From rejections to muggings, Leon Bailey’s journey to the Premier League has been a whirlwind ride. But throughout all the trials and tribulations, the Jamaica international has never given up on his dream.
A little over a decade ago, the player Aston Villa signed at the start of August for a reported £30m was sitting in an office with his stepfather, Craig Butler, and his brothers, Kevaughn and Kyle, shivering from the Austrian cold. Opposite the four of them, Red Bull Salzburg’s academy director had a bemused expression on his face. “You want a trial?”
Butler nodded morosely and as the director shook his head, he pleaded and begged, refusing to take no for an answer. “In the end he agreed,” Butler recalls as he remembers his adoptive son’s first trial in Europe. The four of them had only arrived in Austria a few days prior. They had trekked from Kingston, Jamaica to Salzburg’s training complex without an invitation and begged to be invited in. This was the opportunity of a life time. An opportunity Butler had prepared them for in Jamaica since they were six years old. But nothing could prepare them for the cold.
“It was freezing,” Butler shudders. “During the trial, the boys froze on the field. They couldn’t walk, let alone run. It was too much. I asked the director to give us more time to adapt, but he said no.”
Despite the rejection Leon and his brothers were not about to give up. They had not travelled halfway around the world to fall at the first hurdle. “When we got home, the boys took off their T-shirts and ran three miles in the cold. We started the adaptation process the next day. We went to practise on fields and got used to the cold,” Butler remembers.
There were more rejections and eyebrows raised as Butler took his boys around every professional club in the region. Eventually, a team just south of Salzburg and in Austria’s second tier, Anif, were willing to give them an opportunity after the club’s director spotted them playing in a local park. “They put Leon in the under- 17s even though he was only 13 years old at the time and he was still killing everybody.”
Bailey played a crucial role in the club’s run to the Under-17 Austrian cup final that year to set up an encounter with an all too familiar opponent in Red Bull Salzburg. “They won 4-2 in the final,” Butler recalls. “Leon scored two or maybe three, and Kyle got three assists. Suddenly Red Bull Salzburg wanted all three of the boys.”
But Butler was having none of it. He had already eyed up the next step in the boys’ European tour. Austria had taught them everything they needed to know. Belgium’s KRC Genk, however, had more to offer. “I wanted upward mobility for the boys. Genk was famous for Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Benteke and Thibaut Courtois. The technical training skills they had in the academy was what the boys needed to get to the next step.”
At Genk, Butler and his boys were able to settle while playing for the club as guest players. They found a place and things were looking like they had taken a turn for the better. However, their tranquillity was shortlived. Butler flew to Mexico on a business trip in late 2012 in order to complete paperwork, which would allow his sons to remain in Belgium and to be registered as players. Dressed in a business suit with a briefcase, he fell easy prey to thugs who robbed and beat him.
The next thing he knew was waking up in a hospital bed, his body bruised and searing from pain. His knee was broken. His kidney was going into failure and every bone in his body ached. Ten thousand kilometres away, Leon and his brothers did not know about Butler’s whereabouts. They were all minors in a foreign land and had to make do without him for weeks.
“I was a broken man. I promised to get back to them and find a way for them to make it as professional players,” recalls Butler.
After his recovery, the local authorities rejected his residency in Belgium. He had already fallen out with the club, which meant the boys returned home in 2013. Throughout their time in Europe, Butler took on odd jobs, including cleaning toilets, in order to make ends meet.
When they returned to Jamaica, Bailey and his brothers trained at Butler’s Phoenix All Star Academy. But the plan was always to return to Europe. Once Bailey had turned 18, there were legal means to go back. Through Ajax’s affiliation with AS Trencin, Bailey and one of his brothers, Kyle, ended up in Slovakia, but potential ties with Ajax fell through. Genk swooped in yet again.
Back in Belgium, Bailey flourished in familiar surroundings. He broke into the first team straight away and won the Jupiler League’s Young Player of the Year award in his first season. Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City all wanted the 18-year-old, but the logical next step was the Bundesliga and Bayer Leverkusen – another club who had a track record of helping players reach the next level.
But the dream has always been the Premier League and when Aston Villa came calling Butler, who now works as Bailey’s agent, was happy to oblige. “It is extremely exciting for Leon to be in the Premier League,” he admits. “We always took our time to ensure he developed and took the right steps along the ways. It [the Premier League] was always our goal. Our destination.”
Looking back at the arduous road which has led his son to the upper echelons of the game, Butler believes the tough upbringing has given Bailey a formidable mental fortitude. One which, coupled with his undeniable ability, can take him right to the top.
“Because of everything we went through, I know Leon cannot be stopped,” he says. “Going to an emerging club like Aston Villa, where he has the chance to help them achieve something big, maybe to win the league or to finish in the top four, is the challenge he needs. Leon’s goal is to become one of the best players in the world.”