Lee Johnson is the manager of the Rwanda Under-17 team and technical director for the Rwandan Football Association. The 33-year-old has previously worked for the Chelsea and Crystal Palace academies. Here he talks about life in Africa, Brendan Rodgers, and the lack of litter in Kigali…

Rwanda is probably the cleanest country I’ve been to. Honestly – I got off the plane, didn’t know what to expect, and my first thought was: “This place is so clean!” You don’t see any rubbish – not in the gutter, not on the streets, not on the side of the road. Apparently, on the last Saturday of every month, everyone – by law – has to get out and help clean their local community.

The country is really moving forward. I’ve been into the city (Kigali) a few times, and it’s not third world by any means. They’ve got their financial district and a busy city centre. Skyscrapers and other buildings are going up everywhere. There are big hotels, and tourism is growing too. The rest of the country is very green – they call it “the land of a thousand hills”. The weather is nice, usually 27 or 28 degrees, so I can’t complain.

When I told my family I was going to Rwanda, they were like most people: “Where’s Rwanda?!” I had an opportunity to go to America, and people were saying: “So why Africa?” But I thought: “Why not Africa?” I’ve been to many different places, but not here. It was a challenge; something new.

I got the opportunity to come here through Stephen Constantine, the Rwanda manager. Steve knows Daryl Willard, who I worked with at Chelsea.  Last January I was invited to present a coaching session at the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) convention in Philadelphia and Daryl said: “Steve is going there, he’s been asked to do a session, so introduce yourself.”

I saw Steve in the hotel lobby and said hello. From there, we spent four or five days talking football, and developed a good relationship. On the Saturday, I had to do my training session. I was nervous – there must have been 600 or 700 people there, and he was one of them.

Afterwards he came up and said: “There’s something about you I like – would you consider working with me in the future?” I asked “Why me?” and he said we shared the same views; the same philosophy. He then went back to Greece, where he was working, and I stayed in the States, but we stayed in contact. During this period a few opportunities came my way, then one day he phoned and said: “Something might be happening next month – don’t commit to anything just yet.”

When he offered me the job, I thought: “Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect that.” You should have seen the smile on my face. I was on cloud nine. I asked when he needed to know by, and he said next week. I spoke to a few friends, family, and people I trust within the game. Then I phoned Steve the next day and said: “I’m in.” I’ve no ties at home, so it was a no brainer. I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

My job has two parts – the under-17 national team, and football development. That involves youth development, talent identification, grassroots programmes, and coach education. I’ll oversee it all. When you consider England, everything is overseen by the FA. Here, nothing is overseen by the federation, apart from the national teams and the senior league.

For example, there are academies and training centres – but they’re independent, they’re not governed. There’s no youth competition and no coach education. The English FA will have courses every week; here they run about five every year, and that’s something I want to change.

I’ve got a two-year contract, and who knows what happens after that. If they renew it, great. If they don’t, I’ll move on. But it’s not about my contract – it’s about developing something that’s sustainable. If I’m here two years, I want something that lasts another four or five years, or longer. With the help of the federation, and Steve, I want to leave something that people can run with.

Even though it was my dream, I knew was never going to be a professional footballer. I played youth football, got scouted by Millwall, and signed schoolboy forms. I think I was there for eight years in total, but I wasn’t going to make it.

When I was doing my A Levels, I was playing for Gravesend and Northfleet, who are now Ebbsfleet United. The youth team manager, who was also first team captain, had a little coaching business. He asked me: “Would you be interested in a little holiday work during the school break?”

I did some voluntary work, which turned into part-time work. When I finished school I thought: “This is what I want to do.” So I started my qualifications when I was 18, and got my UEFA B Licence at 21 or 22. At the same time, I was playing for Dartford and my manager (former Charlton goalkeeper) Nicky Johns said to me: “Would you be interested in an opportunity at Crystal Palace?”

I worked for Palace’s Football in the Community programme, and also for their academy. I left in 2004, set up my own coaching company, and then in 2006 I got the opportunity to work at Chelsea. I knew a guy who worked there, Michael Beale – who’s now the Liverpool Under 21s manager – and he said: “Would you be interested?” I started in the development centres, then quickly progressed to the academy, working with under 8s to under 12s. It’s probably one of the best academies in the world – you have everything at your disposal.

To watch the likes of Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Paul Clement, was fantastic. You learn a lot from courses, and gaining qualifications, but to watch sessions and learn from other coaches is the best form of education. And Brendan Rodgers (a former youth team and reserve team coach at Chelsea) was brilliant. 

I’m not going to say: “I spent loads of time with him,” because I didn’t. But when I was in his company, he was very knowledgeable, very open, and always wanting to share ideas. Crystal Palace and Chelsea provided me with a great education, and it’s one that I’m thankful for.

I left Chelsea in 2012 to take a job in America. And then, at the last minute, I get a phone call from my new CEO saying: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, and advice from our lawyer, we won’t be able to fulfil your visa application.” I was like: “I quit Chelsea to take this job.” It was awful, a terrible two or three months. I couldn’t get a job anywhere, and I must have written to 20 or 30 clubs. It was frustrating because all I wanted to do was coach. It left a very sour taste in my mouth.

I was working for Academy Soccer Coach, a coaching resource company, when I got the call from Steve. To be honest, he is one in a million. Some people in football are very guarded. They are very protective of themselves, and their positions. They can be very unhelpful. They don’t like to see people push on and progress, in case they’re threatened. Steve Constantine is the complete opposite.

Steve has given me a chance to fulfil my potential. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. But then, if he didn’t think I was capable, he wouldn’t have brought me here. If I’m not successful, it will make him look bad. It’s his reputation on the line. We don’t have the luxuries that Chelsea or the FA have, but that is part of the challenge.  Sometimes you need to come out of your bubble. Sometimes you can be too secure; too comfortable.

I moved out on 14 July, and it’s been a whirlwind. As I was leaving Heathrow, part of me thought: “Oh Lee, what are you doing!” But I can’t fault it. My accommodation is good, and the people have been so friendly. Very calm, very helpful, and very relaxed. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

Interview by @owenamos for Follow Lee @leejohnson80.

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