Leon Bailey is reflecting on his childhood in Cassava Piece, the ghetto neighbourhood in Kingston where he grew up, the place that shaped his outlook before a one-way ticket to Europe helped him to fulfil his football dream. “Jamaica is a very beautiful country but, you know, it has its good sides and bad sides,” the Aston Villa winger says. “The inner-city community is where I’m from. There were a lot of times where there was no money there to put food on the table or lunch money to go to school. There were tough times … but I’m used to tough times. That’s why I never let anything break me down. I just build myself back up and learn from it. It makes me stronger and want to push on even more.”
It is why Bailey will not let a frustrating injury-hit first season at Villa Park beat 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 off with an ankle problem in April. But Bailey never needs to think too hard to gain perspective. The words “Cassava Piece Kingston Where It All Started” are etched on to a pair of his boots.
After moving to Austria at the age of 12 with his adoptive father, Craig Butler, and his brothers, Kyle and Kevaughn, in the hope of securing trials and contracts, things were tight. They hopped between hostels and Butler cleaned toilets to make ends meet. “We had to eat tuna sandwiches for lunch and dinner sometimes,” Bailey says. “I didn’t see the rest of my family for four and a half years. It was very tough. But it was part of what we were prepared to do because of where we wanted to go. We stuck to the plan.”
The obvious place to begin is Bailey’s form given his electric pre-season displays – he is set to be rewarded for three goals in five appearances with a start at Bournemouth on Saturday . But in his first major interview since signing for Villa, he is enlightening company as he discusses everything from his friendship with Usain Bolt to Steven Gerrard’s standards, the sacrifices made by Butler, who is now his agent, and enjoying a kickabout with the Duke of Cambridge and Raheem Sterling on the royals’ visit to Trench Town in March.
Prince William, who wore a No 10 bib, described Bailey and Sterling as two of his heroes. “I don’t know about that but I know he’s a big Villa fan, that’s for sure,” Bailey smiles. “I’ve met him a few times before at the Villa ground. It was a very special moment for me and Jamaica as well. That’s what I’m here for, to try to shine more light on the country. It was really nice to see the crowd. Everybody was happy. They enjoyed every moment of it.”
Bailey, 25 on 9 August, is close to Sterling, who was also born in the Jamaican capital. “He is like my brother actually,” he says. “He has strong Jamaican roots and he is somebody I looked up to when I was a bit younger, when he was at Liverpool. It is really nice that we’re actually playing against each other now and hopefully one day we will play in the same team. It is nice to have a fellow Jamaican paving the way and showing the younger generation that there are goals you can achieve if you really want to.”
Bolt has also been something of a mentor and in November the 100m and 200m world record holder attended Villa’s win at home to Brighton, Gerrard’s first game as manager. “He really enjoyed it. Hopefully he can come to another one. Usain is a very humble person and I always look up to him and respect him for that. He always gives me useful advice, what you need to do to take care of your body. Basically, don’t think of limits and there is always a step higher that you can go every day. He’s a big football fan and he can play a little bit, but I think running was his thing and that’s what he was born to do,” Bailey says, smiling. “I think I’m quicker on a ball but he’s quicker in a race.”
Butler, whose Phoenix All Stars Academy doubled up as a foster home, has detailed how Bailey, one of 23 boys he adopted, was left traumatised at about the age of seven after witnessing an eight-man street shooting. Bailey, understandably, is reluctant to delve into specifics. “I’ve seen a lot and they are experiences I never want my friends or my family to ever go through. Obviously I love what I do but part of it is also about trying to give back and help as much as I can, using my status as much as I can to help and try to build a better Jamaica.”
There are intricacies and layers to his story. As a boy Bailey, who idolised Ronaldinho, was encouraged to develop survival instincts, taught by Butler how to cook, iron, sew and drive. Bailey chooses his words carefully as he talks candidly about his route to this point, via Slovakia and Belgium. Arriving in Austria in winter was a culture shock and the boys had to cope with ridicule and tackle stereotypes as clubs belittled them with talk of Cool Runnings, Bob Marley and marijuana.
Bailey’s first trial, at Red Bull Salzburg, ended in rejection. Butler recalls tears streaming down Bailey’s face, so cold were his hands. “My journey is one for the books,” he says, grinning. “Coming from where I’m from in Jamaica and being able to showcase my talent in Europe and actually reaching this far – and there is still a long way to go – it humbles me a lot, because I know where I’ve 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 pre-season in three years. Has he ever felt this good in Villa colours? “Honestly? No. Because I haven’t really had a proper start. Since the day I got here in July last year [I was] coming from an injury that wasn’t fully properly healed. From the start I basically never really had the opportunity to really push my body and get that confidence so that I’m ready to go at 110%. I would say this is the best I’ve felt in an Aston Villa T-shirt. This pre-season has given me a lot of confidence.”
Bailey shone in the Europa League for Leverkusen, and Villa are hopeful of pushing for Europe after improving the spine of the team. “I think we can achieve big things this year,” he says. “The team is looking very sharp, very comfortable with each other. This pre-season helped build a lot of relationships between the manager and the players, or some players with another player. Last season there were changes, different styles of play. But I think now everybody has a proper understanding of what the gaffer wants.”
After a season punctuated by setbacks, Bailey is ready to grasp his chance. What has been the message from Gerrard? “He’s just been saying he likes what he’s seeing,” he replies. All the signs point towards a promising campaign but he knows his performances in recent weeks count for little. “It means nothing yet,” Bailey says, before shuffling into a team meeting. “The real thing starts on Saturday. I’m looking forward to going to war with the team.”