Five things to know about Manchester United target Leon Bailey
Genk winger Leon Bailey is one of the hottest young stars in Europe. So, ahead of the January transfer window, with Manchester United and others linked to the 19-year-old, here are five things you need to know about the Jamaican prodigy.
1. His career path has been very unusual so far
Bailey is young, but he has had his fair share of adventures in his life already. Having made his first steps in football at Phoenix All Stars academy in his homeland under the guidance of his stepfather Craig Butler, he arrived in Europe at the age of 14. Butler fully understood his son's potential and tried to find a club where he could develop, alongside his younger brother Kyle.
The first step was in Austria, where Rapid Wien rejected them, but the tiny municipality of Anif took the young Jamaicans into their youth team. During two years at the club, Bailey scored 75 goals in just 16 games, and his former coach Mike Rosbaud explained to laola1.at: "They were always traveling around Europe to do auditions at bigger clubs, and that is why Leon hadn't been with us too often."
One of those clubs was Genk, who signed him in 2013. However, before the ink was dry on his contract, it turned out that Bailey's stay in Belgium was illegal and the deal had to be cancelled.
Eventually, Bailey headed to Slovakia and joined the youth team of Trencin. After celebrating his 18th birthday in 2015, the winger could finally return to Genk, preferring the Belgian club over offers from Chelsea, Ajax and Standard Liege. In retrospect, that was the right choice. Bailey's rise has been extremely fast, and he became a household name in the Belgian Pro League during his first season in 2015-16.
2. He is versatile and improving quickly
Ever since making his debut for Genk in August 2015, Bailey has impressed with his lightning speed, exquisite technical skills and ability to take on defenders. Although he is naturally left-footed, he has a decent right foot as well and is able to play on both flanks.
Originally, Genk coach Peter Maes intended to use the youngster as an impact substitute, but he soon became a regular in the starting XI and was consistently recognised as one of the team's best performers as he managed to improve some important aspects of his game.
"Leon has always been breathtaking with the ball, but during the last few months he became much better without the ball," Het Laatste Nieuws journalist Kjell Doms told ESPN FC. "His movement is much more impressive now, and he doesn't wait for the ball anymore. He is moving into space in order to receive it, which makes him much more dangerous."
He is still far from the finished article, though, Doms adds: "Bailey's awareness of teammates is gradually improving, but there is still a long way to go. Sometimes he doesn't notice players around him. If he continues to progress and improves his defensive play as well, he should become a world-class star."
Maes, who is known as a tough personality, was controversially dismissed on Monday. His influence on Bailey had been immense and it remains to be seen whether the new coach will be able to have the same impact. Maes' departure could certainly increase the chances of the winger moving on next month.
3. He is nicknamed "Mr. Europe"
Bailey has saved his best performances for the Europa League. He scored six goals in the Belgian league last season and has only found the net two times in the domestic competition this term, but was extremely prolific on the European stage with seven goals in 12 matches.
The most memorable game was at Rapid Wien, the club that rejected him as a 13-year-old and left the family quite bitter, as Bailey scored a brace in Austria -- though Genk lost 3-2. The Belgians eventually finished top of their group, ahead of Athletic Bilbao, Rapid and Sassuolo, and qualified for the round of 32.
"Europa League matches give me extra motivation. Don't misunderstand me -- I treat the Belgian league seriously, but in Europe I can show myself to the world," the Jamaican explained. It is hardly surprising that he was nicknamed Mr. Europe.
4. Genk demanding €20 million
In the summer, Ajax offered €11m for Bailey, with the sum potentially rising to €15m, but Genk demanded €20m and were unwilling to negotiate.
The Amsterdam club could probably have paid the asking price, but failure to qualify for the Champions League group stages (having been thrashed at the hands of Rostov) ended their interest. Bailey's exploits in Europe suggest that Genk are highly unlikely to lower the value of a player who signed a contract until June 2020.
In fact, they are rather reluctant to sell in January, but Butler, whose influence over his stepson is huge, might be keen to make the move as quickly as possible.
5. He is extremely ambitious
Bailey has not hid his ambition to become a top player and wants to represent Belgium in order to make that happen. The winger played a single game for the Jamaica Under-23 team in 2015, but he doesn't want to continue in his homeland.
"There is a lot of pressure from Jamaica, but I don't see a future there," he said recently. "I want to play in big tournaments against top players, and with all due respect I don't see that happening in Jamaica any time soon."
The winger also made it clear that he would like to move to a big club only if he is guaranteed significant playing time, which makes a move to Manchester United less likely.
"Leon's next step is very important. He needs to play on weekly basis and be more consistent. Hopefully, he will make the right decision that will help his development," Sven Claes of Het Belang van Limburg newspaper told ESPN FC.
It remains to be seen if that will indeed end up being the case.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin