It was such a short home start he was little more than a cameo, but few inside Villa Park for Everton’s 3-0 loss in September will never forget how much Leon Bailey presented himself forcefully to the Aston Villa faithful.
The 24-year-old, a £ 30million summer signing from Bayer Leverkusen, was signed with just over an hour of play. In less than 21 minutes he delivered a deflected corner that led straight to an own goal from Lucas Digne, sealed the victory with a powerful strike and in doing so suffered a hamstring injury that would see him substituted and ruled out for the next three games. . He could come back against Arsenal on Friday.
If the Jamaican winger appeared to beat Asmir Begovic that day with a singular goal, it’s probably because scoring a Premier League debut is a moment he’s been waiting for some time.
“As soon as Leon walked into the first team locker room, you could tell that this guy had a lot of ambition,” recalls Sandy Walsh, the Dutch full-back who played alongside teenage Bailey with the Belgian team from Genk.
“We all want to be successful, to take a step in a big club. But with it you can feel it. So much ambition can be seen in his body language. “
This self-confidence has taken him far. Bailey first arrived in Europe at the age of 12, accompanied by his adoptive father, Craig Butler, and brothers Kyle and Kevaughn. Butler ran the Phoenix All-Star Academy in Kingston, Jamaica, which was part football school, part foster family, and Bailey was one of more than 20 boys he adopted.
Convinced of Bailey’s talent, Butler sold his house and car to fund a transcontinental trip, but they barely had enough money to support themselves as they hopped from hostel to hostel, without proper clothing for the European cold. Bailey hasn’t seen his mother for four years.
They stopped in Austria, where Butler begged Red Bull Salzburg to give his boys a try. The club nodded but refused to sign the siblings. Instead, they joined second-tier USK Anif after being spotted playing in a local park by the club’s athletic director.
By the time Bailey was 15, Genk wanted to sign him and also agreed to take his brothers. However, Fifa rules prevent clubs from signing under-18 players from different continents. And when Butler traveled to Mexico on a business trip – and to obtain documents that would satisfy Fifa laws and ratify Bailey’s signature for Genk – he was kidnapped and robbed, leaving him with injuries serious enough to put him in hospital.
Bailey’s older brother, Travis, was to look after the boys in Belgium. Upon Butler’s return, he was refused residency and fell out with Genk after the club refused to make a deal with his home academy. Bailey and co had to leave, returning to Jamaica.
Undeterred, Bailey was back in Europe in February 2015, with Ajax trying to recruit him. But his age – still only 17 – meant he couldn’t be professionally signed. Instead, he joined Trencin in Slovakia, with a possible move to Ajax promised. But that switch collapsed and in August, after turning 18, he finally – finally – signed for Genk.
“He used to tell stories from before, saying he had a hard time in Jamaica,” Walsh recalls. “He wanted to become a sprinter like Usain Bolt, an athlete. He chose between that and football, knowing that the level of football in Jamaica was not high.
“He wanted to become a professional footballer, knowing how difficult it is for a country like Jamaica to enter Europe and have a fair chance. When you hear what he had to go through, you have a lot of respect for him. He was fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional footballer in Europe. “
Bailey quickly moved to Belgium, making his debut in the first team quickly and demonstrating a useful scoring talent in the most important games, including a raucous 20-yard scoring in a 5-2 win over Anderlecht. Impressed with his skill, speed and punching power, he was named Belgian Young Footballer of the Year at the end of his first season with Genk.
“Leon has always been at a high level, even in training,” says Walsh. “He knew his qualities and we knew his qualities. I loved playing with him in front of me. In all European matches he was amazing. In all of the best matches in Belgium he was amazing.
“When you’re in the Europa League with a good team like Genk, if you can play in the group stage and in the next round, there will be teams that are interested. But he did not become selfish in the field. He was still a team player. He was pushing me to be better, he was pushing the guys around him with assists and trying to make everyone happy in the locker room. ”
After a blazing start to his second season in Belgium, Bailey moved to Leverkusen for € 20million in January 2017, reportedly declining offers from Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. He always had an eye on the Premier League.
“He doubted whether he should go to Germany or England,” Walsh recalls. “If you play in the Bundesliga, the path to the Premier League is much easier. Knowing the past, with Romelu Lukaku and [fellow former Genk standout] Kevin de Bruyne going to Chelsea, he saw that the transition from the Belgian league to the Premier League is a big step. De Bruyne went to Germany and then became Manchester City’s main player. “
Bailey’s form rippled for three and a half seasons with Leverkusen. He had 11 goals and five assists in his first 22 appearances of the 2017-18 campaign, but added just one more goal to his total this season. The highs included an impressive streak of mind-blowing strikes – most notably the two goals in a 2-1 win at Bayern Munich in November 2019 – but the lows knocked him out of favor, starting just 12 Bundesliga games in 2019-20 .
But Bailey rediscovered his best form last season, scoring a career-high 15 goals and providing 11 assists, adding a level of consistency and maturity to his undoubted talent.
“He’s a very good player, very skillful, a fast player with a very good shot,” said Simon Rolfe, Sporting Director of Leverkusen. “He came here very young and developed a lot. In the end, he was a very good player.
“He has great self-confidence. He’s a good teammate. He helps the other guys in the locker room. He has always been an integral part of the team.
“There was a lot of interest in him the last few years because of his performances. This summer he wanted to join the Premier League and that is why we have agreed with Aston Villa for the transfer. “
He may only be 24 and his best years lie ahead, but Bailey’s lightning rod arc at Villa Park had been in the works for over a decade, fulfilling a long-held Premier League dream .