• The Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone is now a sanctuary
• More than 1,200 people have been killed by Ebola in Sierra Leone
• No one is allowed in or out of the academy, which was founded in 2007
Holed up in the football academy he runs for the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone as fear and suspicion spreads throughout Africa, Johnny McKinstry is standing firm.
Photo:Johnny McKinstry with the kids he has promised to look after at the academy in Sierra Leone
When he was sacked as manager of the national team last month, his worried parents urged him to come home to Northern Ireland.
But even though more than 1,200 people have been killed by Ebola in Sierra Leone and his former players are being treated like ‘fugitives’, the academy in the capital Freetown is now a sanctuary from the devastating disease and 29-year-old McKinstry has vowed to stay on.
‘We are like an extended family here and that’s what I told my parents,’ says McKinstry, as he sits in his Spartan office in the middle of the 15-acre complex.
There are 27 boys here and, before each enrolled, I went to meet his parents. The first thing I always said was, “I’ll look after your son”. I meant it and can’t go back on that now.
If I was just doing this job for myself, I’d probably have gone home but people are relying on me and I have to stay.’
No one is allowed in or out of the academy, which was founded in 2007 and is funded by Bellamy, the only exception being McKinstry’s forays into town once a fortnight to pick up supplies.
If anything, the dedication and enthusiasm of the youngsters, who range in age from 12 to 17, has actually improved in recent weeks.
‘I’ve been immensely impressed with the kids,’ says McKinstry. ‘Their strength and focus has just bowled me over.’
The Sierra Leone national team that McKinstry used to coach has become football’s lepers, chased out of every country they visit because of a disease they do not even have.
Last month they were banned from playing at home following the outbreak. All their games have become away fixtures and to say they are unwelcome guests is something of an understatement.
In the last eight days they played Cameroon home and away. Sierra Leone defender Mustapha Dumbuya, who grew up in Tottenham and plays for Notts County in League One, says: ‘When we arrived in Cameroon, we checked into our hotel and everything seemed fine.
‘Then we were told it was fully booked and that we had to leave immediately. We went to another hotel and it was empty. We were literally the only residents there.’ It turned out that the Cameroon government had asked for the visiting delegation to be quarantined.
Dumbuya and a couple of his team-mates ventured out onto the streets and received a by-now-familiar response from the locals.
‘As soon as people saw our training tops, the shouts of, “Ebola, Ebola” started,’ he says. ‘I’m getting used to it to be honest.’
Things first started to change with the Africa Cup of Nations pre-qualifier in the Seychelles in August. The team were refused entry to the country and were held in transit in Nairobi, Kenya, for two days.
Full-back Michael Lahoud, who plays for Philadelphia Union in the MLS, says: ‘We felt like fugitives. ‘We were on the run, only we were fleeing from something we didn’t know anything about.’
Eventually the Seychelles forfeited the match, so worried were they about Ebola entering their idyll and ruining the lucrative tourism industry.
This was only the start of Sierra Leone’s problems though. They were banned from playing any matches at home by the Confederation of African Football, meaning all their games were now away fixtures.
Ivory Coast wanted to ban them from entering last month and the match was confirmed so late that the Sierra Leone players had to buy their own plane tickets.
‘They tried to ban us from coming, when the opposition didn’t want to shake our hands or swap shirts with us,’ said Lahoud.
‘South Africa is the latest country to close its borders to Leone nationals and I can’t help feeling like we have become the scapegoats and face of this disease.’
Things reached their nadir with the fixture against DR Congo in Kinshasa. There was the customary nightmare journey, followed by hostility on the streets.
Then came the match in the Mazembe Stadium. Dumbuya says: ‘Before kick-off, Johnny walked out on to the pitch, as he always used to do.
‘He looked a little shaken when he came back into the dressing room and said, “This isn’t going to be easy lads”. He wasn’t wrong. When we walked out of the tunnel the whole place just erupted and we were hit by this deafening noise.
‘It didn’t take long to work out what they were chanting — ‘E-BO-LA! E-BO-LA!’ It seemed everyone in the crowd was chanting it.’ Lahoud, who was born in Sierra Leone before moving to Washington DC at the age of five, says he will never forget that day.
‘It stung me and hurt deep inside,’ he says. ‘How could another African country — itself dealing with the disease — react like that?’
Sierra Leone lost the match 2-0 and suddenly their great form under McKinstry had evaporated. These experiences will not deter Dumbuya from representing his country though.
‘All the boys in our squad are so passionate about playing for Sierra Leone,’ he says. ‘That applies more now than ever. We feel like we are representing the country in a positive light and giving the people something to be proud of. I’m in this for the long haul.’
The same, it appears, goes for McKinstry. ‘This is a wonderful country that has only just recovered from a terrible civil war and is now having to contend with another crisis,’ he says.
‘The least I can do is stick around and do a little bit to help.’