Leon Bailey: How Aston Villa forward defied odds to make it from Jamaica to Premier League

Leon Bailey was injured after scoring for Aston Villa on his home debut, but he could be back against Arsenal on Friday
Although it was a brief home debut, few Villa Park residents will forget how Leon Bailey introduced himself to Villa fans in September's 3-0 defeat.

With just over an hour left, the 24-year-old Bayer Leverkusen summer signing for 30m was brought on. He had already made a turn that led to a Lucas Digne goal. He could be back against Arsenal on Friday.

Asmir Begovic was not surprised that the Jamaican winger appeared to be able to pass the ball over Asmir Begovic with a singular purpose. It is likely because scoring his first Premier League goal was something he had been waiting for.

Sandy Walsh, a Dutch full-back, recalls that Leon walked into the first team's changing room and you could feel his ambition.

"All of us desire to be there, to take a step towards a bigger club. You could feel it with him. His body language reflected his ambition.

He has come a long way because of his self-belief. Bailey, 12 years old, arrived in Europe with his adoptive father Craig Butler and his brothers Kyle and Kevaughn. Butler was the founder of Phoenix All-Star Academy in Kingston, Jamaica. It was a part football school and part foster home. Bailey was one among more than 20 adopted boys.

Bailey convinced, Butler sold his car and home to help fund the cross-continental trip. But they had barely enough money to survive as they moved from hostel to hostel in Europe, with no clothes to wear in the cold European climate. Bailey was unable to see his mother for over four years.

They made a stop in Austria where Butler begged Red Bull Salzburg for a trial. They were not signed by the club, but they did acquiesce. After being spotted in a local park playing by their sporting director, they were offered a second-tier USK Anif membership.

Bailey was 15 years old when Genk wanted him to sign and he agreed to add his brothers. Fifa rules prohibit clubs from signing players under 18 from other continents. Butler was on a business trip to Mexico and needed to get documents to satisfy Fifa laws. Genk's signing would have been possible if Bailey had signed the paperwork. Butler was kidnapped, robbed and left with serious injuries that required him to be admitted to hospital.

Bailey's older brother Travis was forced to care for the Belgian boys. After Butler returned home, Genk refused him residency. Bailey and his team had to leave Jamaica, returning to Jamaica.

Bailey returned to Europe in February 2015 undeterred and Ajax was trying to recruit. He was 17 years old, so he couldn't be signed professional. Instead, he joined Trencin in Slovakia with the promise of a move to Ajax. He signed instead for Genk after that fateful switch.

Walsh recalls that he used to tell stories about his past, saying he had it tough in Jamaica. He wanted to be a sprinter like Usain bolt, an athlete. He had to choose between football and that, even though the football level in Jamaica was not high.

He wanted to be a professional footballer because he knew how difficult it was from Jamaica to get to Europe and have a fair chance. You have a lot to respect him when you hear his story. He was achieving his goal of playing professional football in Europe.

Bailey quickly settled in Belgium. He was soon in the first team. After impressing with his speed, skill and powerful shot, Bailey was named Belgium's Young Soccerer of the Year after his first season.

Bailey's Europa League form to Genk attracted attention from some of Europe's larger clubs

Walsh says that Leon was always at a high level even during training. He knew his strengths and we were able to recognize them. He was a great friend and I enjoyed playing with him. He was phenomenal in all the European games. He was exceptional in all of the top Belgian games.

"When you are in the Europa League with a strong team like Genk, you have to perform in the group stage as well as the next round. There will be interest from other teams. He didn't become an egoist while on the pitch. He was still a team player. He was always pushing me to improve, and he was also pushing the other guys with his assists to make sure everyone was happy in the changing area.

Bailey, who had a great start to his second season, moved to Leverkusen in January 2017 for 20m euros. He reportedly declined offers from Chelsea and Manchester City. However, he still wanted to play in the Premier League.

Walsh recalls that Walsh was unsure whether he should go to England or Germany. It is easier to get into the Premier League if you are a Bundesliga performer. He knew the history, and with Romelu Lukaku going to Chelsea and Kevin de Bruyne, a fellow former Genk standout, he realized that the transition from the Belgian league into the Premier League was a significant one. De Bruyne moved to Germany, where he became the most prominent player at Manchester City.

Bailey's form fluctuated over three-and-a half seasons with Leverkusen. In his 22 first appearances in 2017-18, Bailey scored 11 goals and had five assists. However, he only added one goal that season. He had a string of impressive strikes, including two goals against Bayern Munich in November 2019. But he fell from favor and started only 12 Bundesliga games in 2019-20.

Bailey stated that scoring against Manuel Neuer twice at the Allianz Arena was a "great feeling."

Bailey was back to his best last season. He scored a record 15 goals and provided 11 assists. This added consistency and maturity to Bailey's unquestionable talent.

Simon Rolfe, Leverkusen’s director of sport, says that "He’s a very skilled player, very skillful, and a quick player with a very high shot." He came to the club as a young man and has grown a lot. He was a top player at the end.

He is self-confident. He is a great teammate. He helps the other guys in his locker room. He was an integral part of the team.

His performances in the past years attracted a lot of attention. He wanted to join Premier League this summer and that's why Aston Villa agreed to the transfer.

Although he is only 24 years old, Bailey has been playing his best for many years. But Bailey's Villa Park win was more than a decade in making. It was the realization of a long-held Premier League goal.