Johnny McKinstry: Northern Irishman leading Gor Mahia's revival

Johnny McKinstry
Johnny McKinstry has managed internationally with both Rwanda and Uganda

A year ago, it might have been hard to believe Gor Mahia would enter the 2023/24 Kenyan Premier League season as defending champions.

'K'Ogalo' may have more titles than any other club, but following serious financial struggles, consecutive campaigns had ended in disappointment.

A Fifa-imposed transfer ban over money allegedly owed to former players made new signings impossible adding to the woes.

"It was certainly an interesting challenge. Expectations were low," explained the club's Northern Ireland born head coach Johnny McKinstry.

"There were days in pre-season last year when there were only seven or eight players turning up for training. But I saw it as an opportunity to prove people wrong, and create success in difficult circumstances."

'Destined to travel the world'

McKinstry is not afraid of challenging environments.

In his first managerial role as the head coach of the Sierra Leone national side, he had to navigate the team through the country's 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Nonetheless, under his stewardship the nation reached its highest Fifa World Ranking, an achievement all the more remarkable given, at 27 years of age, he was the youngest international manager when appointed.

Since then, he has found further success with the Rwandan and Ugandan national sides, and spent time in club management in Lithuania and Bangladesh prior to his current role in Nairobi.

"It wasn't a direct ambition to coach on different continents," said McKinstry remembering when, as a teenager in Northern Ireland working part time in a clothes shop, a colleague identified him as someone with "itchy feet" who was destined to travel the world.

"Sometimes in life, you meet people who see you better than you can see yourself", he shrugs.

McKinstry's social circle has been impacted by his travels too - his partner works for an international aid organisation, and he has several acquaintances in the diplomatic world.

"As an international coach, you're almost an ambassador for a nation because you're in a very public profile, and you have to respect and represent that nation even if it's not your own," he said.

Johnny McKinstry
McKinstry's first taste of international competition came with Sierra Leone during the qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations

No matter how far from home he travels, and what country he represents, there are two roles McKinstry says he could never turn down: "Northern Ireland and Newcastle United."

As a boyhood Newcastle fan McKinstry idolised the 1990s 'Entertainers' side led by Kevin Keegan, who he counts among his greatest role-models.

The club connection has persisted throughout his career - back in Sierra Leone he led former striker Craig Bellamy's West African soccer academy, and he has remained friends with Newcastle's current assistant manager Jason Tindall after the pair studied for their coaching badges together.

"I actually texted Jason before the League Cup final [against Manchester United] to say good luck" McKinstry says. "I didn't ask him for a ticket though!"

Whenever he takes on a new role, McKinstry says, he makes a single promise to players: "I can't guarantee trophies, that's not in our control, but I can assure you that you'll grow as players and as people."

The recent emergence of Benson Omala, who finished as the league's 2022-23 second best scorer, resulted in the 21-year-old crediting his coach with "sharpening" his game.

Already a full Kenyan international, the young striker is considered one of East Africa's best prospects, and has reportedly attracted the attention of rival South African giants: Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.

Entrenched in community

McKinstry's own success means he'll likely have suitors of his own, too. "I always ask my players how to improve the story they are writing, and I treat my own progression in the same way. Any coach who is honest about their goals wants to work at the highest level possible."

For now, McKinstry insists he's happy in Nairobi.

"Having worked in the region before, Gor is a club you can't help but be aware of. The fanbase is very passionate and intense, and they demand success whoever the opponent."

He compares the supporters to those of Rangers or Celtic, being "very entrenched in community."

This identity is written into the club's heritage, originating from a union body which represented the welfare of the Luo ethnic group.

"Ultimately" he says, "football is a winding river, with doors constantly opening and closing, and any opportunities I do have are predicated on success with Gor now."

Gor Mahia's transfer ban has now been lifted, but the club is not free from scrutiny, after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) revoked qualification to the upcoming continental Champions League.

The omens, however, are better heading into the new season especially as they have held onto their rising star Omala.

A 1-1 draw at home to Sofapaka opened the Kenyan Premier League season while they claimed Kenya's Charity Shield by beating Kakamega Homeboyz on penalties.

If McKinstry can indeed go on to replicate last season's success, the next move in his cosmopolitan career - and perhaps achieving his dreams closer to home - may not be far away.