A cupped ear towards Elland Road’s Kop was Chris Wood’s spiky reaction to one of his first goals of the season, and perhaps the most difficult he has scored.
His 20th last night was celebrated with a Gareth Bale-esque heart and a mass huddle involving Leeds United’s entire squad. From a world of dissent, there is no better example of how far the club have travelled.
Wood has been careering towards the 20 mark for weeks, bound to reach it soon after Christmas, but the inevitability of his strike against Nottingham Forest did not stop players and staff clambering all over him after a trademark finish on 55 minutes. Wood was there to stab a simple chance in, as he has been so often and with perfect timing, and the pleasure of the moment was widely shared. The player jeered from the field during Leeds’ first home game in August has become the darling of Elland Road.
In time, yesterday’s game will be seen in the context of the race for promotion rather than Wood’s personal achievement – a deserved victory but a cold, hard grind against a Forest team who held Leeds back without concern for 45 minutes – but it was the striker’s night and even Souleymane Doukara’s nailed-on entry for goal of the season failed to eclipse him.
Doukara put Leeds out of sight with a blistering goal in the 75th minute, picking out the top corner of Forest’s net with an outrageous volley on the rebound from a corner. Elland Road rubbed its eyes at that, an improbable event so soon after the most predictable, and Leeds cruised to the end of another Championship win. What had started as a scrap finished with Forest counting the seconds to the final whistle.
Leeds’ last performance at Elland Road was imperious but performances like last night’s will take them just as far in the Championship. It took them back to third place at full-time, erasing any thoughts of Saturday’s tired defeat at Barnsley. Derby County were blitzed on the same ground a week-and-a-half earlier but Forest, with relegation bothering them, offered more fight than their neighbours in the East Midlands. It was enough in the first half but insufficient in the second, as most clubs find their effort here to be. Leeds have won six successive games at their own stadium. The club last conceded a goal here on November 20. It is promotion form in which Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Barnsley looks like a freak.
When United’s progress in the FA Cup forced the rearrangement of this fixture, neither Leeds nor Forest were minded to drag their feet in finding a new date, despite Leeds showing excellent form and Forest showing none. A match which might have been dumped in a midweek slot in February or March was played three days early instead, a potential bonus for Monk as he tried to smooth over Saturday’s result.
The completion of Pontus Jansson’s two-match suspension was an undeniable bonus, restoring Leeds’ regular centre-back partnership while taking him up to 22 appearances, the figure which should now allow the club to trigger a permanent transfer from Torino. Jansson, who will come at a cost of £3.5million, has done nothing in five months on loan to put Leeds off that option and he gave Forest’s attack no quarter. Clean sheets at home seem to come at a canter.
Forest were there to be picked on, or so the theory went; a side without a manager and in the words of former player Kenny Burns, in the middle of a “diabolical” season. Leeds tried to treat them as they had Derby, tearing into Forest from the off and bundling a chance wide after 12 seconds, but Forest were more resistant to the onslaught.
Their stocky forward, Britt Assombalonga, caused the first moment of real angst with a volley on eight minutes which Rob Green gloved over his crossbar after the defence in front of him allowed Assombalonga to chest down a hanging cross inside United’s box. It was a brilliant reaction to a shot which Assombalonga thought had beaten the veteran goalkeeper.
Before long, Wood had the the ball in Forest’s net, chipping it over Stephen Henderson after Pablo Hernandez’s free-kick broke to him, but an offside flag temporarily denied him his 20th goal and the game was more chess than battleships.
Monk looked to Eunan O’Kane to bring the energy which Ronaldo Vieira had lacked in midfield at Barnsley and Stuart Dallas got the nod in front of Doukara but Forest’s organisation belied their sore league position. The biggest cheer of the first half was reserved for a Jansson special; a sliding hit on Ben Osborn as the winger skipped around on the touchline.
Unlike Derby, however, Forest possessed a lingering threat. Assombalonga should have done better with a volley on the turn after a chipped free-kick picked him out 12 yards in front of Green, and Osborn failed to bring under control a diagonal pass which would have left him with only the keeper to beat.
Leeds were without the injured Hadi Sacko again and without the assistance of his pace keeping Forest’s defence on edge.
Henderson did not have a save to make before half-time, although Kemar Roofe whipped a left-footed effort wide after a clever pass from Hernandez opened Forest up four minutes before half-time. It was less of a threat than the weighted delivery from Jamie Ward which a retreating Bridcutt nodded clear before Eric Lichaj could dispatch it at Green’s far post.
Throughout the half, the midfield pair of O’Kane and Bridcutt looked rusty and found themselves in deep positions as Hernandez drifted too often to the wings. The performance was primed for some tactical movement at half-time and from the start of the second half, Leeds tempo quickened and made the difference. Forest were pinned in their own half when Wood brought 20 up with 54 minutes played.
A corner from Hernandez – a weapon that Leeds are able to rely on and were able to exploit again soon after – met the leap of Jansson who bundled a header into the path of Wood. From four yards out, Wood was never going to miss. He flashed a heart to the crowd with his fingers and was met by a mass of bodies in front of the West Stand. The flock of players said much about the appreciation of him amongst Monk’s other players.
But then came Doukara, a substitute for Dallas on 71 minutes. Four minutes after his introduction, Michael Mancienne headed a corner towards Doukara who set himself, smashed the ball and found the roof of Henderson’s in a manner which no other player at Leeds will better before May. Normal service resumed, in the most sensational fashion.