Rising from the tough area of Cassava Piece to make it to the top. For dancehall lovers, you immediately think Mavado is being referenced. But there’s a footballer who’s made it to the big league from the gully side and is very much holding his own.
Leon Bailey has been one of the German Bundesliga’s brightest young talents this season, in a league renowned for giving up-and-comers a chance. With four goals and four assists in 12 league games this season, the 20-year-old has arguably been the most impressive player on a Bayer Leverkusen side filled with brimming wunderkinds from back to front including Kai Havertz, Benjamin Henrichs and Julian Brandt. His confidence has grown by the game for a team aiming to make it back to the Champions League after a bitterly disappointing 2016/17 campaign which saw them dragged into a relegation dogfight. It hasn’t been easy for Leverkusen, but Bailey is one who knows about not having it easy for one reason or another.
Nicknamed ‘Chippy’ because of his perceived resemblance to Alvin in Alvin and the Chipmunks when he was younger, Bailey had to chip away from an early age to make it this far. After playing in his adoptive father Craig Butler’s Phoenix All-Star Academy, he left Jamaica at age 14 as Butler aimed to find a club for Bailey as well as his as his stepbrother, Kyle Butler. He bounced around playing youth football in Austria and Slovakia. He even trained with Ajax, who tried to sign him in 2013, but it never materialised. However, manager at the time, Frank de Boer, was very high on Bailey’s skill set from their time together.
“We tested him in different areas. In speed and agility he was already better than some guys of the first team. He’s so fast it’s not normal. His speed in combination with his technique is very rare. Exceptional. He has no weak points.”
Two years later, Bailey played his first professional game after ending up with Belgian club KRC Genk, who had been courting him since 2012. His time at Genk was shrouded in controversy from start to finish. He was initially signed by the club in 2013, but the deal was soon nixed after it was revealed he and Kyle Butler were in Belgium illegally. But once he finally could play for them, aged 18, Bailey slowly but surely validated the hype surrounding him.
His blistering pace, quick feet, technical understanding and ability to get into dangerous positions made him a player to watch in an otherwise blah league. The masses finally got to see what all the fuss was about during the 2016/17 Europa League. Impressive performances against Athletic Bilbao and Sassuolo during a group stage in which he scored four times, helped his club reach the last 32 and, eventually, the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, his relationship with Genk was on shaky ground following an incident with fans after a league game in November of last year and, once word got out a transfer may be on the cards, the writing was on the wall.
Bailey moved to Leverkusen in January. He saw limited playing time during his first four months in Germany, making occasional league appearances as well as cameos against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League knockout phase. But Leverkusen was always high on his potential, showing patience with the youngster and have duly been rewarded this season.