It was a house debut so quick as to quantity to little greater than a cameo, however few inside Villa Park for the 3-0 defeat of Everton in September will ever overlook how emphatically Leon Bailey launched himself to the Aston Villa trustworthy.
The 24-year-old, a £30m summer time signing from Bayer Leverkusen, was introduced on with simply over an hour performed. Inside 21 minutes, he had delivered a swerving nook that led on to a Lucas Digne personal purpose, sealed the victory with a strong strike and, in doing so, sustained a hamstring harm that will see him substituted and dominated out for the subsequent three video games. He may return towards Arsenal on Friday.
If the Jamaican winger appeared to thump the ball previous Asmir Begovic that day with singular goal, it’s in all probability as a result of scoring a primary Premier League purpose is a second he had been anticipating for a while.
“As quickly as Leon walked into the first-team altering room, you would simply really feel that this man had loads of ambition,” remembers Sandy Walsh, the Dutch full-back who performed alongside a teenage Bailey with Belgian aspect Genk.
“All of us need to make it, to make a step to an enormous membership. However with him you would simply really feel it. A lot ambition could possibly be seen in his physique language.”
That self-belief has carried him a good distance. Bailey first got here to Europe aged 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 half soccer college, half foster residence, and Bailey was one in all greater than 20 boys he has adopted.
Satisfied of Bailey’s expertise, Butler bought his residence and automotive to fund a cross-continental journey, however they barely had sufficient cash to maintain themselves as they hopped from hostel to hostel, with out acceptable garments for the chilly European climate. Bailey did not see his mom for 4 years.
They stopped in Austria, the place Butler begged Purple Bull Salzburg to supply his boys a trial. The membership acquiesced however declined to signal the siblings. They as an alternative joined second-tier USK Anif after being noticed taking part in in a neighborhood park by the membership’s sporting director.
By the point Bailey was 15, Genk wished to signal him and agreed to tackle his brothers, too. Nonetheless, Fifa guidelines preclude golf equipment from signing under-18 gamers from completely different continents. And when Butler travelled to Mexico for a enterprise journey – and to acquire paperwork that will fulfill the Fifa legal guidelines and permit Bailey’s signing for Genk to be ratified – he was kidnapped and robbed, leaving him with accidents severe sufficient to place him in hospital.
Bailey’s older brother Travis needed to handle the boys in Belgium. Upon Butler’s return, he was denied residency and fell out with Genk after the membership refused to a link-up take care of his academy again residence. Bailey and co needed to depart, returning to Jamaica.
Undeterred, Bailey was again in Europe in February 2015, with Ajax attempting to recruit him. However his age – nonetheless solely 17 – meant he couldn’t be signed professionally. He as an alternative joined Trencin in Slovakia, with an eventual transfer to Ajax promised. However that change collapsed and by August, after he turned 18, he as an alternative – ultimately – signed for Genk.
“He would inform tales about earlier than, saying he had it onerous in Jamaica,” Walsh remembers. “He wished to change into a sprinter like Usain Bolt, an athlete. He was selecting between that and soccer, figuring out that the soccer degree in Jamaica wasn’t massive.
“He wished to go for being knowledgeable footballer, figuring out how onerous it’s from a rustic like Jamaica to get into Europe and get a good likelihood. While you hear about what he needed to undergo, you may have loads of respect for him. He was reaching his dream of changing into knowledgeable footballer in Europe.”
Bailey settled rapidly in Belgium, quickly breaking into the primary workforce and demonstrating a helpful knack for scoring in an important video games, together with a rasping 20-yarder in a 5-2 victory over Anderlecht. Having impressed together with his talent, pace and highly effective shot, he was named Belgium’s Younger Footballer of the Yr on the finish of his first season with Genk.
“Leon was at all times on a excessive degree, even in coaching,” says Walsh. “He knew his qualities and we knew his qualities. I liked taking part in with him in entrance of me. In the entire European video games, he was superb. In all the highest video games in Belgium, he was superb.
“While you’re within the Europa League with a great workforce like Genk, in the event you can carry out within the group stage and within the subsequent spherical, there are going to be groups . However he did not change into an egoist on the pitch. He was nonetheless a workforce participant. He was pushing me to change into higher, he was pushing the fellows round him with assists and attempting to have everyone pleased within the altering room.”
After a stellar begin to his second season in Belgium, Bailey moved to Leverkusen for 20m euros in January 2017, reportedly declining presents from Chelsea, Manchester Metropolis and Manchester United. He nonetheless had his eye on the Premier League although.
“He was doubting whether or not to go to Germany or England,” Walsh recollects. “Should you carry out within the Bundesliga, the way in which to the Premier League is far simpler. Understanding the previous, with Romelu Lukaku and [fellow former Genk standout] Kevin de Bruyne going to Chelsea, he noticed that the step from the Belgian league to the Premier League is an enormous step. De Bruyne went to Germany after which turned the primary participant at Manchester Metropolis.”
Bailey’s kind undulated throughout three-and-a-half seasons with Leverkusen. He raced to 11 objectives and 5 assists in his first 22 appearances of the 2017-18 marketing campaign however added only one extra purpose to his tally that season. The highs included a formidable collection of gorgeous strikes – not least each objectives in a 2-1 win at Bayern Munich in November 2019 – however the lows led to him falling from favour, beginning simply 12 Bundesliga video games in 2019-20.
However Bailey rediscovered his greatest kind final season, scoring a career-high 15 objectives and offering 11 assists, including a degree of consistency and maturity to his unquestionable expertise.
“He is an excellent participant, very skilful, a quick participant with an excellent shot,” says Leverkusen’s director of sport, Simon Rolfe. “He got here right here as a extremely younger man and developed loads. On the finish, he was a extremely prime participant.
“He’s very self-confident. He is an effective team-mate. He’s useful to the opposite guys within the locker room. He was at all times a full a part of the workforce.
“There was loads of curiosity in him within the final years due to his performances. This summer time, he wished to hitch the Premier League and that is why we agreed with Aston Villa for the switch.”
He would possibly solely be 24 and together with his greatest years forward of him, however Bailey’s lightning-rod Villa Park bow was greater than a decade within the making, the realisation of a long-held Premier League dream.