Former Hearts youngster aims for China international call-up and a new Scottish club after living his American dream
Leon Jones recalls Craig Levein hinting that he was too small to play for Hearts during one private meeting at Riccarton.
The defender left Edinburgh in summer 2017 for a four-year scholarship at the University of Kentucky. He isn’t any taller at 5ft 11ins but has grown in both stature and reputation in America.
An international call-up from China is possible and he is due for trials with Scottish Premiership clubs this summer. Now 23, Jones graduated with a degree in chemical engineering this month. He is also very much the architect of his own destiny.
Since rejecting a one-year contract extension from Levein, he has thrived in US college leagues with his university’s soccer team, Kentucky Wildcats. The gamble is paying off with Chinese FA officials now monitoring his progress thanks to his Hong-Kong born mother, Jennifer.
A contract with a Scottish Club this summer would enhance his prospects. “Definitely. My ambition is still to be the best I can be and play at the highest level possible,” said Jones, who secured his scholarship thanks to the support of FirstPoint USA, founded by former Scottish footballer Andrew Kean.
“My route is maybe unfamiliar but I want to increase my profile, either for an international opportunity or a chance to join a big club in a different league.
“FirstPoint have a lot of ties in China and contacts with the Chinese FA. With their help, my CV and footage was sent over. There was interest early on last year but Covid made it difficult, plus the political landscape over there.
Clubs going bust
“Some Chinese Super League clubs went bust and I think Government funding isn’t what it was. That made it harder for me to go over there but I’m still in contact with the people in China.
“They send me messages asking how I’m getting on and how the season is going. Potentially, something could still happen there.”
He has enough to be getting on with meantime as he prepares to leave Kentucky. The National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA] will let players continue playing for a year after they graduate, but Jones intends to return home.
“From a sporting and academic standpoint, there’s no benefit in me staying. I’ve graduated and I want to get back into professional football,” he said. “MLS teams have international spots in their squads but generally they go to big superstars like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic or [Gonzalo] Higuain.
“The USL [league below] might be an option but quite a few clubs have shown interest back home. I’ve put together a highlight reel of my season last year and that’s been sent out to a few Premiership clubs in Scotland.
“They have said they’d like to see me on trial in pre-season so I’m optimistic about that. I’m just trying to check dates and book flights and stuff like that.
“I’d like to explore the opportunity back home because it’s where I’m from. I was at Hearts from the age of seven to 19 so I know Scottish football and the standard required to play there. I might try to train with a few USL clubs here first. I don’t want to close the door on anything here or elsewhere.”
Jones is entitled to feel his point is proved after four years Stateside. The centre-back’s ambition to push for a first-team place at Hearts stalled in his final year. One particular meeting with Levein – director of football at the time – appeared to seal his fate.
“In my last year with the under-20s we played about 40 games and I’d played 38 of them. I was captain and the coaches, Jon Daly and Andy Kirk, were impressed with my performance. They felt I was the standout player and first name on the teamsheet that year,” recalled Jones.
“Other players were offered two and three-year deals so I felt I deserved more than a year. Me and my parents went in and spoke to Craig Levein. He said he was really happy and all aspects of my game were really good. One of the things he said was: ‘Leon, you maybe lack an inch or two.’
“By him making that comment, I felt I didn’t fit his idea of what a centre-half should look like. Fair enough if he said: ‘Leon, you don’t win enough in the air.’ My height is something I can’t change. Because of that I didn’t think I’d get a first-team opportunity.
Champions League for colleges
“I left it until the last day, then I phoned Jon Daly and said I’d decided to take the scholarship. I decided to reject the one-year extension at Hearts to come here on a four-year scholarship.
“I took a lot of classes to figure out what interested me and then I settled on chemical engineering as my degree. You are studying and playing at the same time and I got right into it.
“In my second year, we won our conference double and got to the quarter-final of the NCAA tournament. That’s like a Champions League for colleges. Over 200 of them play but only 48 make into that competition.
“We were ranked fifth and got to the quarter-final, which was the best year in Kentucky’s history. Covid hit last year and everybody went home but I stayed here. I wasn’t sure if I’d get back into the country for this following season.
“This season wasn’t quite as successful but I’ve really enjoyed this experience and hopefully it stands me in good stead for the future.”
A number of young players across Scotland will find themselves in a predicament this summer as clubs release unwanted players. Following Jones’ unorthodox example might just be worth considering.