The 29-year-old Northern Irishman Johnny McKinstry became the youngest coach in international football when he took over as Sierra Leone boss last year.

He lost just one of his first six matches and led the side to a historic high of 50th in the world rankings.

Then Ebola struck.

The Leoneans were forced to play all their fixtures away, endured nightmare journeys and suffered abuse on and off the pitch.

Their form collapsed and McKinstry was the fall guy, sacked last month.

Love for football

His parents urged him to come back home. McKinstry, however, was adamant he had to stay at the Craig Bellamy Academy where football is providing a sanctuary from the deadly virus.

The club is 'like an extended family' according to McKinstry [Darren McKinstry]

The 15-acre site was set up by former Liverpool forward Craig Bellamy in 2007 and is home to 27 youngsters - aged 12 to 17 - who are on five-year football and educational scholarships.

“My parents are concerned when they read these things in the papers – it sounds like zombie apocalypse,” McKinstry told Al Jazeera.

“But we’re like an extended family here - that’s what I’ve explained to my parents. I’ve got 27 kids here and have formed a relationship with each and every one of them.”

The academy has achieved impressive results, with several of the youngsters going on to play for the national U20 side.

Achievement on the education side has been impressive too with the results far in excess of the national average.

The boys typically have 12 hours of football training per week and they spend 25 hours on academic work.

“All of the kids here are from very, very poor backgrounds. I’ve been to meet their parents and some of them grew up in houses made of zinc. Their parents are labourers, newspaper sellers etc. But they are great kids and the progress they’ve made here is phenomenal.”

Ebola lockdown

However, this progress has been jeopardised in recent months since the spread of Ebola.

While the academy has been open since Easter, it has been in a state of ‘lockdown’, meaning the youngsters have not been able to go back home.

Six boys are from Kenema which is quarantined and no one is allowed in or out.

McKinstry feared that this could derail the progress the boys were making. Yet, he added, the opposite has actually happened.

“Their educational performance and levels of behaviour have actually improved since the outbreak of Ebola. Their attitude is very humbling. They are cheerful, positive and appreciative of the opportunities they have here.

“We have a scoring system to assess their performance. The behaviour and their scores have never been higher than the last few months.

If I was doing this job only for myself, I’d gone home. But other people are relying on me, so I’ll stay

Johnny McKinstry

“One day they will be the leaders of this country.”

The teenagers have been filling their spare time with table tennis after McKinstry brought in a table a couple of months ago.

Initially, McKinstry was so much better than his charges that he would stay on for 20 games in a row. Now he struggles to get a game.

Capital changes

The Northern Irishman, whose boyish looks bely a fierce determination, is the only person who leaves the academy now.

He makes a fortnightly foray into Freetown to pick up supplies.

And he has found that the capital has changed beyond recognition.

Where before it was bustling, cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile, now most of the foreigners have left and there is a sense of fear in the air.

"Over the last five years, Sierra Leone had developed so very much – in terms of infrastructure, commerce, tourism. We have big hotel chains and some fantastic beach resorts.

“But Ebola has knocked it all for six.

"Sixty to 70 per cent of the expats who were here have gone home now. If I was doing this job only for myself, I’d gone home. But other people are relying on me, so I’ll stay.”

McKinstry is also working hard on educating the kids about Ebola and easing their fears.

“We gave the family of every child a thermometer and an information sheet when the disease first came out. We also have academy mobile phones and make sure the kids speak to their families regularly.

“And, thankfully, no one close to any of the boys has come down with Ebola so far.”

At an age when many of his contemporaries are settling down and starting families, McKinstry is focusing on a job far away from home instead.

“There’s a saying I believe in – you do what you have to do, so you can do what you want to do.

“The easy choice is not normally the best choice.”

Source: Al Jazeera