Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Phoenix rising

Published:Saturday | January 27, 2018 | 12:00 AMAndrÈ Lowe/Sports Editor
Phoenix Academy founder Craig Butler (centre) and standout players Leon Bailey (left) and Kyle Butler.
Craig Butler

Passionate and determined? Definitely. Misunderstood? Maybe.

A villain to some, a visionary to others; Phoenix Academy founder Craig Butler is today enjoying the fruits of a labour of love - and quite a labour it was!

With Bayer Leverkusen star Leon Bailey bearing its banner, the academy's reputation continues to grow across the globe, but its genesis is one of tribulations and triumph; a journey of hope that saw a dreamer and three teenagers take on Europe with little more than desperation, determination, and hope.

From literally living off bread and tuna, sleeping in a park and bouncing from club to club all across Europe; to having one of the hottest names in world football as their biggest testament, Butler and his boys have certainly come a long way.

As Butler revealed a side of his journey that is not often told - of the incidents that strengthened their resolve and tightened their family bond - he also showed a side of his personality that belies the controversial figure he has become.

"Passion, happiness, vindication, love, country - those are the words that come to mind when I think about Phoenix Academy today," Butler reflected. "We always knew that if we worked hard and believed, we could overcome anything. That is the mantra at Phoenix. Many persons don't know the story, how we came about."

The conviction to create an academy to develop young, local football talent first arrived in the 1980s and took flight in 2002. Butler saw the opportunity to not only create footballers, but also change the lives of young men who were left without support. To this end, he would regularly take youngsters into his household, eventually adopting 20.

"When Phoenix came about, I didn't do it because I wanted to participate in the local competitions, I did it because I had 20 boys I had adopted and they all wanted to play professional football, and I couldn't afford to send them all to college, so I remembered, you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life," Butler added. "So I decided to teach them what I knew best - football."



Poured his love in group


Perhaps fuelled by his own experience as a young father, when his firstborn was taken away from him by his then estranged wife, Butler poured all his love into his group - even in the face of mounting challenges both at home and abroad.

"It wasn't something I got up and said, 'I am going to adopt 20 kids'; I will give an example. At training, one boy came and he was a goalkeeper. Every time I looked around, I saw him lying on the ground. I would tell him to get up ,and he would apologise.

"He went on the ground again and I asked him when was the last time he ate. His eyes were turning over; he was about to faint. He said he didn't eat that day, he said he had a bun and cheese the day before and the same thing the previous day as well. He said he had not seen his mother in two weeks, and I eventually took him home. Today, he is one of the biggest centre halves; he's a monster, my right hand."

It wasn't long before Butler and his boys - some of the best youth footballers around - started making ripples in local youth football. However, despite their clear abilities, they were constantly overlooked for national selection. Butler blames the local football structure and the perceived conflict of interest, where club officials are also Jamaica Football Federation directors and board members, for many of the political issues he faced in the early stages. 

The Phoenix boys were ostracised, says Butler 

"Our players had become the best young players on the island. Jason Wright, Romario Williams, Shawn Lawes, Leon Bailey, AndrÈ Wilson, Kyle Butler, Kevaughn Atkinson, Stephen Edwards - they were all at Under-13 or prep-school level, the best player or captains of their teams. Dominic James was also a Phoenix-built player," said Butler.

"Some of the players were pressured to leave and they did leave and immediately got into the national teams. Jason Wright went into the Under-17 team and took them to Mexico; Lawes was the captain. Those that stayed were said to be normal, not good enough; and the reason those stayed was because they lived in my home, they were my children, they had nowhere to go."

His next move was to try and acquire the Stony Hill football team in an effort to keep his boys together and get them involved in a formal league competition. That led to a bitter ownership fight with another individual and the intervention of the Kingston and St Andrew Football Association (KSAFA). Butler was left dissatisfied with the proposed solution and later took the organisation to court in direct breach of FIFA regulations, resulting in a subsequent ban.

"Now, how do I stop coaching when the kids live with me and that's what we do every day? So we continued. The boys were ostracised and were not allowed to get into any national teams," Butler shared.

"We would try to get them to play. We would hide and register them under the name of a club - and I will always remember the good deeds of these clubs like Papine/UTech - but the minute that they (KSAFA) heard that the boys were playing, they were immediately thrown out of the competition and Papine/UTech were banned. Meadforest came under immense pressure when they saw the names Kyle Butler, Leon Bailey, and Kevaughn Atkinson registered. It was a nightmare, but we simply could not give up. That's why the mantra at the academy is, 'The Phoenix never dies', and the second part is 'The Phoenix leaves no man behind'."

Living on no money and a dream

"We realised we had to get out of Jamaica; we needed to find a way to become pros," said Butler.

No money and no support meant Butler had to rely on the kindness of his friend, Eddie Leighton, who gave him a $1 million cheque to pursue his dream.

"When everybody didn't believe in us and everything was against us; when we said we wanted to go to Europe and I didn't have any money - I had sold everything that I owned: my house, my car, everything - he (Leighton) believed. I will never forget him for that," added a tearful Butler.


Struggles continued


But the struggles didn't stop when he left Jamaica with Bailey, Kyle Butler, and Atkinson.

"We landed in Munich and went directly to Red Bull Salzburg (in Austria) and asked for a trial in February in the freezing cold. We had no gloves, one little sweatshirt and a long-sleeve jersey. They said the boys weren't good enough, because they were freezing. To show you the determination of these boys, they took off their shirts in the freezing cold the next day and ran six miles."

"We were staying in hostels and we were trying our best to survive, living off that one little money that we had. We would have one tin of tuna, buy a scallion, plant it in a little pot that we had, trim the top, put the mayonnaise and bread, mix it into a spread and we would eat that all day for the four of us and drink water from the pipe just to save some money," Butler shared.

"One time, we were walking, we were ankle deep in mud, rain, sun, snow and freezing cold. Back then, I decided to videotape everything because we knew people wouldn't believe. I remember one time, the bag that we had - we had everything in that bag, and because they were so small, I used to carry the bag. I would go without eating sometimes so that they could eat. I got so tired one time that I said to them that I couldn't manage anymore, 'Let's go home.' Kevaughn looked up and said, 'Phoenix can never die, you told us that. You thought it was going to be easy?'


Atkinson overlooked


That 15-year-old picked up the bag and he carried it. It was a big bag with all our possessions. He is still carrying it. He is the most reliable person, my go-to person and in my opinion, the best striker Jamaica has ever produced, and nobody gave him a chance," Butler said, as tears again began to flow.

"At 16, he top-scored the Austrian Landesliga - the adult league. Bayern Munich wanted to sign him; we were all excited until we realised the rules said you can't sign a non-EU player until he is 18."

Destined for greatness

The tour took them to several clubs all across Austria, where the boys were being schooled, Belgium and The Netherlands.

At this point, the Phoenix pioneers were beginning to make their mark. Bailey scored 75 goals in 15 games while playing for USK Anif in Austria, with Kyle Butler contributing 22 goals and over 90 assists. They played against the same Red Bull Salzburg team that had rejected them, beat them, and were later given an offer.

Protected by a release clause, Butler managed to keep his boys, and even when he had to leave Europe, he decided that he was not going to leave them behind in the care of any club.

"The situation sometimes in professional football, if a club sees a talented young boy, they would try to take him, and I wouldn't allow that, because I wouldn't abandon my kids. I stayed the course with them. Genk wanted me to leave them and I said no. I stayed with them and took them home. I told them that when I got back, they would pay 10 times the amount of money for them.

I came back to Jamaica. We took everything we had learnt in Europe and taught the rest of the players and they improved dramatically. We took them on tour in Belgium, Holland, Austria and beat up everyone."

With Bailey making waves in Germany and several other players playing professionally in Europe, such as Kyle Butler, Atkinson and Davis, who are all now based in Malta, Butler is expecting Phoenix to continue its upward trajectory.

"In three to five years, we will be the best academy in the world. We will have players being sold all over the world to all the top clubs. It will be the beacon and the model for Jamaica."

Lofty ambitions, but with his determination and drive, are you willing to bet against him?