Leon Bailey has had an incredible journey to the top and he hasn’t stopped yet. This is an exclusive interview with, Craig Butler, Leon’s father and agent.
Craig Butler was lying on a hospital bed in Mexico. He had been brutally beaten, bruised and every bone in his body ached. He could hardly move.
The searing pain was inscrutable. His knees had been broken. His kidney had shut down. He was fighting for his life.
Across 10,000 kilometres in Belgium, his sons were alone. Leon, Kyle and Atkinson had no idea what had happened to their father during a business trip on the other side of the world.
For a few weeks they waited anxiously without an answer. They were Jamaican boys in Europe pursuing the impossible dream. They had learnt how to survive. Craig had taught them well but they needed their mentor. They needed Craig.
‘I was a broken man ,’ Craig Butler, Leon Bailey’s father, recalls to First Time Finish. ‘My mind went into a deep depression . I remembered one thing my promise to the three boys and Travis, their older brother. I promised to get back to them and find a way for them to make it as professional players.’
A man with a dream
Just a few years prior to being mugged and kidnapped in Mexico, Craig Butler had a dream. It was a dream which no one believed. People had ridiculed him for it. They told him that he had no chance. That it was a stupid idea. But he did not care. The dream was too noble and too impossible to give up. He knew it was his destiny.
Craig wanted to create his own football academy. He wanted to produce Jamaica’s finest footballing talents and to provide kids from impoverished backgrounds an opportunity to learn and grow.
He had been ordained by some higher esoteric power to do it.
Craig was so determined in his mission, he left his job and career to accomplish it.
With the money he had saved up, he set up the Phoenix All Stars Academy and adopted 23 boys from Jamaica to help them become footballers.
‘At first I struggled just to find food. We were tossed out on the street by my estranged wife as she did not believe in our struggles or our dreams,’ Craig recalls. ‘I fought hard each day to coach the boys, keep them focused and in school and find the money to grow the academy. I lost my vehicle to my then estranged wife and all our furniture so for a few months we were near homeless and slept on the floor of my sisters apartment.’
Eventually, Craig used his business acumen, and finally found benefactors who believed in his vision.
‘I managed to get some sponsorship from Clark, a huge phone company, and we were finally able to begin our journey.’
The perfect match
Leon Bailey was among the 23 kids Craig adopted and brought to Phoenix All Stars.
Craig found Leon in the crime-riddled Cassava Piece located near a large gully with poorly built houses.
‘It is a ghetto so to speak and poverty reigned supreme. It doesn’t mean that only bad came from such a place because being poor doesn’t make you a good or bad person . Your choices do,’ Craig says.
At Phoenix All Stars, Craig gave Leon the opportunity to focus and concentrate on football.
‘What was exciting for me then was Leon’s dexterity and his balance plus a constant focus and seriousness when it came on to learning what I had to teach him about football and life.’
Craig was more than just a football coach to his kids. He was their father. He taught them how to survive and gave them invaluable advice on and off the pitch.
‘The primary focus of our academy is to use football as a vehicle to provide kids with a chance at a better life. In my academy players are taught all the principles of business as well as the technique, skill and mental toughness needed to make it as a professional and or to qualify for a scholarship at university.’
Craig also had a penchant for wise adages and he’d endow his players with indelible quotes. It was something which resonated in Leon.
“A wise man learns from his mistakes but a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others,” was one such quote which Leon Bailey would include in his speech upon receiving the Best Young Player of the Season in the Belgian Pro League.
It was a special moment for Craig.
‘I felt so honoured I cried ,’ he remembers.
But Craig and Leon Bailey’s journey to the top has been far from simple. They had incurred challenges every step of the way.
In Jamaica, Craig faced a constant onslaught by the Football Federation to prize his players away.
‘The Jamaica football federation fought hard to break up our academy and to divide the players amongst the clubs that were members of JFF,’ Craig recalls.
The relentless pressure imposed on his academy allowed clubs to pluck away some of Craig’s best players. Meanwhile the ones who stayed behind were punished by the federation.
‘Those who stayed loyal to Phoenix were ostracized and left out of the national youth teams. I was eventually banned in an effort to stop me from training and developing our players.’
Craig had been forced into a corner. His options were limited. But he was never going to give up on his kids.
‘They made life so hard for us that we decided we had to leave Jamaica and find another place.’
It was a daunting step. Europe was all the way on the other side of the planet. But without Craig’s bold decision, Leon Bailey might have never made it to the Bundesliga.
It was like a scene from a movie. Cool Runnings in real life. A football crazed Jamaican coach with his little protegees in an unprecedented environment.
Nothing could have prepared Craig and his sons for the journey they were about to embark on.
Their first destination was Austria. The scenic Alps provided a welcoming back-drop at the end of a journey which would herald a new beginning.
Leon and his sons arrived in Salzburg towards the end of winter. But even though the temperature had mellowed, the cold was harsh and bitter for the Jamaican quartet who had been used to the comforting rays of the searing sun.
‘It was so hard . The food was different we didn’t speak German we had nowhere to live and went from hostel to hostel. I had to ensure Leon and the boys kept school going . I ventured into online schooling when no one else thought about it,’ Craig recalls.
The first trial would provide a crushing blow.
‘We went to Red Bull Salzburg first and due to the freezing cold the boys literally couldn’t move- we were rejected by the head of youth development.’
The environment seemed new and harsh. The culture was completely different to Jamaica and it was hard to adapt.
‘The biggest culture shock for us was the cold of the land and the aloofness we perceived of the Austrians. We are island boys and our weather never changes. It is always warm and we are able to go outside and play and laugh. At first we found rigid people and cold weather.’
But Craig was relentless. He believed in his boys and he never gave up. He and the boys learnt to adapt.
‘As time progressed those same people we thought were cold became our great friends.’
Proving the doubters wrong
Once settled the challenge returned to the development of the boy in terms of football. Craig was determined to find his sons the right environment to flourish, but he faced obstacles he could have never fathomed.
‘We went to almost every club in Austria, Austria Vienna, Rapid Vienna, Matterrsburg, Reid Academy, Grodig, Anif, Liafering and etc. All the time the Europeans would say in response to the father of three Jamaicans asking for a trial. “Jamaica? You mean Cool Runnings the movie man Sanka? “Or they’d ask if we smoked weed. No one believed good footballers came out of Jamaica so it was an uphill battle.’
It’s a battle which sadly permeates in some of the biggest clubs around the world. Scouts and directors often define players merely on the country they are from. A trend which is being bucked by stars like Leon Bailey or Alphonso Davies.
With time, Craig was able to breakdown those prejudices and he eventually helped his sons settle at Anif where the boys started to thrive. Leon scored 75 goals in just 15 games for the club’s U15 side.
It was in Austria where Genk took notice and quickly snapped up the Jamaican alongside his brothers.
Despite all the challenges along the way, having to survive on their own and Craig almost ruining his health to be with his sons, Leon Bailey and his father never gave up.
‘I don’t leave room for doubt . We trained for five to six hours every day as children and I taught them survival skills of cooking driving, sewing and ironing.’
‘I put them in the local supermarket deep freeze to prepare for what I knew would come.’Craig Butler
Craig instilled a powerful belief and mentality in Leon. When Craig was away, the boys adapted to life without him. They survived on their own.
‘I made sure my boys all understood hard work. They never got anything unless they earned it. If they wanted money to go to the movies they had to wash the car or do gardening at our home.’
Their experience together has both made them stronger. Leon Bailey play with a sense of fearlessness on the pitch. You can see it the way he glides past his opponents or in his reaction to set-backs. Leon never ever gives up. Much of that is thanks to the way Craig brought him up.
‘Leon’s greatest attribute is his determination and tenacity. He cannot he stopped . Once the coach believes in him he never lets you down . He was raised with the Phoenix spirit and mentality; Never die, never give up, never stop and never back down.
‘I think though that his greatest strength remains not in his skills or his speed but in his heart . He is brave and full of love for others . You cannot find a more reliable son or friend. We have a strong saying in our family. Blood doesn’t make you family loyalty does.’
Leon Bailey’s journey from Genk has taken him to Bayer Leverkusen where he has blossomed into one of the Bundesliga’s brightest prospects. Some of the world’s biggest clubs are rumoured to be interested in the Jamaican’s services and the sky is the limit for the young man.
Craig is adamant his son will become one of the world’s best.
‘If Leon is given the chance play from the start of the game, he will become the worlds best player. His ability to pick defence splitting passes, to take on defenders, to shoot with either foot and his dead ball ability, coupled with his love for the game means he has the tools necessary to go all the way .’
Having become a Jamaican international, Leon Bailey also has a chance to take his nation to the World Cup. Despite his young age, Leon is already regarded as his country’s finest footballing export.
‘Leon is Jamaica’s best ever player that has worn the national team jersey,’ Craig concludes. ‘He has accomplished the most and played consistently at the highest level. Having won Best Young Player in Belgium then in Germany is no ordinary accomplishment. All he needs now is for the coach at Bayer Leverkusen to see in Leon what I see and play him from the beginning, give him the corners and free kicks and he will deliver as he always has.’
As for Craig. He hasn’t given up either. He continues to work hard at guiding his son’s career and using his platform to develop even more of Jamaica’s brightest stars in the future with Phoenix.
‘I am ready to keep going, to keep building and to keep hoping for a better footballing Jamaica.’