Hamstrung by injuries last year, Chris Wood still managed to score 13 goals as Leeds’ top scorer, and insists he can be a 20-goals-plus-a-season man for the Whites. Phil Hay reports.
The goals in Wednesday’s friendly at Shelbourne went to other forwards, scored by Souleymane Doukara and Hadi Sacko, but when the Championship season starts next month all eyes at Leeds United will look to Chris Wood.
Wood was Leeds’ marquee transfer 13 months ago, signed from Leicester City and commanding the type of fee which United invested in Kemar Roofe last week, but his first year at Elland Road was not entirely what he or the club were looking for.
Eight goals before January were followed by a succession of hamstring injuries which kept him out for two-and-half months. Wood passed double figures in mid-April and finished with 13 in total. As Leeds’ top scorer, he ranked 15th in the Championship.
“All things considered it was a good return,” Wood said. “It wasn’t a great return, I know that, but it was good when you consider everything that went on. I can do better, though, and I know I can be the leading striker here. I’m looking forward to proving that this season.”
It is said that in the Championship, promoted clubs need 20-goal strikers. Burnley had Andre Gray last season and won the title by four points. Hull City’s run to the play-off final relied on 21 strikes from Abel Hernandez. Middlesbrough, remarkably, finished second in the table without a single player reaching 10 but their shortage of goals was offset by the strongest defensive record in the division.
“You need both, goals and a defence which keeps clean sheets, but everyone knows that goals are important in this league,” Wood said. “Everyone wants one (a 20-goal striker) and that’s what I think I’m capable of.”
Wood was a 20-goal forward once before, albeit with two different clubs over the course of one season. In 2012-13 he scored 11 times on loan at Millwall – including a late winner against Leeds at the New Den – before returning to Leicester and taking his tally to 22. Can he repeat that with United over the next 12 months? “Easily,” Wood said. “I’ve done it before so I can do it again. If I have a full season then I’ll do it easily and I’m happy to back myself on that. It’s what I’ll be looking for this season.”
The New Zealand international would be helped by a campaign which leaves him free of niggles and injuries. His pre-season 12 months ago was restricted by a hamstring problem, something which affected him more acutely midway through the campaign that followed. Having scored in a 2-2 draw with Derby County on December 29, Wood missed the next four games and was back in the treatment room again after pulling up in the early stages of a 1-1 draw at Brentford.
At the time, United’s head coach Steve Evans talked of a fitness plan which would see Wood return “keener, meaner and leaner.” Reports of this pre-season, a pre-season under new boss Garry Monk, say Wood is exactly that: fit, in shape and ahead of every other player in the club’s sprinting programme. Monk gave him half-an-hour in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory at Shelbourne and plans to use him for 60 minutes during tomorrow’s friendly against Shamrock Rovers. Wood’s conditioning will have been aided by a spell of international duty with New Zealand shortly after the end of last season. The 24-year-old captained the All Whites in the OFC Nations Cup, scoring four times before choosing to miss the final in order to attend his sister’s wedding. It was noticeable, too, that Jordan Botaka – a player involved in African Cup of Nations qualifying with Congo recently – looked sharp and dangerous in the last half-hour at Tolka Park. Stuart Dallas is due to link up with Leeds this weekend after time away on the back of his appearances for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 and should not be far behind the levels of Monk’s squad.
“It’s been a very busy summer for me but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Wood said. “That’s how it goes when you’re playing for your national team and it keeps you in shape. You don’t get much time off or much of a holiday but I’m very happy to play for New Zealand so it’s not a problem. I feel like I’ve come back feeling good and that’s the main thing for me. I feel fully fit.”
Monk has been coy about the signings he intends to make, saying on Wednesday that he was “looking at all areas”, but another forward might be as high on his wish-list as another centre-back.
Leeds took Hadi Sacko on loan from Sporting Lisbon this month but the Frenchman is more likely to be used as a winger by Monk than a centre-forward. Swede Marcus Antonsson came in from Kalmar last month and Doukara, on his first appearance after an eight-game ban for biting, produced the opening goal at Shelbourne but it is one area in which United appear light.
Monk, like Wood himself, would benefit from a season in which the former Leicester player stays clear of injury.
“All injuries are a pest but you can’t plan for them and you can’t mope about them when they happen,” Wood said.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be an injury-free season for me. Then I can really stride on and show my best form. I do my work, extra work in the gym making sure the hamstrings are nice and strong, and I think they’ll be all right this season. They’re not bothering me at all.”