EIGHT years ago this month, Chris Wood was rushing out of the door to catch West Bromwich Albion’s team bus. “I’m off to Portsmouth,” he told his bewildered mother, who began ringing around to find out what her 17-year-old son was up to.
The following day Wood appeared as a substitute in a 2-2 draw at Fratton Park; a Premier League debut less than a year after West Brom invited him to England from New Zealand on trial. His mother Julie had time to get to Portsmouth with her brother and a friend. Wood’s father, Grant, was thousands of miles away in Auckland and hung on the phone in the early hours of the morning as Wood came on for the last 15 minutes.
“My dad called my mum and listened to the atmosphere,” Wood says. “He was on the phone the whole time. My mum was at the game but to begin with she had no idea what was going on. I only found out I was in the squad on the day we were travelling and I literally had time to run into the house, grab my tracksuit and go. The physio was sitting in his car outside, waiting to drive to the bus.
“I shouted ‘I’m off to Portsmouth’ and that was it. My mum had to phone Dan Ashworth, who was head of West Brom’s academy, to find out what was happening. That was eight years ago, almost exactly. A lot’s happened since then.”
His debut is one example of the family support and camaraderie that Wood’s career has depended on.
This season – “up there with the best of them,” he says – is the culmination of many years of sacrifice, and not just by him: 28 goals, a nomination for Championship player of the year and receipt of the YEP’s player-of-the-year award for 2016-17.
“It’s one of the top two seasons I’ve had performance-wise,” Wood says. “Goals-wise, there’s no contest.”
He would credit several people for that but Wood’s gratitude goes first to his parents. When the offer of a contract at West Brom materialised in 2008, Wood’s London-born mother decided to relocate with him to Birmingham. His father remained in Auckland with his elder sister Chelsey, herself an aspiring footballer who, like Wood, would later represent New Zealand.
Without his mother and halfway around the world, Wood suspects he might not have coped. “I honestly believe it wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “Homesickness is one thing but my mum gave me someone to come home to. If you had a bad day there was always someone to rant at. Well, maybe not rant, but to talk things over with. I had someone there to listen.
“Coming home to people in digs, you can’t do that. They’re not your family and they’re not going to tolerate you in the same way. You wouldn’t expect them to. Having little things like the same food you were used to growing up, the same sort of environment – it might sound daft but when you’re moving so far, it’s a huge deal. A lot of footballers owe a lot to their families. I owe mine everything.”
Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. Last year you had different things going on – fans pulling one way, the owner pulling one way, the players pulling one way. It wasn’t working. Now everything’s aligned.Leeds United’s Chris Wood
Wood found the distance from his sister difficult too. They were close growing up and played in the same junior team in Auckland. Last summer, Wood missed the final of the Oceania Nations Cup to be at her wedding.
“I started playing football when I was four,” he says. “She was six and she got fed up of watching me from the sidelines so she came and joined in.” Chelsey once joked that initially, Wood was the “only one who passed the ball to me”. “Up until the age of 12 we were in the same team together,” Wood says. “I loved that.”
While Wood pursued his chance with West Brom, Chelsey, a centre-back, crammed training with New Zealand around a five-year degree, studying to become an optometrist.
“She’s a lot brighter than I am,” Wood says. “She excelled at university and was always going to do well for herself but men’s football and women’s football are extremely similar so we’d speak a lot about it and work on things together. More than that, we supported each other. We’ve been doing that from a very young age.”
New Zealand is rugby country, at least to those on the outside, and Wood’s physique – the physique that Garry Monk sought to make more of at Leeds this season – seemed perfect for it. Football drew his attention instead, largely because his father played the game for Onehunga Sports, a local-league club.
“I watched him every week and that’s where my passion for football came from. It’s a bit of a stereotype, the idea that everyone in New Zealand plays rugby. For kids, football’s the biggest sport there. It’s massively well supported. People would say ‘you’ve got the right physique for rugby’ and I did play a bit but it wasn’t for me. Football I loved.”
That enthusiasm is apparent in Wood; moreso now than in his first year with Leeds. He scored 13 goals last season but was injured for part of it and was well aware of criticism of his finishing. Last July, after the club’s first summer friendly, he backed himself to reach 20 this season, saying he would clear that mark “easily”. And here he is eight months on, two short of becoming only the sixth Leeds player in almost 100 years to score 30 in one term.
Was he as confident as he sounded last summer? “Of course I was and I think I’ve shown why. I believed in my ability even if some other people didn’t.
“People are never shy to say what they think but I think it was a bit premature to write me off.
“Last season was one season. There was a lot going on here and I was injured for three months. It was hard to be at my best. I felt I was written off too early.”
This season has been a sharp contrast for him and the club; Wood amongst the goals and Leeds largely free of the politics which has hindered their football for so long. Elland Road feels considerably happier.
“Well it is,” Wood says. “Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. Last year you had different things going on – fans pulling one way, the owner pulling one way, the players pulling one way. It wasn’t working. Now everything’s aligned. In simple terms, that’s why the club’s doing so well.”
In Wood’s development, Monk has had a big hand. Prior to pre-season starting, United’s new head coach watched every minute of last season and saw in Wood the potential to be more combative and aggressive.
He and his backroom team, including ex-England striker James Beattie, drummed into Wood the need to make more of his natural strength. Positive messages about his ability were mixed with constructive criticism.
“They talked about my weaknesses and if you’re sensible, you take that with a pinch of salt,” he says. “They’re only highlighting them because they want to make you better. The gaffer was in the game for 20 years as a player. The experience of the coaching staff is huge. I can sit back and take their criticism because I know it’s going to help.
“The gaffer’s given me proper belief, a belief that I don’t think I’ve fully had from any other manager in my career. He put his neck on the line with me when things weren’t going so well.
“That leaves no doubt in your mind about what he thinks. You’ve got a manager who’ll leave you on because deep down he feels that if he needs a goal in the 89th minute, you’ll score it.”
Or in the fifth minute of injury-time, as was the case at Newcastle United on Good Friday.
Beattie, Monk’s first-team coach, is an ideal player for Wood to model himself on; a goalscorer and a fine finisher but a robust, spiky centre-forward.
Wood says he has felt the benefit of his guidance, as he did when he worked with Kevin Phillips at Leicester City.
“There are tricks of the trade only strikers know about,” Wood says. “James knows a lot of them. He’s been instrumental, on the mental side as well as the game side. The stuff I’m learning I wish I’d learned when I was 18 but it’s better than learning it when I’m 30. I mean jeez, by then you’ve seen 15 years of your career go.”
It is, as yet, unclear whether Monk and his staff will remain in place next season. Common sense says that after a progressive year which is threatening to fizzle out at the death, Leeds will do what is necessary to give Monk the contract and budget he requires but the season will end without an extension to his deal in place.
Wood says Monk would be “sorely missed” if he goes.
“I’d like to think he’ll be here. He could lead us on to big things.”
For the best part of four months, Leeds were knocking on the door of big things and promotion to the Premier League. Now, after one win in five games, they will only make the Championship play-offs if results in the final two matches work favourably for them.
There was despondency after Saturday’s loss at Burton Albion and a fear that the club had no way back.
“It’s definitely not over,” Wood insists. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen going into this weekend’s game (against Norwich).
“If we win it and other clubs drop points, it makes the last weekend a massive one. I’ve got total confidence that we’ll get the right results. Then we’ll see if luck plays its part.”