The average age of Leeds United’s squad does not allow Chris Wood to use the ‘young player’ card. He is 25 next month and nothing like a veteran but a striker who made his debut at 17 has already been in the English league system for the best part of a decade.
Those who work with him, not least Garry Monk, see ample potential but Wood is conscious of the football already behind him. “I probably do have to speed up my career,” he said. “I’ve been around the game for seven years now. It’s a long time.” When it came to players stepping forward at Leeds this season, then, Wood was one of those expected to share the load. Eleven goals in four months is a record beyond reproach.
Wood can think of times in his career when “I’ve been in good form as well” but he has the guise of a player beginning to peak, or peaking at Elland Road in any rate.
At points of last season and as recently as August, some were asking if Wood was worth his place in the team. These days it is merely a question of when United’s centre-forward will pass the 20-goal mark.
Does Wood have a personal target in his head? “Yup.” Will he divulge that target? “Nope.”
All that can be said is that in July, when Leeds were brushing off the rust at the very start of pre-season, Wood promised that a year without injury and full of chances would get him to 20 goals “easily”.
“I’ll always back myself,” he said. “If I stay fit, work hard and the team’s doing well, I don’t see why not.”
Understandably it matters to him to be seen as prolific; to be seen as the 20-goal striker every club in the Championship wants. “I’d like to think that people think of me in that sense,” he said, “but you only get that reputation by doing it.
“I did it once (in a season when Wood played for Leicester City and on loan at Millwall) and I came close in another campaign but to do it again would be nice.
“The best thing about this season compared to last season is that we’ve created a lot more and we’ve got players who are good at creating chances. If you’re given five or six chances as a team per game you’re going to put two or three away. Last season we were only creating one or two. It didn’t give us a chance to win games.”
Across the board the difference in creativity is marginal but at Elland Road Leeds were toothless last season. Their total of 71 shots on target was the lowest in the division by 13 attempts. Wood still came up with 13 goals despite missing parts of the year with a pulled hamstring but at no stage did the club knock on the door of the play-offs. Finally, after so many mediocre campaigns, they are doing so now.
United dropped to seventh in the Championship after Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, a game which summed up the patience and tolerance that Wood, as Monk’s lone striker, sometimes requires in bundles. Chances were scarce and the forward was isolated by a team who are well on the way to winning the title.
“It’s one of those things – you can’t score in every game,” Wood said. “As much as I’d love to, as much as anyone would, it’s physically impossible. So it’s all about contributing in other ways and contributing to the team performance to get a result, even if it’s not your day.
“But the team’s playing well, I’m getting chances and I’m sticking them away. I’ve always said that I’ll back myself in any situation and I know I can do it but it’s about producing the goods at the end of the day.
“All I want to do is work hard for this team and if the goals come then that helps. But I just like how we’re playing well and winning games. It makes everyone so much more positive.”
Among a relatively small squad, Wood is Monk’s most suitable lone forward; physical enough to lead the line without waves of support. Wood, New Zealand’s captain, was back in his homeland during the recent international break but started against Newcastle despite completing a long journey home before the game. Monk was asked yesterday how he felt about his leading scorer flying across the world at regular intervals for fixtures against countries who are classed as minnows. “It’s better than him walking,” Monk joked.
“It’s difficult travelling everywhere,” Wood said, “but it’s what I signed up for when I wanted to play for my country – and I do want to play for my country.” Regardless of any external factors, the defeat to Newcastle created the sense of an opportunity missed in United’s dressing room. “We weren’t at our clear best and we know that if we’d played at our best we could have done something and got a result,” Wood said. “It wasn’t like they were bombarding us with chances or had 20 shots on target. They only had four or five. And we were unfortunate with the way the first goal went in.”
It is telling, still, that days like Sunday now count as blips. In the first five weeks of the season, Leeds and Monk were stuck in a cycle of cursing their luck, bemoaning errors and counting dropped points. Wood was fighting to keep the crowd onside. Away at bottom-of-the-table Rotherham United tomorrow, Leeds should have the chance of returning to the Championship’s top six. A hat-trick scored by Marcus Antonsson in a development squad game on Monday is unlikely to threaten Wood’s place.
“It’ll be the same as every game,” the forward said, playing down the idea that Rotherham are cannon-fodder. “It’s the Championship. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. If we’re not right they’ll do damage to us.
“But you can see over the last 10 or 11 games that we’ve come on huge. The games against the likes of Norwich show we can compete and do the business at the top end of the table. It’s nice to see where the team’s come from at the start of the season to where we are now and I just know this team’s got a lot more to come.
“On paper we’ve got a great side. Putting it together is always the hard bit.”