Phil Hay: Pressure cranking up on Wood to find the net for Leeds United

Chris Wood.
Chris Wood.
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You are never more than 10 minutes away from a newspaper column on Wayne Rooney but his crisis is a personal one.

It comes down to image and the underlying message given by the sight of him trapped on the bench but when a club are rich enough to go all-in on Paul Pogba they can do as they please with Rooney. Play him, don’t play him. It’s merely tactics.

At Leeds United and with Chris Wood, there was never any of that flexibility. Wood up front had to work this season. The club were dependent on him and so was Garry Monk. It is trite to ask where Leeds would be without Wood’s goals but the market for top scorer behind him is a free-for-all. The belief that Leeds might be light up top was precisely why Monk spent the last few days of the transfer window chasing another striker.

Marcus Antonsson, Leeds’ player-of-the-month for August and deservedly so, has two goals to his name and one in the league. Kemar Roofe is yet to score and, if truth be told, yet to really play. Likewise Souleymane Doukara, an in-and-out forward if ever there was one. Wood’s tally stands at seven already and like reindeer carrying Rudolph on their shoulders, opposition to his inclusion has suddenly cleared. But even in the weeks when Wood was toiling, criticism of him and the clamour for him to be dropped wrongly assumed that Monk had options.

On the contrary, what Wood gave Monk was a challenge of old-school management: to make the best of a player he could not do without and to manage him through a questionable period. Only once did Monk seem in two minds, benching Wood for United’s Championship win over Blackburn Rovers, but that game proved that the threat posed by a sharp finisher in Antonsson was negated by using him as a lone forward. In the current system, that is Wood’s role or no-one’s. The current squad does not proffer an alternative with the physique to bully a defence as Wood bullied Ipswich Town’s on Saturday.

There were hints of more confidence and motivation during Leeds’ defeat of Blackburn but it is hard to remember Wood performing for Leeds in the way that he did against Ipswich. Mick McCarthy’s appraisal amounted to describing Wood as unplayable and despite McCarthy’s prior knowledge of him, Ipswich did not have the measure of him at all. The past two months have spawned a hundred opinions about Wood’s strengths and weaknesses – some of them very valid observations, not least the view that he looked like a different animal on Saturday – but it counts when it comes from someone like McCarthy, a manager who calls a spade a f****** big shovel.

The fear at the start of September was that Wood was stuck on the same trail that Steve Morison and Billy Paynter followed at Elland Road; fated to go too far down the track of underwhelming performances and goalless days, losing public confidence as a result. Morison had the additional baggage of being Luciano Becchio’s replacement and a favourite of Neil Warnock’s but he and Paynter hit the same wall: rarely scoring and rarely looking like scoring. It can only go on so long.

Wood was on the block when Leeds trailed 1-0 to Fulham last month. The header he missed shortly before his overhead kick would have made him cannon-fodder in the aftermath. His celebration that night, his cupped ear to the Kop, was risky and premature – at odds with the reality of one point accrued from three league games – but a single stroke of quality tipped the balance in his favour. Football is like that and goalscoring is like that. Dennis Wise once said that the only issue with a raw Jermaine Beckford was that he’d never had the sensation of scoring for Leeds. Once it came, Beckford never lost it.

Wood, to his credit, put his reputation on the line after Leeds’ very first pre-season friendly at Shelbourne in July. I asked him then if he thought he had 20 goals in him this season. “Easily,” he said. “I’ve done it before so I can do it again. If I have a full season then I’ll do it easily. I’m happy to back myself on that.”

In truth it had to happen and it still does. Leeds remain at least one striker light and that will be the obvious target when the transfer window re-opens in January. Monk will be happy to lean on Wood while his form flourishes but in the circumstances, and in search of goals, he would be putting on him regardless. Pontus Jansson has conditioned a leaking defence and in light of that, Wood’s position is where the real pressure lies. It says much about him that he has risen to it.

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