lEon Bailey reflects on his childhood in Cassava Peace, the ghetto neighborhood in Kingston where he grew up, the place that shaped his worldview before a one-way ticket to Europe helped him fulfill his football dream. “Jamaica is a very beautiful country but, you know, it has its good and bad sides,” says the Aston Villa winger. “The urban community is where I come from. There were many cases where there was no money to put food on the table or money for lunch to go to school. There were hard times… but I’m used to hard times. That’s why I never let anything bring me down. I’m just rebuilding myself and learning from it. It makes me stronger and I want to move on.”
That’s why Bayley won’t let the frustrating injuries of his first season at Villa Park defeat him. He made 18 appearances and scored one goal after a £30m move from Bayer Leverkusen, making seven starts, the last of which ended when he was forced to leave the club in April with an ankle problem. But Bailey never needs to think too much to get perspective. On a pair of his boots are engraved the words “In Kingston where it all began.”
After moving to Austria at the age of 12 with his adoptive father Craig Butler and his brothers Kyle and Kevon in hopes of getting trials and contracts, things didn’t go well. They hopped between dorms while Butler cleaned toilets to make ends meet. “Sometimes we had to eat tuna sandwiches for lunch and dinner,” Bailey says. “I haven’t seen the rest of the family for four and a half years. It was very hard. But that was part of what we were willing to do because of where we wanted to go. We stuck to the plan.”
The obvious place to start is in Bayley’s form, given his amazing pre-season performance – he should be rewarded for three goals in five games since Saturday’s start at Bournemouth. But in his first major interview since signing with Villa, he enlightens the company, discussing everything from his friendship with Usain Bolt to Steven Gerrard’s standards, the sacrifices made by Butler, now his agent, and enjoying playing with Duke. Cambridge and Raheem Sterling during a visit by members of the royal family to Trench Town in March.
Prince William, who wore the No. 10 bib, named Bailey and Sterling as two of his heroes. “I don’t know about it, but I know he’s a big Villa fan, that’s for sure,” Bailey smiles. “I met him several times at the Villa stadium. It was a special moment for me and for Jamaica. That’s what I’m here for, to try and shed more light on the country. It was very nice to see the crowd. Everyone was happy. They enjoyed every moment.”
Bailey, who is 25 on August 9, is close to Sterling, who was also born in the Jamaican capital. “He’s actually like a brother to me,” he says. “He has strong Jamaican roots and I admired him when I was a little younger when he was at Liverpool. It’s really nice that we’re playing against each other now, and hopefully one day we’ll be playing on the same team. It’s nice to have a fellow Jamaican leading the way and showing the younger generation that there are goals you can achieve if you really want to.”
Bolt was also something of a mentor, and in November the 100m and 200m world record holder attended Villa’s home win over Brighton, Gerrard’s first game as manager. “He like it very much. I hope he can come to another. Usain is a very humble person and I always look up to him and respect him for that. He always gives me helpful tips on what to do to take care of my body. Basically, don’t think about limits, and there is always a step up that you can take every day. He’s a big football fan and can play a little, but I think running was his forte and that’s what he was born to do,” Bailey says, smiling. “I think I’m faster with the ball, but he’s faster in the race.”
Butler, whose Phoenix All Stars academy has become a foster family, detailed how Bayley, one of the 23 boys he adopted, was injured around the age of seven after witnessing an eight-man street shooting. Bailey, understandably, doesn’t want to go into details. “I have seen a lot and I never want my friends or my family to go through this. Obviously, I love what I do, but part of it also comes down to the fact that I try to give and help as much as I can, using my status as much as possible to help and try to build a better Jamaica.”
His story is intricate and multi-layered. As a child, Bailey, who idolized Ronaldinho, was encouraged to develop survival instincts, Butler taught him how to cook, iron, sew and drive. Bailey chooses his words carefully, speaking candidly about his journey to this place through Slovakia and Belgium. Arriving in Austria in the winter was a culture shock and the boys had to face ridicule and fight stereotypes as clubs belittled them with talk of Cool Runnings, Bob Marley and marijuana.
Bailey’s first test at Red Bull Salzburg ended in failure. Butler remembers tears streaming down Bailey’s face, his hands were so cold. “My journey is a journey through books,” he says, grinning. “Being from Jamaica and being able to showcase my talent in Europe and actually get this far – and there’s still a long way to go – makes me very embarrassed because I know where I come from. and I know where I want to go.”
He returned home in May, training with Butler and Phoenix in preparation for his first full preseason in three years. Did he ever feel so good in Villa colors? “Honestly? No. Because I didn’t have the right start. Since the day I got here last July [I was] as a result of an injury that has not been fully healed. From the beginning, I almost never had the opportunity to really push my body and get the confidence to be ready to work at 110%. I would say this is the best thing I have ever felt in an Aston Villa jersey. This pre-season has given me confidence.”
Bailey shone in the Europa League for Leverkusen and Villa are looking to move into Europe after improving the backbone of the team. “I think we can make big progress this year,” he says. “The team looks very cool, they are very comfortable with each other. This pre-season helped build a lot of relationships between the manager and the players, or between one player and another player. Last season there were changes, different styles of play. But I think everyone now has a proper understanding of what the old man wants.”
After a season marked by setbacks, Bayley is ready to take his chance. What was the message from Gerrard? “He just said he liked what he saw,” he replies. All signs point to a promising campaign, but he knows his performances in recent weeks have meant little. “It doesn’t mean anything yet,” Bailey says before heading off to a team meeting. “The real starts on Saturday. I’m looking forward to starting a war with the team.”