Uganda Cranes head coach Johnathan McKinstry is in the line of fire following the team’s group stage exit from the CHAN 2020 tournament in Cameroon.
This is not the first time pressure is mounting on him but it now comes at a time when the football fraternity is indeed certain that the sport is slowly moving in the right direction thus CHAN being a major disappointment for all associated with the sport in Uganda.
One may argue that the league is still struggling as evident from the recent poor CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup showings by both Vipers SC and KCCA FC where the two clubs were eliminated from the respective competitions in the initial stages. Naming this as justification for the poor show, once again as all the players that featured in Cameroon came from the League.
However, when you look at how the various national teams have been performing in the last few years, it is clear the sport is growing, regardless of the pace that some may suggest is ‘slow’.
The senior national team has reached the last two AFCON finals, storming the knockout stages of the 2019 edition in Egypt where they lost 1-0 to eventual finalist Senegal.
For the under age teams, both men and boys, Uganda is the defending champions in the CECAFA U15, U17 and U20. This is clearly an indicator that the feeder teams, to the main team, are on the right track.
The billion dollar question is; how have we failed to improve the CHAN team while the others, who are supposed to feed it, have attained reasonable success of late?
Looking at the team that was and still is in Cameroon (due to formalities), it comprises of six players that can easily be traced back into recent U17 and U20 teams. Paul Willa, Aziz Kayondo, Bright Anukani, Bobosi Byaruhanga, Mustafa Mujuzi and Shaban Mohammad have all been in either one of the two teams or both in the recent past.
Six out of an entire squad is not a number that someone should brag about but that is enough to be complemented by senior players so as to ensure a turn of fortunes at a tournament that has consistently been a disappointment.
For a team that also comprised of the likes of Charles Lukwago, Joel Mutakubwa, Denis Iguma, Halid Lwaliwa, Patrick Mbowa, Tonny Mawejje, Shafick Kagimu, Saidi Kyeyune and Milton Karisa, all whom have been in the senior Cranes team set-up for several years, Uganda indeed punched below its weight in Cameroon, and most of the blame has to fall to the coaching staff led by McKinstry.
The results which read zero wins, one draw and two losses will further added to the voice of several Ugandans who have doubted McKinstry’s ability to take the Cranes to the next level.
Going back to September 2019 when he was appointed as the man to replace Sebastian Desabre as Cranes head coach, the football fraternity in Uganda was divided instantly as questions regarding his abilities were raised by many.
At the age of 34, his experience was questionable and the fact that the North Irishman’s only other managerial jobs in Africa were as head coach of Sierra Leone and Rwanda, did nothing to remove the doubts that had been given birth to, immediately after his appointment.
Some also suggested that a man who has only coached league football in Lithuania and Bangladesh could not ensure that a nation which is yearning for a turn-of-the-corner, indeed moves forward.
Despite all the doubts, McKinstry and FUFA paid a deaf ear and have always been on a silent mission to prove them wrong.
How it has so far paved out
After interim head coach Abdallah Mubiru had masterminded a 3-0 victory in Bujumbura, McKinstry took charge of his first game in the victory over Burundi in Kampala to seal a 6-0 aggregate win that saw Uganda seal a spot at the CHAN finals where we have disappointed miserably.
Many still credit that qualification to Mubiru, likewise the strong showing that saw the Cranes lift the 2019 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in Kampala where we won all six games including defeating Eritrea 3-0 in the final.
Sandwiched in between CHAN qualification and the CECAFA triumph were two AFCON qualifiers which saw Uganda draw with Burkina Faso (away) and then defeat Malawi 2-0 in Kampala.
With those two games coming barely two months after McKinstry’s appointment, it is hard to ascertain that the North Irishman had already stamped his authority onto the team.
After a long period of inactivity between December 2019 and November 2020, due to the Coronavirus that also forced CHAN to be postponed, McKinstry who was now 14 months into his role with the Cranes, was tasked to ensure Uganda smoothly takes care of a lesser opponent in South Sudan in an AFCON 2021 Qualification double header.
An unconvincing 1-0 victory at Kitende was accompanied by a loss away from home (in Kenya). These were mixed results that many suggested, were not acceptable especially coming against a side that sits 74 places beneath Uganda in the FIFA rankings.
Some suggested that McKinstry be axed from his role but with CHAN just around the corner, it was hard for the Federation to oblige.
Uganda struggles miserably at CHAN
“The difference between the teams is not too much at the finals and we go into it with confidence that we have the potential to go further and may be reach the final week of the tournament.” McKinstry was quoted just after naming his final squad for the task in Cameroon.
Those words installed hope to many Ugandans who have always been disappointed by their team’s exploits at CHAN.
With the hope sinking in, Uganda went on to triumph at the pre-CHAN tournament where they won twice and drawn against the hosts to finish top of the four-team log, further stamping the fact that this may be the tournament that sees us reach the last 8.
Indications that the finals may result into another disappointment, like it has always been in the past, came after the first game.
A draw against Rwanda, one of the teams that many anticipated we would gather three points off was sickening especially due to the fact that we still had the defending champions-Morocco to play in the third game.
The performance against the Amavubi Stars was so poor as the team failed to take charge of the contest and were clearly second best throughout.
It is a game that we could easily have lost and the Cranes had the upright to thank after it was rattled twice in the first half by a Rwanda side that looked to be in control from start to finish.
Then came the loss to Togo.
Heading into the game, the FUFA President flew into camp to try and motivate the players but that did not change anything in terms of inspiring them to a victory. The game was lost 1-2 leaving us on the brink of elimination.
With Morocco, arguably the strongest side in the competition, to come next, it would take a miracle for Uganda to go through as they required a win off the Atlas Lions.
Four days and seven goals later, McKinstry and his charges were beaten 5-2 and finished bottom of the log.
The performance in Cameroon has left a lot to ponder. From squad to team selection and in-game substitutions to how the team defends and makes transitions. Just like in Morocco (2018) and Rwanda (2016), we were just poor.
All those have been the same questions many have asked regarding the North Irishman ever since he took charge in 2019 and there are no indications that the situation will change anytime soon.
The fans back home are already calling for him to resign or be sacked and many are suggesting Abdallah Mubiru who took charge after Desabre left, be handed the role to take the team forward.
For McKinstry, it has so far been a reign that has been characterised with lack of trust on the side of the fans and other stakeholders and the elimination in Cameroon puts his job in a fragile situation.
Would i be surprised if he was axed in the next few days? Your guess is as good as mine but clearly, McKinstry’s time looks like it is already up.