I used to play football in Northern Ireland, in the Down Area League. It’s a good league, not quite amateur league status, I suppose you’d call it recreational at best. I played for a team called Castlereagh Colts, and I plied my trade as a right back in the second squad.
One summer it was announced that a guy called Johnny McKinstry was coming to coach us, he was studying for his coaching badges and had a university background in Sport’s Science. I remember turning up for the first session of pre-season and I was wearing a Sunderland shirt. A friend of mine, a Sunderland supporter who was working in the Stadium of Light at the time had sent it to me as a birthday present. This did not go down well with our new coach who was a staunch Newcastle fan. I tried to explain to him that I was actually a Manchester United supporter, this did not help and he quickly dismissed me and began to put us through our paces. I failed to impress during training, not being overly gifted technically and carrying more than a little excess weight.
We trained throughout the summer and his regime was punishing, but also rewarding. I began to lose weight; I became sharper, more focussed. Technically I improved. This was the first time in my life I had begun to feel really fit. This was the first time in my life I felt I was improving as a footballer.
The season began and we were not the same team we had been the season before. We were sharp, fit and we had tactics. Both teams surged ahead in their respective divisions. Other teams were talking about us as the teams to beat. Within the squad there was a solidarity that hadn’t existed previously. There had been an understanding at the club that certain people played for the firsts and others for the seconds. No more. All places were up for grabs and in the second half of the season I found myself lean, sharp and being given my chance for the firsts. I scored the one and only goal of my career in a cup match from right back. A volley from a rebound – oh, how I still celebrate when I replay it in my mind.
Johnny was a breath of fresh air – we knew we could never keep him and a couple of months before the season ended he left the meagre Castelreagh Colts to join the New York Red Bulls as a youth coach. From the Castlereagh Colts to the New York Red Bulls – yep, I’m mentioning those two teams in the same sentence.
I’ll never forget that season for as long as I live and will forever be indebted to the coaching of Johnny McKinstry for the season where I was fitter than I’ve ever been. I hoped we would remember all that we’d been taught; unfortunately it wasn’t long before the antiquated training methods of running laps round a pitch were reintroduced.
Today my brother sent me this link from the BBC Johnny is now caretaker coach of the Sierra Leone National Squad. I have no doubt this now 28 year old has an extremely bright future in the game and I’m sure we should remember his name because we will hear it again.
image: © stevendepolo