Leon Bailey survived on tuna and bread in his youth and saw his adopted father ATTACKED… and after rejecting advances from the Premier League’s biggest clubs, the £30m Jamaican rocks up at Aston Villa on his latest globetrotting adventure
- Leon Bailey moved to Europe from Jamaica when he was just 13 years old
- He represented a series of clubs before earning his break at Genk in Belgium
- The winger has gone on to represent Bayer Leverkusen and his country Jamaica
- Now he ends up at Aston Villa waiting to write the next chapter of his career
Leon Bailey has experienced plenty that would halt most careers in their tracks, but nothing has been able to prevent the Kingston-born star from making his name in European football.
The 23-year-old was just a teenager when adoptive dad – and now agent – Craig Butler took him and his two brothers from Jamaica on a journey which has taken him to Austria, Belgium, Slovakia and Germany prior to his £30million move to Aston Villa.
Bailey had lived with Butler since ever since he was about five years old as one of approximately 20 children the latter came to adopt.
Leon Bailey completed his £30m move from Bayer Leverkusen to Aston Villa this week
But he could scarcely have imagined that he would come to represent one of Europe’s hottest prospects, regardless of what he had seen when watching Bailey while managing amateur side Phoenix All-Star Academy in his native country.
The success stories from the world of sport often include moments of rejection and hardship, and those were the exact feelings of a young Bailey when he arrived on European shores at Salzburg in Austria aged 13, what he would later describe as his ‘most difficult’ moment.
Having pleaded Austrian Bundesliga outfit Red Bull Salzburg for a trial, Bailey failed to convince them as his adaptation to the blisteringly cold European climate made him feel the bite in more ways than one.
After all these years, it is something Bailey has not taken to. ‘It’s very cold, I hate it,’ he told the official Bundesliga website last season.
Bailey’s step father and agent Craig Butler (right) had lived with the winger since he was five
‘It’s not nice because your fingers and your toes are frozen and all you want to do is be inside.’
But life inside in his adopted country was also difficult when he arrived, with one bag for four people’s belongings having to suffice in a succession of hostels, and dinner often proving to be shared and a repeat of a tin of tuna, mayonnaise and bread.
Bailey’s dream of a European adventure was then put under threat after he was forced return to his homeland aged 17 due to a paperwork issue.
But having lacked biological familial ties, Leon found everything he had been lacking in his relationships with his adopted brothers similarly striving to become Europe’s next breakout star.
‘We did everything together as a family, so that’s why my bond with them remains strong. We always say, ”blood doesn’t make you family”, because it’s true.’
Bailey was rejected by RB Salzburg but would get his big European break in Belgium with Genk
That bond would become even stronger when – having been rejected by RB Salzburg – Bailey and his brothers ended current Austrian Regional League USK Anif.
There is no clear indication to what extent Bailey impressed there, but some reports suggest he scored 75 goals in just 16 games for their U15s in 2011-12.
Whatever he was producing however seemed to be working as he drew the attention from plenty of clubs wishing to have him on trial, while Genk and Ajax were also keeping a keen eye on the situation.
The Belgian side would be the ones to take the punt on him and two of his brothers but they were required to provide them with off the field help as well as aiding their development on the pitch in almost no time at all.
Butler had gone to Mexico to help finalise some paperwork that would confirm a place at Genk for 15-year-old Bailey, who due to his age was not allowed to legally sign a contract with the club.
But while in the country, Butler claimed he was attacked, robbed and kidnapped, before eventually being released into the desert having lost all the possessions he had taken with him to Mexico.
He would win the Belgium’s Young Professional Footballer of the Year award in his first season
Bailey and his brothers – none the wiser – were therefore left to their own devices for four months, but Genk were on hand to ensure the boys’ safety as concerns grew over Butler’s whereabouts.
‘He was walking along with his briefcase like any other businessman, in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ Bailey told FourFourTwo. ‘It was a while before we realised what had happened to him.
‘We actually had a house [in Belgium] by then, and my big brother was taking care of everyone. He’s five years older than me, but it was basically four of us – me, Kyle, Kevaughn and Travis – at home taking care of ourselves. At that point we knew how to look after each other – we were well prepared even before coming to Europe.’
Moreover, things were looking precarious for Bailey too, with work permit issues ensuring he was forced to leave Genk and interest from rivals Standard Liege also ended due to the problem.
A return journey between Europe and Jamaica then took place before they enjoyed a brief spell at Slovakian outfit AS Trencin, before another tussle between Ajax and Genk saw the Belgian side acquire his services and become the hunting ground of his European breakout.
A brilliant debut season in 2015-16 saw a return of seven goals in 42 games saw him gain cult status, with the reward arriving in the form of Belgium’s Young Professional Footballer of the Year award.
Bailey named former Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho as one of his favourite players
And after impressing in the Genk’s journey to the Europa League quarter-finals in 2016-17, the notable Premier League and European giants were already taking note.
Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool were all interested, but Bailey has always made a habit of not rushing such vital decisions and believed a move to the very top at that stage was not the right move for him.
The Premier League giants’ loss was the German Bundesliga’s gain as he sealed a move to Bayer Leverkusen for a reported fee of 20m euros in January 2017.
However, he would have to wait for his first goal with his new club until August, netting in a 3–0 victory in the German Cup against Karlsruher a month before his first Bundesliga goal against Schalke.
Further dazzling displays confirmed to the world that this was one of the hottest prospects, ending the 2017-18 season with 12 goals in 34 games across all competitions.
Bailey rejected the Premier League elite in order to sign for Bayer Leverkusen in January 2017
But that early promise soon petered out under Heiko Herrlich, with the Jamaican making just eight starts from 16 appearances in the first half of the 2018-19 season before the former was sacked in December that season.
With just one goal and as many assists to his name, Bailey’s verve and sensational play was threatening to fall by the wayside. Enter Peter Bosz, who restored the Jamaican’s confidence after implementing an eye-catching attacking style.
It had not quite matched his first season at Leverkusen, but there was growing confidence that Bailey’s development was heading in the right direction though as the club qualified for Europe’s premier club competition.
Then came the frustration of injuries in 2019-20, restricting him to just Champions League outings and 22 Bundesliga matches, but five league goals and three assists did help them qualify for last season’s Europa League.
Two of those goals came in the same match and arguably the most prestigious Bundesliga match of the season, netting once with each foot at the Allianz Arena to seal a famous 2-1 victory against Bayern Munich.
Among his highlights in Leverkusen were the two goals he scored in a famous win at Bayern Munich
Bailey also named former Leverkusen team-mate Kai Havertz as one of his favourite stars
Bailey surpassed his best goalscoring and assist-making season for Leverkusen last season, with 15 goals and 11 assists coming as Leverkusen finished sixth in the Bundesliga.
A change in diet and sleep was what he put his upturn in form down to, and the Jamaican remains adamant his best position is on the right wing. Not quite the position his idol played.
‘I really admired Ronaldinho a lot when I was younger,’ he said. ‘He was brilliant and unbelievable in the way he played.
‘It was amazing to watch how he entertained the audience and I really hoped one day that I could entertain an audience like he did. These are things that I still hope to do.’
The Premier League is now the next stop on Bailey’s attempts to do just that, just as two others who have recently made their switches from Germany and England will strive to achieve.
‘I would say, my two favourites are two young players. I would say Kai Havertz and Jadon Sancho. I think they are two special players, and they will really go far,’ he once said.
Former Barcelona and Brazil icon Ronaldinho was Bailey’s icon when he was growing up
Havertz and Sancho – despite the latter’s lack of involvement at Euro 2020 – are also part of their nation’s long-term plans, but Bailey’s ride with Jamaica has been a little more bumpy.
A proud Jamaican who it was rumoured could end up playing for Belgium, Germany or even the Three Lions (although his link came via his adoptive family, making him all but certainly ineligible), Bailey has not minced his words about international football.
He played one match for their U23s against the Cayman Islands in 2015, a game in which he netted a free-kick, but he and his father often had issues with Jamaica’s FA.
‘The thing is, I love my country, but as an individual, my dream is to become one of the best footballers in the world,’ he said back in 2019. ‘To do that I need to play at a high international level, and I can’t do that by representing Jamaica.
‘It means I’ve got to play for a country that would push my name onto a different platform, so that’s why I don’t think Jamaica is the best option for me.’
And after Bailey accepted a Reggae Boyz call-up only to pull out when they didn’t select brother Kyle in October 2018, the time finally arrived when he earn his first Jamaica international cap in the Gold Cup against Honduras in June 2019.
Bailey struggled under Heiko Herrlich but Peter Bosz (above) restored his confidence
The protracted political saga in Bailey becoming an international player was atypical for a man who prides himself on bringing ‘fun and joy’ to the whole team.
‘It doesn’t matter the situation we’re in; either good or bad, I’m always the positive one, always trying to make everybody be in a good mood, because I believe as a player, when everyone is feeling good, that’s when you can get the best out of everybody.’
Yet he still has a serious message. ‘My dream is to leave a legacy for the younger generation, also for my country, Jamaica, to let them see that there is possibility for everyone.
‘If you put your mind to it, you can achieve it. I see myself playing at the highest level, hopefully in Champions League, and leave a legacy.’
Bailey will not be the only sportsperson from his country to leave a legacy.
Eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt is a close friend and the duo have been seen dancing together on Instagram, and Bailey even claims he will support Villa instead of his beloved Manchester United.
Bailey rejected several advances to play for Jamaica before eventually playing for them in 2019
Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling is also a sporting superstar to have emerged from Kingston.
‘I’d never say I’m faster than Usain Bolt, but with the ball I definitely think I can beat him. With the ball!
I don’t follow a lot of people [on Instagram], but the most famous person I follow on Instagram would be Usain Bolt or Raheem Sterling. I only follow my friends!’
‘Usain is a very, very good friend,’ he said in a separate interview. ‘We play football together, we go to the beach together, and we hang out and go to parties together. He’s a good person – I’ve known him for a couple of years.
Manchester City and England star Raheem Sterling is another sportsperson born in Kingston
‘The first time I met him was on the football field, actually. He’s a good player, honestly! He’s tall, he’s big, so he’s kind of slow on the ball, but he can do his thing.
‘Raheem is back in Jamaica regularly; I’ve knew him before I was a pro. I used to look up to him and be like, ”Yeah, he’s one of us”. Whenever he was there we used to hang out and chill together, so that’s basically how we started.’
Now the City star will be his opponent next year, as will Jack Grealish who is all set to complete his move from Villa to the Premier League champions.
The focus will be on Bailey to see if he and his fellow Villa recruits such as Emi Buendia can fill the hole left by the England star, but there is no doubt that after the travails of personal and professional hardship, the Jamaican is ready to succeed.
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