of quality players who are playing regularly for their clubs available to play for Sierra Leone, we improve the overall quality of the group as well as the competitiveness of the players. Long gone are the days when people got selected by right, now everyone knows that they must be in good form and able to produce a performance on the big stage if they wish to be considered for Leone Stars.
FSL: Speaking of your statistics so far, are you enjoying yourself and can Sierra Leone defeat Seychelles away.
JM: I am enjoying the role very much; we have a great group of players here who not only have a high quality in terms of footballing ability but also a good character and work ethic on the field. They have been very open to some of the new ideas we have presented to them, and you can see that in the style of play that we are developing with the National team. Because of this, I am confident we will finish the job in the second leg against Seychelles on 2nd August and keep improving the team over the months ahead.
FSL: Despite all which has been said about players, Is Sierra Leone ready to go head to head with the likes of Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and DR Congo.
JM: We firmly believe that we have the quality required to qualify for AFCON 2015. The road ahead is challenging, however, for any new team to break into the elite. You must first dislodge one of those already there. The group we can progress into should we be successful against Seychelles will give us a direct opportunity to do just that. I am confident. The players are confident and we look forward to big occasions like those against the teams you have mentioned showing the world that Sierra Leone is a rising force in world football.
FSL: If Sierra Leone makes the group stage, what are your plans in terms of preparation?
JM: The key is always in the detail as my coaching staff and I want to know as much about both our team, the opposition as we can. This is no different whether we are playing Seychelles or the Ivory Coast. Our approach to every game is to analyze both us and our opponents. We created a plan whereby we believe we can utilise our strengths to get the result we desire, and once again develop our brand of football.
FSL: Talking of your childhood, is it true that coaching was everything you dreamt of.
JM: I knew from the age of 15 or 16 that I wanted to get involved in coaching. I have always been someone who communicates and relates well with others, and when combined with my passion and understanding of the game, I felt I could make players and teams better.
To coach at the highest level has always been my ambition and at each stage of my career, I have moved forward towards that ambition. Leading a team to the Nations Cup and competing for one of world football’s biggest prizes is most definitely another part of that journey.
FSL: On the subject of next year’s Nations Cup, it was rumoured that players are selected by the Sports Minister, not you. Or do you have to work following what they presented to you?
JM: Ever since coming into the role, I have been tasked with the selection of the players. I can clearly state that at no stage has the Ministry of Sport tried to force players on the National team. This has always been something that is misrepresented in the media.
The team that takes the field is of my choosing is completely my decision to bring many of the new players we have brought into the Leone Stars over the last year – most of whom were contacted in the first instance by me after careful research.
FSL: Given the choice, which game is your best so far since taking charge of Sierra Leone.
JM: It is a difficult question if I am honest. My mind drifts towards the majority of the game against Tunisia last May, where we played so well to lead both 1-0 and 2-1, only to be denied by a late goal in the 90th minute. I have definitely never been as disappointed as I was after that game. In 90 minutes of football, we saw both the great potential within the Leone Stars, as well as the work still to be done.
I believe we have taken the lessons from that game and implemented them into our work to make the team better that has resulted as two consecutive clean sheets, as well as performances that have seen us dominate possession of recent games. Our record since my arrival now reads played six, won three, drawn two and lost 1. Add to that we have only once been behind in a game. We are improving that is there for all to see, and we intend to keep improving.
FSL: And what relationship do you have with Sierra Leone players.
JM: Working with the players has been great. We have a very open and honest relationship, and I am in contact with them regularly between games regardless of where they are playing their club football. I think they can see what we are trying to achieve and that we have a very specific plan to instil confidence in the group – when they can see that the leadership has a clear vision.
FSL: Can you elaborate on Graig Bellamy’s foundation about the success so far.
JM: As Sierra Leone’s first and only fully residential football academy, CBF has seen many achievements in the four years since we opened. We now have four boys on scholarship to the USA, where they continue to study and play football, and soon we should have two more boys taking up scholarships in the UK to play football and continue their education. Adding to that, earlier this year, we had our first U-20 international in Santigie Koroma, a player who we have high hopes for in terms of securing a professional contract later this year.
Across the country, we are also using football to improve standards within communities. This year we have awarded 2240 academic scholarships to boys in girls in our national youth development programs, where we use football as a tool to support school attendance and community involvement. To date, we have awarded the region of 10,000 scholarships of this type across Sierra Leone since 2010.
We believe we are making a difference – but there is much work still to do, and we intend to continue moving forward with our project in the years to come.
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