(Photo: Action Images)
By Adam Virgo
BEFORE this season, watching Chris Wood always reminded me of playing alongside Dele Adebola at Coventry.
Dele was the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. But sometimes you just wanted to shove a rocket up his backside and say ‘Come on, look at the size of you’. He was about 15 stone but never threw it around.
What made it so frustrating was that, on the rare occasions he did get angry, he was an absolute animal. Totally unplayable.
I bet Wood’s teammates had similar feelings at times. Physically, the New Zealand international had everything, but it never seemed to translate into goals.
This season, though, it all seems to have clicked for the 25-year-old. Last weekend’s double in the 2-0 victory over Brighton took Wood to 27 for the season. He’s not just the highest scorer in the Championship, he’s the highest scorer in England.
And it’s that aspect of his game – being aggressive, being physical and using his size – that seems to be the main difference.
He’s winning battles with centre-halves. When the cross comes into the box now, he’s taking out the man to win the ball. Defenders are looking at him and thinking ‘I don’t fancy this’.
So what’s behind the change? For starters, Leeds manager Garry Monk and his first-team coach James Beattie deserve a lot of credit.
The impact of Beatts, who scored 96 Premier League goals and won five England caps, is obvious.
Like Chris, he wasn’t a fantastic technician but he had the power, strength and intelligence to compensate. What he’s done is show Chris how to use those attributes.
I spoke to him at the Sutton game and, while he’s cagey in terms of what he says publicly, both he and Garry are delighted with Wood’s progress.
Just as importantly, Garry has built the side around his star striker. Wood may be scoring the goals but there’s an enormous amount of running and work going on to feed him.
There are no prima donnas at Elland Road now, just young players with a point to prove. People like Liam Bridcutt, who had a great season at Brighton, then went to Sunderland and it didn’t work out. Pontus Janssen, who wasn’t wanted by Torino. Kyle Bartley, Pablo Hernandez.
Chris Wood is a perfect case in point. He’s had seven loan moves since joining West Brom in 2009. A big-money move to Leicester didn’t work out.
Questions have always been asked. Is he really a 20-goal-a-season striker? Why has he had so many moves? Is he overhyped?
But the fact is, he’s never been in a side that played to his strengths. There’s never been a period of his career where he’s been the No.1 striker at a club.
He’s never had a manager who says ‘If you’re fit, you play’. It makes a massive difference, especially as a striker. It’s a position that is all about confidence. Garry, who is an excellent man-manager, knew that if he made Wood his focal point, goals would follow.
The flip side is that, if Leeds lose him, it’s a huge problem. But you could say that about half the clubs in the country. Dwight Gayle at Newcastle, Glenn Murray at Brighton, for instance.
And what’s wrong with relying on a player? Argentina won the World Cup in 1986 by building the team around Maradona.
If you’ve got someone who can hit the back of the net as regularly as Wood is, it’s a gamble worth taking.
*This article originally featured in The FLP’s 26 March 2017 edition.