Coach McKinstry: Rwanda - Review

Review: Coach McKinstry led Rwanda to their best ever performance in a major competition (Qtr-Finals of CHAN) and finished runner up in CECAFA. (January 2017).

Coach McKinstry was appointed in March 2015, with the challenge to assist Rwanda to identify new talent, and to rebuild their national team.

In late 2014, just months ahead of his appointment, Rwanda had been disqualified from the 2015 African Cup of Nations for breaking rules associated with the use of ineligible players. Going forward they would seek to build a team around players only of direct Rwandan descent.

Despite the unlikely odds, in just 17 months, Coach McKinstry led the Rwanda ‘Amavubi’ to new heights - securing Rwanda’s best ever performance in a major competition (Quarter-Finals of the 2016 CAF Nations Championship); finishing runner up in CECAFA 2015; securing Rwanda’s biggest ever victory in FIFA or CAF qualifying (5-0 vs Mauritius); securing Rwanda’s first competitive away win in 4 years (vs Mozambique, AFCON qualifying); and placing Rwanda second in AFCON 2017 group qualifying with 6 points (both achievements having only been once before bettered in Rwanda’s history - in 2004).

This article looks back at the challenges that faced Coach McKinstry on his appointment in March 2015, and the successes achieved during his time as Head Coach.


Rwanda - a Team Reborn...

In early 2015, Rwanda as a footballing nation were still reeling from their disqualification from the 2015 African Cup of Nations for breaking rules by fielding an ineligible player

For the same reasons, their meteoric rise in the FIFA world rankings over the previous 12 months - from 134th (February 2014) to 64th (March 2015) - was now also under a shadow, with the validity of a number of results from 2014 now in question.

Following the disqualification, FERWAFA (the Rwandan football Association), took the decision that they would select players born in only Rwanda or with a direct lineage to Rwanda. Unlike in previous years 'naturalised players' would no longer be selected and, although not required by FIFA, FERWAFA would also no longer consider for selection any players who were eligible based on residency.

As a result of the decision to no longer rely on a number of naturalised players, Rwanda would immediately be required to mould a new generation of players to rebuild their national team from the ground up - something that had not been done for many years.

This increased reliance solely on smaller pool of Rwandan born / direct lineage players was expected to have a negative impact on team performance, and on their FIFA World Rankings, but separate efforts to develop domestic football in Rwanda would seek to deliver improvements in the longer term.


Coach McKinstry speaks to players ahead of extra time. [Rwanda V DR Congo, Quarter Finals - CHAN, Jan 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda.  Photo © Darren McKinstry 2016,]Coach McKinstry speaks to players ahead of extra time. [Rwanda V DR Congo, Quarter Finals - CHAN]  (Pic: ©


Accepting the Challenge

On the lookout for a new Head Coach - with the skills to identify new talent and a proven ability to recruit and mould established talent into a cohesive team - in March 2015 Rwanda appointed Coach McKinstry.

Coach McKinstry had been Head Coach and Manager of the Sierra Leone National Men's football team, and with his appointment now as Head Coach of the Rwandan National Team he again became the youngest active Head Coach in international football, now at only 29 years of age.

"Rwanda's disqualification in late 2014 meant that it wasn't an obvious choice for me to come to Rwanda, but it did offer me the opportunity to use my skills to recruit and build a new team; to identify emerging talent; and to shape an overall approach which would allow Rwanda football to secure real and sustained success over the coming years."  Coach McKinstry.


Seizing Opportunities

While building a new international team would present an immense challenge, Rwanda had been selected to host the CAF African Nations Championship (CHAN) in January 2016, with a number of friendly games ahead of that tournament that would provide Coach McKinstry with all important contact time with players.

The potential also to play in the CECAFA 2015 Senior Challenge Cup against the largest Eastern African countries and some of those from Central Africa provided a further opportunity, as did World Cup qualifiers, even in the knowledge that Rwanda had never before qualified for a World Cup.

"I had shown my ability with the Sierra Leone National team where I had given 14 debuts in just 18 months - bringing the average squad age down from 29 to 22 - successfully rejuvenating the squad while at the same time posting a number of positive results. My time working in elite academies in Africa and the USA provided me with the skills to scout, identify and nurture young talent - all of which were seen as important to successfully moulding a new Rwandan national team"   Coach McKinstry.



Rwanda's first competitive away win in 4 years 

Not long after his appointment, in June 2015 Coach McKinstry led Rwanda to their first competitive away win in 4 years - in their opening AFCON 2017 qualification game against Mozambique LINK. With away wins notoriously difficult to secure in Africa, it was an impressive start to their AFCON 2017 qualification campaign.


"We knew that Mozambique were a team of technicians who like to play with the ball, who move around the field and who like to switch positions - so we knew we would have to be at our defensive best to keep track of them."

"However, I had confidence in the young group of players I had identified, so we also worked all week on looking forward, on seeking out the opportunities - and that came to us with Ernest SUGIRA placing a great header in at the back post." 

"The result was all the more impressive in that Rwanda historically did not have a good record away from home".
 Coach McKinstry


Runner Up, CECAFA 2015

By December, just 9 months after appointment, Coach McKinstry had led Rwanda to secure the runner's up position in CECAFA 2015.

The CECAFA (Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations) Senior Challenge Cup is played between the largest Eastern African countries and part of Central Africa. It is considered the oldest football tournament in Africa.

In the final, Rwanda narrowly lost out to tournament favourites Uganda in a very tight fought and close match. Uganda, the most successful team in the history of CECAFA, held on to win their 14th title. Rwanda, in finishing runner’s up, Coach McKinstry’s Rwanda team had matched or exceeded every past Rwandan performance in CECAFA , with the exception of 1999.

Indeed, overall Rwanda's performance more than exceeded expectations. Not only did they reach the final, but did so by perhaps the most difficult route of all the teams - their journey to the final seeing them overcome hosts and 3rd place finishers Ethiopia; defeating defending champions Kenya; and beating 4th place finishers and defending runners-up Sudan.

“We were all disappointed that we were not able to finish our great run at CECAFA with the championship trophy, falling just short to favourites Uganda”

“We could however be more than satisfied with the performances shown throughout the tournament - we successfully traversed the most difficult route to the final - defeating the host nation Ethiopia; previous tournament runners-up Sudan; and reigning champions Kenya.”
 Coach McKinstry


Coach of the Tournament

Coach McKinstry is named 'Coach of the Tournament'Coach McKinstry named CECAFA 2015 'Coach of the Tournament'   
(Pic: ©


Following Rwanda’s strong run at CECAFA 2015, Coach McKinstry was named 'Coach of the Tournament' at the CECAFA 2015 award ceremony at the National Stadium in Addis Ababa.


“The award reflected the effort put in by all of the players and staff.   It was a clear sign of recognition for how far this new Rwandan team had come in the 9 short months we had been working together." Coach McKinstry



New Heights - Reaching the Quarter Finals of CAF Nations Championship (CHAN) 2016

In January 2016, just some 10 months after his appointment, Coach McKinstry led Rwanda to their first ever appearance in the knock-out stages of a major international tournament, losing out in the last 5 minutes of extra time to DR Congo - who would go on to win the tournament.

In doing so, Coach McKinstry's Rwandan side become the only Amavubi side ever to make it to the Quarter-Finals of a major international tournament. In addition, it was also the first time ever that Rwanda has finished 1st in the group phase of any major competition.

"We were all very disappointed to exit the tournament at the quarterfinal stage - because we came so close; and on a different day one of the chances towards the end of the game would have found the net"

"Reaching the Quarter-finals of a major tournament for the first time in the history of Rwandan football again demonstrated that the Amavubi really were a team on the up..."

"In a 10 month period we secured Rwanda's first away win in 4 years; reached the final of CECAFA; and in getting the quarter finals of CHAN, have qualified for the knock out stages of a major tournament for the first time in Rwanda's history..."
   Coach McKinstry.


AFCON Qualifying - including Rwanda's Biggest Ever FIFA / CAF Competitive Victory

In June, after just 3 months in charge Coach McKinstry had led Rwanda to their first competitive away win in 4 years , overcoming Mozambique in their opening fixture of AFCON 2017 qualifiers.  

By September 2015, Coach McKinstry’s Rwanda had come very close to taking points from Ghana in their second AFCON 2017 qualifier, only to be thwarted when Ghana scored an 87th minute free kick.  In March 2016, a year after his appointment, Coach McKinstry lead Rwanda to secure their biggest ever victory in FIFA or CAF qualifying (5-0 vs Mauritius).

In doing so Coach McKinstry had placed Rwanda second in AFCON 2017 group qualifying with 6 points equalling or bettering Rwanda's progress in all but once AFCON qualifying campaign (both the placing and the points total only been once before bettered in Rwanda’s history - in 2004).



Ernest SUGIRA celebrates putting Rwanda 2-0 ahead. [Rwanda v Mauritius, AFCON 2017 Qualifier, 29 March 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda.  Photo © Darren McKinstry 2016,]Ernest SUGIRA celebrates putting Rwanda 2-0 ahead 
[Rwanda v Mauritius, AFCON 2017 Qualifier]
(Pic: ©


Looking Ahead 

In March 2016, FERWAFA rewarded Coach McKinstry for his various successes by offering him a new contract - now for a 2 year term - to continue to lead the Rwanda ‘Amavubi’.

"A key factor in my decision to come to Rwanda in 2015 was the potential that I saw to develop the Rwanda National team. In the first year we began to demonstrate what was possible."

"A key part of me accepting a new two-year contract was that FERWAFA and the Ministry of Sport had agreed to support my recommendations which would allow the Amavubi to progress to the next stage of their development – including to finance a programme of training camps and match-time for players; and to fund additional back-room support comprising technical analysis and specialist fitness coaching."

"That commitment would, if fulfilled, provide Rwanda’s young squad of players with the best chance to further develop their potential."

"We would focus on building consistency and securing positive results in competitive games; but in friendly games, as in the first year, we would actively seek to face difficult opponents and test new approaches - as it is only by challenging ourselves at every opportunity that we will be able to move to the next level of competitive and tournament performance."
 Coach McKinstry


Moving On

Despite the agreements made in March 2016, by August 2016, Coach McKinstry was required to depart his role as the Head National Coach of Rwanda National Soccer Team.

"It was an honour to be Head Coach of the Rwanda National Team. Leading Rwanda to their best ever tournament performance - the last eight of the CAF Nations Championship 2016 - was the stand out moment; but also that our CAF Nations Cup and CECAFA Challenge Cup performances have each only been bettered once before by any Rwandan team in history."

"Being named ’Coach of the Tournament’ following our CECAFA Challenge Cup 2015 performance also underlined the good progress the team were making through our work together."
Coach McKinstry


Coach McKinstry primes players before Kick off. [Rwanda v Mauritius, AFCON 2017 Qualifier, 29 March 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda.  Photo © Darren McKinstry 2016,]Coach McKinstry primes players.
[Rwanda v Mauritius, AFCON 2017 Qualifier]
(Pic: ©


Summary - Key Facts 

 In just over a year as Head Coach of the Rwanda National Team, Coach McKinstry secured:
  • Quarter-Finals - 2016 CAF Nations Championship (Rwanda’s best ever performance in a major competition, having never previously advanced past the group phase of competition in any major competition);
  • Runner up - CECAFA 2015 (matching or exceeding every CECAFA performance, with the exception of 1999);
  • Biggest ever Rwandan win in FIFA or CAF qualifying (5-0 vs Mauritius, AFCON qualifying);
  • Rwanda’s first competitive away win in 4 years (Mozambique, AFCON qualifying)
  • Finished 1st in the group phase of a major competition, for the first time in Rwanda's history (2016 CAF Nations Championship).
  • Placed Rwanda second in AFCON 2017 group qualifying with 6 points (having only been once before bettered in Rwanda’s history - in 2004).


Career Profile  

You can read more about Coach McKinstry's career to date - including other posts held, as well as his awards, honours and qualifications - by reading his Career Profile. 


Notes to Editors

Summary of Timeline:

CAF Nations Cup (AFCON):

  • At time of the termination of Coach McKinstry's contract, Rwanda were 2nd in Group H (with 6 points) behind group winners Ghana with 1 game left to play.
  • Not only was this exceeding their Group H seeding (they were drawn as 3rd seeds in the group), but performance under his leadership matched or exceeded that achieved in ALL of Rwanda's past AFCON final qualification phases with the exception of 2004 (when Rwanda qualified with 7 points).
  • In their AFCON qualifying group, Rwanda, under his leadership established new benchmarks. They:
    • recorded their first competitive away victory, after four years without a competitive away win (1-0 vs. Mozambique); and
    • registered their biggest ever victory in a FIFA / AFCON qualifying match (5-0 vs. Mauritius)

CAF Nations Championship (CHAN):

CECAFA Challenge Cup:

  • In December 2015, under his leadership, Rwanda finished as Runners-up at the 2015 CECAFA Challenge Cup
  • This matches or exceeds the performance achieved in all past CECAFA Challenge Cup competitions with the exception of 1999 (when a Rwanda 'B' team won the competition as hosts)
  • En-route to the final Rwanda defeated hosts Ethiopia, reigning champions Kenya, and the previous competition Runners-up, Sudan
  • Coach McKinstry was awarded 'Coach of the Tournament' for his efforts.


  • These milestones are all the more impressive given the decisions by the relevant authorities just before his arrival to cease the practice of using ‘naturalised players’ for the Rwanda National Football Senior Team - fundamentally changing the player pool that had formed the core of the squad until that point.


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You can read more about Coach McKinstry's:

About Coach McKinstry

Coach McKinstry is a UEFA Pro Licensed Football Coach, with a number of successes across his 20+ year career to date.    He is currently Head Coach of the Gambia National Team and Head Coach of Gor Mahia FC in Kenya (2022-24) where he won two Kenya Premier League titles (2023-24, 2022-23), and the 2023-24 Kenya Charity Shield, returning the club to the top of Kenyan football.

As Head Coach of the Uganda National Team, (2019 - 2021) he led Uganda to win CECAFA 2019 and delivered a win from 2 in every 3 games, going undefeated in 8 in evey 10 games.  This represented the highest 'win' and 'undefeated' rate achieved by a Uganda National Team Coach in over 15 years.

He was Head Coach of the Rwanda National Football Team (2015-16). Within 17 months he led Rwanda to a number of highs - including their first ever appearance in the knockout stages of a major international tournament (Quarter-finals of CHAN, Jan 2016) and finished runner-up in CECAFA (Dec 2105), being named 'Coach of the Tournament' for his efforts. 

Across 2013-14, he was Head Coach of the Sierra Leone National Men's Football team. Within just over a year, he had led Sierra Leone to their highest ever FIFA World and African rankings - 7th in Africa and 50th in the World (August 2014). 

He has also been Head Coach of Saif Sporting Club, Bangladesh Premier League (2018-19); and FK Kauno Zalgiris, Lithuanian A-Lyga (2017-18).   

Coach McKinstry is a European (UEFA), American (NSCAA) and university qualified football coach and a member of Common Goal.

Quotes: What the media say

  • McKinstry has become one of the most rounded and well-travelled British coaches at the highest level abroad.

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    These Football Times
  • McKinstry has a voracious appetite for football and for learning, he lives and breathes it and his sense of adventure means predicting his next move is not easy.

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    Ben Smith BBC Sport
  • There is an almost missionary zeal to Johnny McKinstry's devotion to his job.

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    Daily Mirror
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