A product of the Phoenix Academy founded and run by Craig Butler, 18 year old Leon Bailey is the first of what Butler hopes will be a long line of his players who will end up signing professional contracts abroad.
Bailey’s first season in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League has been excellent, with the young winger coming on slowly before he inserted himself as one of the mainstays in K.R.C. Genk‘s starting line-up.
His overall first season returns have given ample reason for optimism around his potential, and Jamaican fans far and wide are salivating at the prospect of his appearance for the Reggae Boyz, which has not come yet despite call ups from Reggae Boyz head coach Winfried Schäfer.
Professional football stocks rising fast
Having started 20 league games (appearing in 25) in a country and at a club highly regarded for its ability to develop talent, Bailey certainly seems to have gained the trust of his coaching staff and teammates.
He tallied seven assists and four goals in the regular season, helping Genk to a fifth place finish and a place in the league playoffs.
With Genk chasing a place in the Champions League for next season, Bailey has been in the starting line-up for all three playoff games, helping Genk to two wins.
That great form has catapulted his stock in the last few months with his transfer value rising from €200,000 in October 2015 to €4 million in February 2016 according to transfermarket.com.
He is also ranked number 46 on the ‘World top 100 footballers under the age of 20 list’ by the respected La Gazzetta dello Sport – the most widely read daily newspaper in Italy.
Bailey’s tremendous promise and dazzling skills has made him one of the most coveted young players in the sport.
According to Belgian paper Het Nieuwsblad, there is a tug of war between Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund over the talented winger’s signature.
It is understood that Bailey is connected to Chelsea, though no formal agreement exists. The English Premier League giants are said to have an informal option on Bailey once he qualifies for an EU passport.
The speedy striker, who broke the speed dribbling record at Ajax FC, had attracted interest from a number of clubs across Europe after his youth exploits in Austria, Germany and Holland where he impressed with his prolific goal scoring, but surprisingly chose to join the Belgian top-flight outfit.
Last year Bailey created history by signing the biggest contract for a junior football player at the club and later said he felt more at home.
Bailey seems in good hands as with the likes of Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne recently coming through their youth ranks, the club’s academy has a fabulous reputation when it comes to recognising and developing young talent.
The Reggae Boyz controversy
With all the encouraging signs one would think Bailey would be a part of the current Reggae Boyz senior setup like fellow teenage prodigy Levi Garcia has done for the ‘Soca Warriors’.
However, Bailey, who became the first local Jamaican football player to sign an endorsement deal with sportswear giants Nike after signing a three-year endorsement contract in 2014, is yet to make his senior debut.
A rift between the brash Butler and the leadership at the Jamaica Football Federation is said to be at the heart of his delayed appearance for the senior national team, despite a goal- scoring cameo appearance in a U-23 game against Cayman in March of 2015, where he scored directly from a free-kick.
A source close to the JFF revealed to [email protected] that Schäfer wants the player in the national setup and actually a request was sent to the player to join the senior squad late last year.
Word from the Bailey camp is that call ups were rejected in order for the teenager to focus entirely on his burgeoning club career.
That rift between the Butler and the federation has been longstanding with Butler bemoaning the federation’s lack of proper structure and strategic planning.
It is unfortunate that such a fantastic talent seems to be caught in the cross fire and it is plausible if the teenager’s loyalty rests with his manager and adopted father.
In fact Leon’s dream of playing football was made possible by Butler, who brought him into the camp at the tender age of seven and has been most instrumental in the player’s development so far.
But with the Reggae Boyz team in need of offensive spark and Bailey’s stocks soaring, his long awaited entrance into the senior squad might be not be far off.
— Leon bailey (@leonbailey) February 29, 2016
Though he has been enjoying the much better lifestyle in Europe since 2013, the Cassava Piece native does not forget his rough upbringing.
He has expressed his desire to don the Reggae Boyz shirt and represent the country of his birth and has paraded the Jamaican flag on several occasion after matches.
Regardless of the true reason(s) for focusing on his professional club career at the moment, it is safe to say that the decision is paying dividends.
Butler hopes that his protégé’s impressive start as a professional at the club will further open the doors for the other Pheonix academy players to get a shot at top flight professional football.
Sources: transfermarket.com, whoscored.com, us.soccerway.com