Mick McCarthy said it – “a really exceptional Championship striker” – but there are many managers in the league who think the same of Chris Wood and many who thought so even in the days when he and Leeds United were struggling to rub along.
It was widely agreed when Leeds signed him in 2015 that the club were putting their money on a safe bet but only now is Wood making a £3m fee look like the cut-price signing it is. His talent was not in dispute when Garry Monk walked into Elland Road last summer but his contribution was. As James Beattie, the ex-England forward and Monk’s first-team coach, put it: “His reputation as a striker should precede him.”
This season Leeds have driven Wood to that level and he’s helped himself to 21 goals. Six in four games saw Wood named as the Championship’s player-of-the-month for January this morning, the first time in his career he has received the trophy. Leeds were rumoured to have fended off interest in him in the recent transfer window by quoting an asking price of £15m. In today’s market that valuation does not sound excessive.
Monk’s impression of Wood when he first took the job of head coach at Leeds was the same as his wider impression of the club’s entire squad: that few of them were being motivated to better themselves and few had the confidence to think that they could. When Monk says that the culture has changed, Wood is tangible evidence of that; a deadlier finish this season, stronger and more aggressive, and offering far more with his movement. “He’s proving why people were coveting his signature,” McCarthy said after the striker’s headed winner against Ipswich Town in September.
Monk can talk from experience about climbing the professional ladder. He joined Swansea City in League Two and retired 10 years later with a League Cup winners’ medal and appearances in the Premier League on his record. “As a player you should always want to get better,” Monk said. “I’m not sure whether that mentality was here when we first came in.
“We tried to change that. We tried to change the players’ view on football and their view on how they approach what they do for a living. All of them have improved, Chris being one. What you’re seeing are the fruits of their labour and the thinking behind it.
“That’s where I think football has changed over the last five or six years, especially. The need to get better, the need to take what you do seriously and improve, isn’t quite there. We’ve seen many discussions about that within football and certain organisations. It’s something I feel as well.
“I recognised that straight away when I came here. It was my job and my staff’s job to put that right. Now we’ve got a group who think about their football and think about how they live their lives – what they need to do to be the best player they can be. That’s the only way you can look at it. If you don’t, you’re going to waste your career.”
The saying goes that goals breed confidence and, in tandem, happiness but Wood scored 13 last season without looking content or as integral as he has under Monk. Those goals did not protect him from the sections of United’s crowd who singled him out and targeted him amid what was a general malaise at the very beginning of this season.
Is he happier now? “You’d have to ask him but I’d like to think so,” Monk said. “I always feel that when the players come through the difficulty of what we’re asking them to do – and see the rewards – they’ll recognise why they’re doing it. It’ll make them want to do it even more. That’s part of the culture we’ve implemented here.
“Chris has been fantastic. He’s one of a number of players who’ve contributed exceptionally well. He deserves this award and we’re all very happy for him but he knows he needs to work incredibly hard, which he is, and stay focused, which he is. He needs to keep contributing to the team.
“All of the players, Chris included, are very much team players. It’s a team ethic here and Chris is part of that.”
None of that is the same as saying that Leeds could have coped with the pace of the play-off zone without Wood’s goals. The New Zealand international said in July that he would reach 20 “easily” and 21 by the first weekend of February is precisely that. But behind him Souleymane Doukara has five and Kyle Bartley has four. Only five other players have scored more than once.
Wood’s impact in January was enough to see off three other footballers shortlisted for the EFL’s player-of-the-month award: Brighton goalkeeper and penalty specialist David Stockdale, Ipswich’s free-scoring Tom Lawrence and Cardiff City’s Joe Ralls.
After receiving his award at Thorp Arch, Wood told Sky Bet: “Personally it’s very nice but we’re doing well as a team. The team’s come on leaps and bounds from last year. We’re creating loads more opportunities and we’ve got a management side who back you.
“People under-estimate what the backing of a manager or players can do but these boys have backed me all the way through the season. So have the management. (Monk) has made a huge difference. He’s backed me through-and-through and if you get confidence from a manager it brings it out in you too.”