Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey has been one of the Bundesliga’s breakout stars this season. The Jamaica-born midfielder’s performances have been attracting a lot of attention from Europe’s elite, while there could also be an international tug-of-war for his services in the future.
But why is he so highly-rated? Here are five things to know.
1. He arrived in Europe with nothing but a small bag
Kingston-born Bailey joined Craig Butler’s Phoenix All-Star Academy at the age of six. Some eight years later, Butler, now his agent and step-dad, took the 14-year-old to Europe alongside his son Kyle Butler. They landed in Munich, headed straight to Austria hoping to join the Red Bull academy in Salzburg, but ended up in the under-15 team of local club USK Anif.
“They did not have not anything on them, but for a small bag. I told them they could train here,” Mike Rosbaud, Bailey’s first coach told DAZN in a recent interview. “They came here to join Red Bull, they had a trial there, but they did not take them. We saw the potential, and we wanted to keep them at Anif.”
Having arrived in Europe only on a tourist visa, the club made sure Bailey was eligible to stay. Unconfirmed reports suggest that in his sole year with Anif, Bailey scored 75 goals in just 16 outings for the club.
“He had everything, but he went all in in the box, and the balls went over the crossbar,” added Rosbaud. “We invented the 80 percent rule for him, telling him he should only use 80 percent of his power in the box. From then on he scored.”
As a 14-year-old, he said his greatest asset was that he “always works harder” and he certainly showed that later in his career.
2. Genk to the rescue
Playing in Austria was not enough; Bailey’s goal from the outset was to become a professional footballer. “We arrived in Europe with a vision, but not a plan,” Butler said, adding that he hoped to get his step-son into the school of European football.
However, following trials with Genk, Ajax and many other clubs, Butler went missing after reportedly being kidnapped in Mexico. His sons were left behind in Belgium as unaccompanied minors, but Genk stepped in.
“That was a crazy situation,” Genk’s technical director Gunter Jacob said. “To prevent the boys landing on the streets, we took care they were able to attend school.”
Once Butler returned, and local authorities looked into the case, the family left for AS Trencin in Slovakia, only to return and sign for Genk’s first-team on a three-year deal in August 2015.
“It’s been a long, long time since I had you on my mind,” the club’s sporting director quoted Bob Marley’s ‘Stir It Up’ at Bailey’s unveiling.
“Genk have always been my dream club,” Bailey said. “I’ve been to so many different clubs, but what Genk have to offer is unbelievable. I am grateful for the chance. My dream is always to play in the Champions League.”
3. He joined Leverkusen after 18 months
A year later, in the second half of 2016, Bailey announced himself on the Europa League stage with three goals in the qualifiers and a further four in the groups. Europe took notice and, after Butler fell out with the Belgian club, his step-son joined Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen for a reported fee of €13.5 million.
With Leverkusen struggling at the time, Bailey did not make an immediate impact. He played in just eight games, always coming off the bench, but on the final matchday of the season, he recorded his first assist in a 6-2 win at Hertha Berlin.
With the arrival of new head coach Heiko Herrlich things changed and, this term, he has made 23 appearances in the top flight and has been the league’s breakout star.
4. He has an unorthodox playing style
Bailey can play in several positions up front or on the wing. Although mainly used as a left winger, he has been played all over the pitch, sometimes even as a defensive left midfielder. He has pace and he loves to go into one-on-one situations, but definitely likes to attack.
The 20-year-old has scored seven of his nine Bundesliga goals this term from inside the box, but has also attempted 25 shots from outside; one long-range goal against Mainz was especially impressive.
He not only provides goals, but has also clocked up six assists this season and often manages to create space for his teammates by drawing defenders onto him. And there are not many players with anticipation like Bailey, who is able to wait and take advantage of the right chance.
5. He is still uncapped
Although Bailey has featured in one match for Jamaica’s youth team, he has not made an appearance at the senior level. He has said in the past that it makes him “very proud standing up here in Europe representing my country” and added: “Even though I don’t represent them as a nationality, I still represent Jamaica and it makes me proud inside.”
However, reports earlier this year suggested he could also be eligible to feature for England because of his step-father’s UK roots.
Should Butler and the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) find ways of settling a long-term dispute over the future of football in the country, Bailey could still opt to play for the Caribbean nation. In March, Butler turned down a JFF invitation for the Leverkusen winger and his son Kyle, currently with Malta outfit St Andrews FC.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.