Leon Bailey, son of the new Jamaica

What famous Jamaican novelist Marlon James describes in his masterpiece A Brief History of Seven Killings is not the usual portrait of the Caribbean country. A cruel and rotten land so far from reggae music, sunshine beaches and promenades beloved by sprinters.
The same writer, who describes itself as “nerd unfit for sport”, distances himself from traditional Jamaican stereotype even if he owes so much to his native culture and history. Typical qualities of West Indian people are irony and perseverance, It’s not so usual for anyone to win the “Man Booker Prize” for a book rejected 78 times by publishers.

Like him wide attacking midfielder Leon Bailey, born in Kingston in 1997, has become famous in a roundabout manner.

New Bayer Leverkusen signing Bailey received so many rejects but he was also able to face things head-on thanks to a huge personality he showed in first Belgian division during his rapid rise. Leon’s childhood wasn’t easy. He has grown up in Cassava Piece, one of most violent Kingston neighbourhoods and his life has been turned down so many times.

Garfield Robinson

During primary school years, while retaining his maternal surname, Bailey became friend with Phoenix All-Stars Football Academy co-founder Craig Butler, who later would became his guardian and his football agent. Soon anyone undestand that Leon is special.

He will succeed”

his former coach at Papine FC Andrew James said.

At 12 Leon set an unique record: he won in the same year three championships (U13, U15 and U17 plus a MVP award) and twice he is league goalscorers (U13 and U15). For Bailey the conditions are right to become a professional footballer.

For this reason Craig takes Leon, his natural child Kyle and other two Phoenix All-Stars promising talents Kevaughn Atkinson e Romario McKnight and they move to Austria. There awaited for them former Ajax and PSV youth coach and at that time youth academy coordinator Percy Van Lierop. The trials of the four Jamaican players weren’t successful and Austrian cold climate didn’t help young Caribbean talents, who had moved to Europe wearing t-shirts and shorts. After a two week trial at Rapid Wien the small group was forced even to sleep at Wien railway station. According to Butler The Green-Whites would have rejected to pay accomodation for the last night, as they had agreed before. Nothing sure but the four players were hosted by USK Anif. Kyle was named U15 captain, Leon was lined up as striker and Atkinson joined first team squad leading Salzburg-based side to the second place in Regionalliga West.
Also Butler signed for USK Anif, being appointed as chief scout, probably a way to bypass strict FIFA rules on transfer of players under age of 18.

Talking about football, in the second U15 league match day USK Anif played away against Sportkulb Adnet. Visiting team won 7-0 and Leon scored five times. At the end of the season Jamaican-born player would score 75 goals in 18 appearances.

An ideal starting point for him to find a club in Germany or in Holland. Mainz and Ajax organised a 5-a side indoor football tournament inviting also USK Anif. The Austrian team, who won U15 regional league before being absorbed by RB Salzburg, impressed so much especially thanks to Carribbean players. Former Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank‘s agent and at that time Mainz chief scout put in contact with him. Bailey and his companions had several trials but the only player who joined a German club was Atkinson ( he signed a five-year contract with Bayern Munich, one of the clubs alongside Hamburger SV, SV Grödig and FK Austria Wien where Jamaican guys had trials)

Since that day Kyle and Leon‘s destinies were intertwined, for better or worse.

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In January 2012 Ajax seemed to be really interested in the Kingston duo, brought to Europe by Butler, who was banned from national competitions by local federation due to a legal dispute on his academy. Kyle and Leon visited Ajax training centre, they worked with “The Lancers’” youth team and Dutch executives were satisfied with step-brothers’ performances. What impressed them so much was Leon’s speed, ball control and personality. He seems to be smart and he inspires sympathy. His teammates often called him “Chippy”, because he looks like the namesake protagonist of TV series “Alvin and the Chipmunks”. Despite their great references the deal wasn’t completed because Ajax didn’t believe that they have proper documents fearing penalties. In the meantime the skills of the two Jamaican players were noticed by Belgian club Racing Genk.

It seemed the end of a long journey but for Leon and for his brother Belgium has become a nightmare.

Craig Butler, who had travelled to Mexico waiting for his son’s signing, put himself off his track, abandoning Leon and Kyle in Flanders. He would show up four months later. He explained that he had been kidnapped, robbed and left alone in the desert. This absurd story and no bureaucratic safeguards bothered Belgian executives, forced to avoid querelles with local football federation.

The sole club which was ready to bear transfer risks were Slovakian side AS Trenčín, since 2012 a Ajax partner club.

This relationship reawakened the football passion between the two Caribbean players and the Dutch club but hitches didn’t fade away, Butler family left Europe and come back home.

After the end of Craig Butler‘s ban, in 2013 it was time to see Jamaica again. A year later, Leon, who had just signed a contract with Nike, showed his skills at Digicel Kickstart Academy, a five-day tournament organised by Chelsea for 42 Caribbean and Central American promising talents.

Bailey

However Leon and Kevin destiny is Trenčín. Or better it should the Slovakian side.

Club general manager Robert Rybnicek tried to obtain for both players residency permits and contract until 2017, while they were training with first time squad. They didn’t sign any contract and when they turned 18 Leon and Kevin joined Belgian club Genk, maybe the only place where they had felt at home during his long European trip. In Genk’s training centre they were hosted during their father’s absence attending also school.

Bailey

Since joining the Belgian club in August 2015 Bailey’s story has been something well known. He made his debut in Jupiler Pro League against Sint-Truiden led by Yannick Ferrera. Leon’s coach Peter Maes lined him up as right winger and he alternated good and bad moves ( one of his mistakes caused Sint Truiden’s third goal). Bailey’s talent is immature but clear and he is eager to learn.

A month later Jamaican talent shocked veteran defender Jelle Van Damme, providing two assists and becoming “the next big thing” in Belgium.

In his first European season Leon played in many different positions ( left/right winger, attacking midfielder, wide midfielder) and led Genk to Europa League qualification. He earned Europa league group stage qualification being protagonist during preliminary rounds ( Buducnost Podgorica, Cork City and NK Lokomotiva) and in the first match day Genk met Rapid Wien, the club that according to his step-father would have left him without accomodation. Leon didn’t take any revenge ( his team lost 3-2) but he scored a brace with a fantastic goal.

Now trials are useless for Bailey to be noticed by great European clubs. He was named best young Jupiler Pro League player in 2015/2016 ( in the past this award had been won by future top footballes like Witsel, Biglia and Kompany) and he was nominated in Europa League best XI after group stage phase. It’ s a springboard ( not real) for Germany. Bailey has signed for Bayer Leverkusen joining a team full of talents. Also Genk is an excellent “football school” where played footballers like De Bruyne, Courtois, Origi, Milinković-Savić, Ferreira-Carrasco and Kalidou Koulibaly.

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In order to complete this little masterpiece Bailey has just to earn a place in Jamaica national team. He made his debut with U23 (he played 20 minutes against Cayman Islands on the way to Rio Olympics). In the past Bailey was very critical of the selection mode that according to him these criteria favoured experienced players, not encouraging young talents to choose Jamaica. People like Jordan Hamilton ( who represents Canada), Newcastle midfielder Ricardo Aarons ( playing for England U21) and especially Raheem Sterling, one of Bailey’s best friends.

If anyone ask me to play for Belgium, I would say “yes” […]
I would like to play in great tournaments, face the greatest footballers and with all due respect I don’t see how that’s possible play for Jamaica”

That’s what Bailey said in an interview published on Dutch language newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. Current Belgian national team manager didn’t miss Leon‘s words and he confirmed that he asked for information about Jamaican player’s situation (he doesn’t hold Belgian passport) as Genk sporting director Dimitri de Condé has confirmed.

Anyway, whatever will be Leon Bailey’s decision, Jamaica will be always the second skin of new Bayer Leverkusen signing. A scarred but thick and fascinating skin. Like Jamaica narrated by Marlon James.

Cover photo ©LaPresse

Claro/KSAFA Youth Football Awards ceremony ©Garfield Robinson

Photos Atkinson, Butler and Bailey ©Jamaica Observer

Bailey with Chelsea t-shirt ©Hurbun Williams

Bailey with Trencin jersey ©HBVL

Bailey with Jamaican t-shirt ©Belga