SCORING 22 goals makes Chris Wood the Championship’s leading scorer and the Leeds United striker was a shoo-in for man-of-the-match at Birmingham City on Friday. It will not be Wood’s last award this season if his finishing continues to come so naturally.
Other players can be starved for attention behind a striker so prolific but Leeds’ 3-1 win at Birmingham – a result even Garry Monk classed as slightly fortunate – was not merely Wood’s doing. A cameo from substitute Kalvin Phillips helped to dramatically turn a match which Birmingham had a grip of. Alfonso Pedraza stepped off the bench to kill off Gianfranco Zola’s side with a sharp, 81st-minute strike. By then it was easy to forget Rob Green’s influence.
Green was 36 when Leeds signed him last summer and he turned 37 in January, numbers which draw the conclusion that he is at Elland Road in the twilight of his career. The England international’s more recent performances have made him look like one of the safer pairs of hands in the Championship.
Wood’s first goal on Friday, an inspired 15th-minute lob over a stranded Tomasz Kuszczak, came little over 60 seconds after Green pushed a goalbound shot from Che Adams off his goalline and wide of his far post. The save was bettered by another point-blank stop from Adams in the second half as a Birmingham team who Monk described as “excellent” attacked in waves.
There was little he could do about a Robert Tesche shot that struck the crossbar in the first half or the pin-point finish from Craig Gardner which beat him on 62 minutes and briefly levelled the match at 1-1 but Green, whose penalty save sealed a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday six days earlier, has exerted a quiet influence over United’s form since Christmas. Prior criticism of him is dying away. Criticism is something Green learned to manage years ago.
“For me, the knocks he’s had along the way fit in with our mentality here,” Monk said. “He’s got a very strong mentality and he’s very focused on drowning out any negatives.
“That’s part of your life as a footballer. You’re going to get negatives and football isn’t always easy. It’s not always ups. There are a lot of downs. You have to be able to deal with that and move on, staying strong mentally. Rob’s done that throughout his career.
“But the key to everything is that he’s a good player. He’s a very good player.
“I needed players who could lend experience to a young group but it’s not just about that.
It’s important and I did look for it in the summer but the bottom line will always be can they perform and do what’s needed of them?
Rob’s shown that he can across the whole season and at his ripe old age, he’s very professional, very fit and ready to contribute.”
Green joined Leeds on a free transfer after leaving Queens Park Rangers for a salary which fitted comfortably into United’s wage structure. It is one of several deals which the club would now see a bargain and Green, who has started every one of their league games and recorded 12 clean sheets, stands to earn a 12-months extension to a contract which ends in June on the basis of an appearance-related clause. Green has conceded already this season that a reliable defence in front of him can leave him “standing around doing nothing” and Monk said: “We’re highly organised. We work incredibly hard defensively on our way of playing and how we need to react in certain situations.
“We have a structure and rules and the players all know about it. When you have (a strong defence) in front of you I guess it makes your job as a goalkeeper a little easier but Rob has a responsibility to play within that.
“We defend together and we try to attack together. That’s been put in place from day one. When you have clarity about what you’re doing, it enables you to perform better.”
Monk was honest about Friday’s performance, admitting Birmingham would feel “aggrieved” by the result and questioning if Leeds had felt “pressure to win” in the first of 12 remaining fixtures. United’s victory moved them onto 64 points and another step closer to the play-offs.
“It was just a feeling I had,” Monk said. “Birmingham played very well and put us on the back foot but there were moments where we could have wrestled the front foot back earlier. We didn’t do that.
“Watching the players and knowing them, we weren’t playing with our normal freedom in the first half. But I never fear our ability to fight and dig in or to be disciplined when we have to be. I know that when the moment’s right we’ll get our chances and we’ll take them. Those are the ingredients of a team who are coming together.
“Because of the standards we’ve set, we’re always going to be disappointed when we don’t perform at our best but it’s hard to perform in this league for 90 minutes. We found ways to cope and adapt, to come back fighting and to reach that period where we can really hurt teams. Our aim is to do it for the whole game and until we do that, we’re never fully satisfied. But we have to be very satisfied with how we’re doing.”